True Ventures Looks for Magic in the Crowd of Portfolio CEOs, Not Its Partners’ Brains

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Google vice president Marissa Mayer. “When you get a whole bunch of talented founders in a room, they get to talk about the issues that are important to them and hear what other people are focused on,” says Black. “It could be issues around hiring, or how to deal with offshore production. We don’t want our companies to reinvent the wheel.”

Founder Camp has proved so popular that True is expanding on the concept this summer with True University, a two-day gathering on the UC Berkeley campus that’s open to employees of portfolio companies as well as founders. True will offer a curriculum of more than 40 courses in areas like “responsive Web design,” “change management,” and “hiring and firing,” all staffed by academic and business leaders such as Dan Ariely, Steve Blank, and Alexander Osterwalder, as well as True venture partners and CEOs. “Every VC firm has a CEO get-together kind of thing once a year,” says Assistly’s Bard. “It’s what True does in between those get-togethers—the True University they are building, and these other pieces heavily focused on the ongoing connection—that are an invaluable asset to us.”

Founder Camp, the Founder Portal, and True University are all the province of Shea Di Donna, a True vice president who’s been with the firm since the beginning. Says Black, “We have a dedicated person for founder services because the platform we have created is so hugely valuable to our founders, but also because [our founders] help us look at new investment opportunities, which ultimately delivers better results for our investors.”

Unlike some small venture firms—Emergence Capital, which I profiled last month, comes to mind—True doesn’t restrict itself to a single industry or investing thesis (aside from its focus on information technology). “We are a heavily people-driven shop—our belief is that great founders will take us into the best markets that are out there,” says Black. “Our founders are connected to really great people who have very good ideas, and once we make that connection, it tends to be in our sweet spot whether it’s consumer devices, media, or infrastructure.”

According to True portfolio CEOs, there’s one more benefit to the firm’s entrepreneur-centric philosophy: founders tend to work harder for the firm because there’s a perceived culture of autonomy and trust, with nobody peering over their shoulders. “If you think about a traditional venture fund, a partner writes a few very large checks, which means they have to be deeply involved in the business, which means the relationship feels much more like the investor is in control,” says PayNearMe’s Shader. “And by the way, if you are trying to build a huge, capital-intensive business, that’s the way you have to go—and there’s no beating the judgment of somebody like Bruce Dunlevie,” a general partner at renowned Menlo Park, CA-based VC firm Benchmark Capital. But at True, says Shader, “they are doing so many deals that nobody is afraid of that.”

Like many of its own portfolio companies, True is still so young that it’s hard to judge whether its platform is producing outsized returns. It has had a few exits— Playdom acquired Hive7, AOL acquired About.me and Sphere, VMware bought Socialcast, Jive Software acquired Filtrbox, and just yesterday, Alibaba subsidiary Vendio acquired True-backed SingleFeed. But True hasn’t yet experienced a Zynga-scale home run, the kind of acquisition or public offering that can reap an entire fund’s worth of profits. And the early-stage investing gap that True set out to fill back in 2005-2006 is a lot narrower these days, Black acknowledges, as firms like Union Square Ventures, First Round Capital, Felicis Ventures, and Floodgate Fund muscle in. “We felt like we were probably providing around 40 percent of the capital [for early stage tech companies] back in 2006, and now it’s a much smaller percentage,” he says.

But as long as it can keep bringing in talented entrepreneurs who are willing to go to bat for one another, True Ventures will retain its one unique feature, its communitarian culture. “True is bigger than any one individual rainmaker investor,” says Black. “When you get a whole bunch of experts in a room and they are able to exchange ideas, powerful and wonderful things happen.”

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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