The Best Community Manager I know

Over the course of the last year, I've seen a community grow into a thriving resource for all its participants.  Engagement, both online and through offline events, is through the roof.  It's a high quality, experienced, and focused community of participants who have leveraged each other's knowledge to get a ton of value out of it.

Its not a fluke, though.  It's the result of an incredibly detailed, well executed, and continuously adjusted plan--a science, if you will.  There is a lot of careful seeding, and hands-on curation going on. Metrics are tracked in detail, and logs are kept on what works and what doesn't work for the future. 

The community is the First Round Capital portfolio and the best Community Manager I've ever seen is Brett Berson.

We don't talk too much about the internal resources we provide our entrepreneurs, but there's a ton going on at First Round for the period of time *after* the money hits the bank account.  That includes a custom online community as well as a comprehensive series of in-person events.  Without giving away the playbook entirely, what I can say is that everything Brett does to foster our community platform is done through constant testing an interation.  Learnings are taken from every launch and every event that become part of the plan for the next one.  It all goes to building up a perspective on how great communties are built.

It's the kind of process and philosophy that I find lacking in many of the folks who carry the Community Manager title.  Pithy phrases are tossed around all the time about the importance of "passion" in community management and "loving your users."  I don't think communities are built on candy and puppy dog's tails alone--they're exercises in execution.  After watching Brett work, if I were to hire a community manager, I'd want someone who was metrics driven and who had a clear playbook for fostering engagement.  It's a science just as much as it is a labor of love.

And now for something a little different: First Round portfolio company chloe + isabel launches [#frc]

Last August, Chantel Waterbury walked into First Round's New York City office and told me all about jewelry, empowering women entrepreneurs in the fashion space, and what it means to design inspiring accessories.  She expounded on the completely missed opportunity to combine offline and online direct selling into a singular complementary vision.

She had a powerpoint deck, 15 years of jewelry industry experience, and I couldn't have been more excited by the chloe + isabel story..

Yet, I wondered whether or not she had accidently met with the wrong VC.  She saw the sneakers, right?  I think I might have been wearing my Android robot walking the dog t-shirt.  I'm quite possibly the least fashionable person in the entire venture capital industry.  Lucky for me, she didn't seem fazed, and we hit it off.

Within a couple of months, First Round Capital and Floodgate led a round that included SV Angel, Kirstin Green/Forerunner, Mike Duda/Consigliere, Ashton Kutcher, and others to enable her to build a great team, create amazing product, and recruit an initial group of merchandisers.  Six months later, they had accomplished all of these milestones and began to ramp up for a full public launch.  I cannot tell you how hard they've been working this summer.  Like good ducks, you might not have heard a lot of noise from them (until now--check out this awesome NextWeb article), but they've been paddling like the dickens underneath.  (The duck analogy is quickly becoming a favorite of mine.)

This Wednesday night, the chloe + isabel team will be putting together a very special launch event.  If you're an innovator in the fashion space, in the flow of fashion influencers, cover ecommerce/fashion tech/retail for the media, or just generally blanket your social media presence with your uber fashion-forwardness e-mail me and I'll see if I can get you an invite--we're pretty tight already.

I'm excited to finally be able to talk about working with the company more extensively now that they're public.  Chantel has been amazing to work with, as has my fellow board member Ann Miura-Ko from Floodgate.   It's pretty clear how Chantel was able to become the top selling CutCo rep on the west coast--paying her way through college with her earnings.   She has an infectious personality and is a natural sales leader.  Chantel has extraordinary intuition about people, knows her audience and what they want.

What's exciting about chloe + isabel is that they're working on a modern version of a proven direct model "for today's social web"--but they have both the jewelry and direct selling DNA to build it off of a solid base.  I've been continuously impressed with Chantel and her team's understanding of how the social web can empower their merchandisers to create great businesses of their own, and we've only scratched the surface of building a platform that will enable them to do that.   It is going to be a great ride that empowers thousands of up and coming female leaders in entrepreneurship and fashion.


GroupMe + Skype #frc

Winter @groupme

GroupMe, a First Round portfolio company, just announced its acquisition by Skype.  (Techcrunch story here, AllThingsD here)  What's cool is that they'll be staying in NYC--a win for the Big Apple!

In my opinion, GroupMe built the very best team in the space, never stopped iterating, and still has a very big vision for the service.  Through Skype, they’ll have a huge distribution channel, so this will be only the beginning for the company.  It’s exciting to have gotten a chance to work with the Steve, Jared, and the team there from the very very beginning (see Jared’s story of how the company got started).  It’s exactly the kind of thing we want to be taking a look at here at First Round—two people who hack a compelling product together with a lot of passion and a big vision.  I still contend (original investment post here) that as between blasting out a tweet, telling everyone where you are with a location checkin, or connecting on a daily basis to a small important group, more people want to do the latter—and the sky is the limit for this team. 

It’s also exciting to be able to see an exit this early in my venture capital career from start (literally) to finish.  It was great working with Howard Morgan with the support of the First Round team on this investment.  Steve and Jared run a mile a minute and it was often tough to keep up with them—turning around new features everytime we saw them and closing partners and investors left and right.  It doesn’t surprise me at all that, within a year, they built a team and a product that one of the marquee communications companies of our generation—Skype—felt was strategically important to their roadmap.

