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 other venture firms copying True’s event—although first they’d need to hire someone as energetic as Shea Di Donna, the True vice president who conceived and organized the event. I’ll bet a few CEOs are on the phone to their Sand Hill Road partners right now asking why there isn’t a “Kleiner University” or a “Sequoia University.”
I won’t give away True’s special sauce by repeating everything I heard at the event. But below are a few of the choicest quotes from the True University instructors whose courses I attended, organized by major.
“A startup is a temporary organization whose purpose is to search for a repeatable and scalable business model. There is no such thing as a 15-year-old startup. There’s a three-year-old startup attached to a 12-year-old failure.”—Steve Blank, author and retired serial entrepreneur
“If you only hire people you know, you run out of people. You hit the wall at 30 and then you have to start hiring strangers from Safeway…Real ‘A players,’ game changers, are well loved, well compensated, and generally happy doing what they’re doing, so you have to go after them very aggressively. You have to be more strategic. You have to convince them to come play with you.”—Lisa Blos-Johnson, Bereina
“Understand your users’ incentives for being on your site. Don’t bury the lead. Get newcomers invested right away; find your ‘aha’ moment and get to it quickly.”—Daniel Burka, Milk Inc.
“Data liberates us from the delusion that we understand all the needs of our audience…From a large enough distance, ‘Following your gut’ and ‘Wasting other people’s time and money’ look a lot alike.”—Ryan Freitas, About.me
“There is a secret to closing [a hire] when the person you’re hiring already works at a big company. You say, ‘Out of the 12,000 people there, only 200 people do all the coding and create the product. All the others are there to tell you why you can’t do what you want to do. None of those guys work for us.’”—Amit Kumar, Vurve.com
“Nothing is easier than poking holes in a new idea. The most precious gift you can give somebody is your undivided attention. You express your generosity by listening fully and clearly. The first thing out of your mouth should be ways to respect and enhance the idea. That way, you get a neural workout that might cultivate your own creative qualities, you might help improve your friend’s idea, and you might become known in your organization as the person to go to when there is a fresh idea.”—Carl Nordgren, Duke University
“A freemium business is way harder to execute than a premium-only business. But companies that do it well ride a wave of customer evangelism. Once you get it right, it’s hard to compete against.”—Sean Ellis, CatchFree
“[At Solar Winds] we tried making our free products smaller and more irritating. We constrained the UI, we put ads in, we made every link drive back to a landing page. Everyone of them was a really bad idea. The whole point of free is to be an organic growth engine, to get people to talk about your product. You have to make the [free] product really good.”—Kenny Van Zant, Asana
“Your instinct will be to hire someone to go [gather customer feedback and data]. That’s a going-out-of-business strategy. If the founder isn’t doing the first tranche, you’ve offloaded it to someone who doesn’t have the vision, the strategy, or the understanding.”—Steve Blank
General & Interdisciplinary
“Equanimity—a state of emotional stability, especially in a difficult situation—is one of the most important qualities you can have in a startup. [Disasters] are not the kinds of events that create culture, they are the events that test the culture you’ve been building all along.”—Jeffrey Veen, TypeKit