Venture Capital firms are rarely ‘companies.’ They are more commonly a form of limited partnership that is owned by the Partners of the firm. Therefore the ‘Partners’ of a VC firm are in fact the owners of the firm, and so have control over the capital that gets invested.
Different partnerships are structured differently – some, like Balderton Capital, are formed of equal partners.
Others have some form of hierarchy. And while that can have an impact on entrepreneurs, that’s a topic worthy of a separate post.
When there is a hierarchy, you’ll come across a number of self-explanatory secondary titles such as Managing Partner (the boss) and Junior Partner (not quite so boss).
The key thing to remember is that the partners are the people who can sponsor a deal. In other words, they can suggest that the firm makes an investment in a company, and recommend that the firm take a vote (usually at a ‘partner meeting’) to decide whether the investment is made.
If you have a connection to a partner in a venture capital firm, then this is the best starting point, as you’d be dealing directly with the person who would end up suggesting that the firm invests into your company.
However, if you don’t know anyone at partner level, this doesn’t mean that the door is closed. Read on...
Principals are senior members of the investment team. In addition to helping the firm discover and meet the industry’s most promising entrepreneurs, they also work very closely with companies after investment.
The Principals do not usually lead deals (with very rare exceptions). However, they are trusted, long-term members of the team. As an entrepreneur, time spent building a relationship here is not time wasted. Principals have the ability and influence behind closed doors to hook you up with critically useful meetings and introductions. And, beyond investment itself, Principals are often highly networked, thoughtful players in the technology startup ecosystem that can usually help in a multitude of other ways.
Associates are slightly more junior members of the investment team who are usually in their role for 2-3 years. After this period, they are occasionally promoted to Principal, but they more regularly leave for new opportunities.
Associates do not lead investments, but they are typically visible at events and workshops. Their job is usually external facing and involves meeting with a large volume of companies, providing a first filter and bringing the more relevant cases to the attention of the principals and partners.
Given this role, Associates are crucial gatekeepers. If you can meet and resonate with an Associate, they will open the door to the senior members of the investment team.
I’ve come across entrepreneurs who can be dismissive about Associates. It’s true that there are others who are more senior to them in any given firm and, given their background, few will have a track record as impressive as the entrepreneur him or herself. But they are trusted, valued members of the team – if they are your only connection to a firm you think would be relevant to your company, then they are an excellent starting point.
Analysts are the most junior members of the investment team. They usually have two or three years of previous experience, most typically in banking, consulting or at a startup. As an entrepreneur, it’s unlikely that you’ll meet an analyst in the wild, as they are usually desk-based, and they have less decision-making power than fellow members of the team.
More likely, if the firm is digging deep into a sector, you might get a call from one. Be aware that in these cases the aim is often due diligence of a market when the firm is thinking of investing in a related company, but this is, at very least, a way to get your company onto the firm’s tracking system.
How do I get an introduction?
There are four potential ways to get introduced to a venture firm:
1/Directly to a Partner
If you are in the fortunate position of knowing a partner or a principal, then great, you can start there directly. One mistake I’ve seen is that people will hold off meeting with a partner until their pitch is utterly perfect. Most investors invest in lines, not dots and so you don’t necessarily have to do this. Of course you need to be good at communicating what you do, but over-preparing is probably not as valuable as building a relationship.
If you don’t know a senior investor directly, here are a few more thoughts on what to do next.
2/Via Angel Investors
If you aren’t connected to a partner but have an angel investor who is well connected, go through the angel. Most Partners and Principals spend a lot of time with angels (and others who typically invest earlier than them) and so often trust a recommendation from this source extremely highly.
3/Through 'blind' in-person meetings
If you are struggling to connect via your network, your next best bet is to meet someone at the team (likely an Associate up) in person. A great deal of early-stage investing begins with a genuine connection with the investment team, and so if you meet someone in person you will both be able to test that connection automatically.
As mentioned above, Associates, Principals and Partners all spend a great deal of their time externally. So follow them on Twitter, find out which events and conferences they’re attending, and get yourself a ticket.
Also, if you’re currently part of an accelerator programme or coworking space, keep an eye on the mentoring programme. Various members of venture teams often host workshops and mentoring sessions.
4/Though blind emails — which suck
The corollary of blind in-person meetings being good is that blind not-in-person emails suck.
At Balderton, we receive around 20k such emails each year, and while we are careful to spend time on each and every one, the lack of a human connection means that it can be super tough to evaluate whether a company is one we believe we can help.