To be clear, this wasn’t some kind of talent flip.  A great offer was made that included enough of a shared vision of the future that it was obvious that Skype was the best place where their ideas could win.

Congrats Team GroupMe!

Live in the problem, not in the solution: How customer development has gone awry

I'm not a lean startup zealot, but there are obviously lots of aspects of it that can lead to a ton of insights about your business. Talking to customers is, of course, a good thing. I'd never argue against it.

I have seen, however, the customer development process wind up looking like a street corner salesman selling watches out of the inside of his coat. "Don't what this?" "What about this?" "I've got more in the car of my truck if you want them in blue."

What's lacking is an innate understanding of the customers problems before they go through the ideation phase. I find that some of the most sound entrepreneurial efforts are one where the founder has lived the problem uniquely in some way. Either they actually were the customer (and by customer I mean someone who pays for this kind of service) or they've literally spent years thinking about it--as an enthusiast or insider.  I didn't come from the recruiting industry when I started Path 101, but I had been obsessed with career discovery as a mentor and educator for eight years before I thought of an idea I wanted to pursue.

That's different than, "hasn't this happened to you?" kind of approaches. Just because you had to wait on a line once doesn't mean you know nearly as much as the person in charge of people flow and traffic at Madison Square Garden. Similarly just because you've been to a conference doesn't mean you know nearly enough to provide the industry with a game changing piece of software to run them all. Its possible, but unlikely.

If you don't have unique insight into the nature or the problem, customer development is going to be random and unproductive. Its like being a doctor where you don't know why the patient is sick, but they feel better after you give them a Tylenol. It may appear like you've solved the problem, but it was just dumb luck that you addressed a symptom. That won't do much in terms of informing you as to a long term course of treatment or what happens when your Tylenol doesn't solve the problem as well as you thought it did.

I think a lot of companies suffer this when they're in new entrepreneurial ecosystems or ones outside of major cities where innovation is happening in the biggest industries.  The startups tend to be really consumery spins on things they've seen on Techcrunch--as opposed to more organic solutions to problems they've experienced uniquely.

The first time I ever met Chantel Waterbury from Chloe & Isabel, she told me in detail about the issues in the direct sales jewelry business--a huge market but one that suffers from inferior product quality and poor branding.  People don't exactly associate "fashion forward" with "tupperware for jewelry".  To have enough insight into how to solve that, you need to be more than just someone who likes jewelry.  You need direct experience to understand how to get high quality and stylish fashion jewelry made at a reasonable price.  She launched fashion jewelry for major brands and was the top seller of CutCo knives on the West Coast--paid her way through college doing it.   Sure, she'll pay attention to her customers, but she's starting from a position of experience that at least puts her in the right ballpark day one.  That's what makes customer discovery a place to hone your idea with relevant feedback and not a random spin of the Wheel of Startups.

Dinner with Werner Vogels - CTO of the World's Largest Lean Startup

Last Thursday night, Amazon CTO Werner Vogels joined a small group of technical folks from cloud and commerce related First Round portfolio companies for dinner at Double Crown.  It was actually kind of a funny story how it all happened--as we turned a calendar mixup by a European entrepreneur that he knew (Time Zones and invites don't mix well) into a conversation.  After getting to spend some time with Werner, I'm really not surprised at all how willing he was to sit down with us.  He's a very outgoing and friendly guy--striking the imposing but jovial figure of someone that would be the first to toast you at an Amsterdam beer hall (or lift up over his head and throw out any rifraff causing trouble at such an establishment). 

Werner is intensely focused on not only getting customer feedback, but also on how Amazon can better support innovative startups.  He commented on how rewarding it was that their cloud efforts have enabled lots of new businesses to get up and off the ground--ones that would have otherwise taken a lot more investment. 

This focus on customers is one of a number of things that Amazon does that is consistant with lean startup principals.  He admitted that many of their new initiatives are absolutely the minimum viable product--without many of the bells and whistles that many other companies would include as part of a launch of new products.  That's a function, he noted, of small teams able to work relatively independentantly of each other--so while large in size, Amazon can often appear more nimble than other companies.

Setting up this dinner made me really appreciate the full scope of the vision of Amazon.  To have one company be a major player in or have obvious designs on eCommerce, cloud, music & entertainment, hardware, advertising, e-mail and discount local deals is really impressive in its ambition.  It was hard to keep our dinner small as there were very few companies in our portfolio that couldn't benefit from a relationship with the company in some way. 

What I also learned from this event as well as our recent NYC area First Round portfolio employee happy hour is how valauble it can be just getting the people we invest in to talk to each other.  We strive to provide a lot of "structural" value, and what that often means is providing the platform for the community to connect with and learn from itself.  Several of the lead techs present commented on how nice it was to be able to share ideas with others putting together similar stacks and going through the same sorts of issues as they were--as many were doing this for the first time.

I hope we can do this sort of thing again with other bigger companies looking to get in person feedback from customers and potential partners, but regardless, we're definitely going to look for more ways to get the technical folks from our portfolio together more often.  I'm sure it works just as well for other functions as well--marketing, sales, etc.