The CliffsNotes Version of True University—The 2-Day Startup School from True Ventures

After I wrote a long article profiling the unusual culture at True Ventures, the San Francisco-based early stage investing fund known for its investments in startups like Automattic, GigaOm, and KissMetrics, the firm invited me to attend True University, a two-day conference on startup-building tactics at the University of California at Berkeley. (Well, the truth is I invited myself, and True graciously allowed me to matriculate.) The way I understood it, the idea behind True University was to build on True’s successful one-day Founder Camp events—which bring together CEOs and founders of companies backed by True Ventures for a day of off-the-record lectures, conversations, and commiseration about the challenges of startup-building—by extending the experience to lower-level company employees as well. I already knew that True Ventures is atypically vigorous about encouraging the companies in its portfolio to learn from each other, so I was curious to see what kind of “curriculum” the firm was planning for its “students.”

The event took place this Wednesday and Thursday in an appropriately collegiate setting—Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. It came complete with celebrity professors, a choice of five majors, a catalog of more than 40 courses, a graduation ceremony with hand-signed diplomas in Latin, and the obligatory kegger. True invited up to five people to attend from each of the companies in its portfolio, and paid for accommodations for the out-of-town visitors. In the end, some 200 employees from 47 of True’s 72 portfolio companies made the trek. I attended both days, dipping in and out of a dozen sessions (I couldn’t settle on a major). I took extensive notes—something I wasn’t quite as assiduous about when I was really in college—and below I’ve gathered up a few of the most memorable quotes from the event.

But first some high-level impressions. True Ventures partner and co-founder Jon Callaghan kicked off the gathering by saying that “the core of innovation is collaboration” and asserting that “never before has a venture firm committed so deeply to lifelong learning as a business strategy.” It’s easy enough to mouth sentiments, but my sense is that Callaghan, co-founder Phil Black, and the other True partners really mean it. I’ve met plenty of venture capitalists in my travels for Xconomy in Boston and the Bay Area, and nobody seems to get a bigger kick out of working with early-stage entrepreneurs than the folks at True. If they weren’t actually managing roughly $378 million for their limited-partner investors, you’d think they were just doing it for the fun of it.

For one thing, True puts a lot of effort into making the people who run its portfolio companies feel as if they have a stake in one another’s success. That shows up across “the platform”—True’s name for the collection of tools it has built to help True-backed founders trade insights about surviving and thriving as a startup. Key elements in the platform include an online portal, an e-mail distribution list that CEOs can use to ping one another for near-instant advice, and the twice-yearly Founder Camp events.

But most of those tools are aimed at C-level execs. True University is the first time that True (or any other venture firm, as far as I know) has staged a professional-development event for the next tier down—the engineers, designers, and marketers needed to turn a founding visionary’s ideas into reality. “The first five to 10 people hired at a startup greatly influence what the next 50 to 100 will look like,” Phil Black observed at the graduation ceremony. In that light, it seems pretty smart to offer key officers a chance to climb out of their trenches, absorb a few new ideas about how to build high-growth companies, and connect with one another. Yes, it’s about lifelong learning, but it’s also about increasing the chances that True’s companies will score big on a time scale relevant to venture investors.

Judging from the quality of the lectures and conversations I listened to, the lean-forward attitudes of the participants, and the happy buzz among attendees during the breaks, picnic lunches, and parties, nobody went home disappointed. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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