February 1, 2023 | Company Building

10 Ways VC Operating Teams Can Add Value to Early-Stage Companies

Written by

Martina Lauchengco

BuilderOps Team from left to right: Michelle McHargue, Bettye Watkins, Jim Wilson, Martina Lauchengco, Katy Wiley, and Taylor Bernal

By Martina Lauchengco, Michelle McHargue, and Jim Wilson

When we started our BuilderOps platform in 2015, it was rare for a boutique firm to have expert partners working with portfolio companies. Now, every good firm has them. While they may all sound similar, they aren’t all equal. At early-stage companies, founders are still trying to figure out product market fit, go-to-market fit, and how to just talk about what they do. You can’t add water and grow. You have to get in the muck and figure it out together.

We’re seven years in and don’t pretend to have all the answers. But we’ve treated our platform like a product, meaning we’ve constantly iterated our approach. We are now a team of six, including three full-time partners, and focus exclusively on aspects of go-to-market and company-building for builders: people with technical or product backgrounds. 

Last year, we introduced a Builder Hub for all our resources that got more views in its first week than our old portal did the entire year prior. We don’t produce “content” or “articles.” We do Runbooks, like “How to Make Your First Sales Hire,” that get to the point quickly with easy to follow steps. 

These are just some of the things that work well for our portfolio. The learning below might help you discover what works well for yours.

  1. Treat the platform as a product. 

BuilderOps–our current formation–comes from our product approach to the platform. Everything we do is at least two to three iterations away from how it began. Creating connections between leaders started as Take 5’s, in which we connected five leaders. It then morphed to in-person Happy Hours. When COVID hit, we moved to our current version: monthly Huddles by function. Leaders opt-in on a regular cadence (from monthly to quarterly depending on function) and talk about what they want peer input on. It makes the time valuable for every attendee. 

  1. Make content hyper-specific and easy to use

We borrowed from the dev world and created Runbooks for company-building tasks that don’t need to be customized. They’re written in the same straight-forward, step-by-step playbook format builders are used to. But just as important as the format is their specificity. “How to Pitch the Press” is one of our most popular. It’s full of explicit examples people can copy and use themselves.

  1. Engage in a high-touch way where it matters most. 

There is no one-size-fits-all product advice. Or one way to diagnose what’s not working in sales. Or one way to figure out who the right leader is for a function–or even how to best tell your story. These company-specific things must be advised 1:1 for each startup’s specific context and situation. That’s where we use a sprint and coaching model to offer the most valuable advice where it can be most valued. Being senior execs not on boards makes it easier for them to share and for us to advise. This highly customized advice is what our companies value most from us. We get texted by founders all the time for “quick questions.” That’s what a founder needs: a Batline to help. 

  1. Do two-way onboarding

This is not a presentation of what we do–although we do cover that. It is a two-way conversation where we go deeper to understand what companies do, including product demos if they have them. It’s how we discover where we can provide the most help. We then tell them so they don’t have to figure it out. We also follow-up with BuilderHub resources so they know how to find resources on their own.   

  1. Company building isn’t always the obvious stuff. 

Our top Runbooks right now are on How to do OKRs Effectively and What to Do if You Get Hacked. Of course things like Setting up Sales and How to Launch are perennial favorites, but it’s this other less obvious stuff that provides concrete value on the company-building side for early-stage companies that haven’t yet seen it all and don’t necessarily have all the expertise in house.

  1. Learning and “teaching to fish.”

This is a driving philosophy behind everything we do. How can we provide learning around what’s most topical? And how do we teach entrepreneurs the skills versus just doing it for them? Part of what makes our model different is we believe everyone–not just founders–needs to be able to grow their skills. Everything BuilderOps programs is open to anyone in a portfolio company who wants to join. We still do a lot of focus work for functional leaders and CEOs, but this access to learning becomes an advantage of being a Costanoa company.

  1. Aligning with investors is a team sport. 

None of us has met a peer and not had this topic come up. We do monthly reviews with the investment team to make sure the companies we work closely with are those that can benefit from it the most. Now that we have a model built for more scale, we have more ways to serve a range of needs. We actively decide as a collective team where and how to put BuilderOps to best use every month.

  1. Community is not one-size-fits-all. 

Community is one of those things that is extremely valuable when it works and doesn’t just take one form. It’s also where we still have the most room to grow. We do the usual suspects–email lists, Slack channels–and huddles. We call our style “Curated Community” as the most valuable communities stem from specific connections we make with their peers. A company replatforming its backend? We connect them with a company that just did that. A founder wants to learn more about high velocity product models? We discuss it at our next marketing or product huddle and crowdsource wisdom from the group.

  1. The quality of the people around you is everything. 

On a small team, our ability to work collaboratively and in an integrated way truly amplifies our ability to help. Our team genuinely cares about one another and works really well together. We’re not precious about territory or lines, we just work together to advance our companies.

  1. Measuring success while important is imprecise. 

We joke our best metric is the number of texts from founders. We believe gaining their trust is the most important indicator, and not one that we can accurately measure, but it is evident in the questions they ask and the dialogue they’re willing to have with us. We get asked to speak at Leadership offsites. We each have a handful of leaders in our portfolio companies who we meet with monthly as advisors. We do, of course, measure talent and customer: intros, NPS, and the value of every event. And those feedback loops shaped and informed how we evolve. But the trusted relationships our companies have with us directly are the best measure of whether or not what we do is valued.

BuilderOps will continue to evolve, and we use our constraints as a forcing function to get creative. But what ultimately feeds our platform engine is the success of the companies we work with. Doing a startup is hard, courageous work. We want to be that team that is all-in and makes them feel like they’re not doing it alone.

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