Automating Portfolio Company Onboarding

Want founders to see your value add? Each wire should set off a thoughtful onboarding process.

Quick housekeeping note: the boys of were kind enough to host me on their podcast this week. Unsurprisingly, we chatted about automation, VC ops, and why Twitter is the worst. Hopefully it’s as fun to listen to as it was to record!

Listen to the Podcast

Over the past 12-15 months, all of our communities have become (at least temporarily) virtual. Our jobs, our workout classes, our book clubs, and even our family get-togethers are now facilitated by technology. We’ve had to figure out how to maintain - or build from scratch - authentic, meaningful relationships from afar. We've struggled to relate to our coworkers through screens instead of at company watering holes. We’ve come to terms with taking a yoga teacher's verbal cues in the absence of that coveted hands-on assist.

I’ll admit, I miss work happy hours (because I’m a psychopath), I miss the Whole Foods salad bar, and I certainly miss the eucalyptus-scented towels from my yoga studio. But I don’t miss commuting to work. I like working out at home and the thought of stepping foot into a sweat-drenched gym ever again feels deeply unappealing. I’ve talked to my aging grandparents more in the past year than ever before because they've been forced to learn how to use Zoom. As the world returns to normal, we shouldn’t lose sight of what we learned this past year.

Many VCs and founders have echoed this sentiment. More pitching and investing via Zoom means more money for founders outside of Silicon Valley. It means less time and money wasted on unnecessary travel. But if VCs aren't traveling to meet their portfolio companies every time they make an investment, they're faced with the challenge of establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships (at least partially) via technology. They have to figure out how to communicate and add value virtually.

Luckily, other smart people have been working to solve similar problems.

In order to effectively offer portfolio services virtually, VCs should look to groups that have already figured out how to build and manage communities via technology. In doing so, they’ll observe that community leaders over the past year have emphasized the importance of one thing over all else: onboarding. As Gaby Goldberg, an investor at Bessemer, pointed out in her pivotal piece on onboarding: “Onboarding matters because it touches just about everyone.” Product managers and growth hackers have championed frictionless onboarding as a crucial component of growing a customer base. And as remote work has become more common over the past year, HR specialists have shared tips and tricks for fine tuning the onboarding process for new employees.  

When it comes to onboarding new portfolio companies virtually, VCs don't need to reinvent the wheel. They can learn from the tactics used by online communities, consumer technology companies, and remote-first workforces.

  1. Online Communities

    • Challenge: Keeping members engaged, especially because virtual communities are frequently free/cheap and the member bases are large.

    • Takeaway: Confirm when your members do what you want them to. If you ask new portfolio founders to fill out an onboarding form, give them a confirmation message once they press submit that makes it clear what they should expect as next steps (i.e. "Someone from our team will reach out within the next business day to schedule a 1:1 introduction call).

    • Resource: "How to Create an Amazing Community Onboarding Experience" by Makerpad

  2. Consumer Product Companies

    • Challenge: Creating stickiness within minutes of your customer's first interaction with your product in order to facilitate growth.

    • Takeaway: Leverage automated personalization. Use low-effort, micro-inputs from the user to tweak the content that is presented to them. For example, create a portfolio company onboarding form that asks founders to choose what their company's most pressing issue is from a drop down and then automate the set of initial resources they receive based on their response.

    • Resource: "Make your Product Onboarding Better by Trying It Yourself" by Josh Elman

  3. Remote-First Companies

    • Challenge: Creating authentic relationships and spontaneous interactions during remote onboarding.

    • Takeaway: Slow the pace of onboarding and extend it over a longer period of time. While marathon back-to-back meetings might feel ok in a physical office, punctuated with leisurely team lunches and 5PM happy hours, sitting back to back in Zoom trainings is less desirable. Similarly, founders won't find benefit from being inundated with resources and documentation all at once — an onboarding drip campaign may prove to be more impactful if you aren't able to get immediate face time with a new portfolio company.

    • Resource: Gather's Onboarding Playbook

Alright, enough fluff. Here's what I would do if I were designing a portfolio company onboarding flow.

  1. Within 24 hours of the investment, send the founder a welcome email containing an onboarding form (Recommendation: Formstack or Typeform, but you can also use Google Docs or Airtable forms

  2. Pulling inspiration from this Makerpad tutorial, use conditional logic based on the founder's responses to customize an initial set of resources they receive. These resources should speak to the company's immediate needs -- i.e. if they need immediate help with hiring vs launching a new product. Founders instantly receive the customized set of resources via email to review in a "self-serve" way — this is important given that early stage founders are often working outside of traditional work hours and shouldn't have to wait for live support to begin to benefit from the value of joining our network.

    • Introduction to the fund and team members, with clarity on who to go to for what

    • Perks offered to portfolio companies (Recommendation: BuiltFirst)

    • A library of best practices and templates (Recommendation: Notion)

    • Links to join community forums (Recommendation: Slack)

  3. In the form, founders are asked to schedule an initial meeting with the Head of Platform and/or Partner to discuss the company’s immediate needs. Each initial meeting should have three key takeaways: 

    • At least one resource to address the company's most pressing needs

    • At least one connection to a portfolio founder who is at a similar stage, in a similar market, or facing similar challenges

    • At least one connection to an advisor with experience in their industry

  4. Use an templated follow up note recapping next steps for the founder, and follow up with a gift package (Tool recommendation: Sendoso or Thnks)

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