Our long-term investment in founder partnerships
Last week, I came out publicly about the need for VCs to step up and support founders. I did not expect the need for support to be so acute and so sudden following the collapse of SVB just 48 hours later…
One of the many cliches in venture capital is that you should find companies with teams so talented that they will succeed in your ability to help them. So goes the axiom: the best investments are the ones that need your help the least.
However, as time has progressed, it has become obvious to us that this axiom is false. Our observation is the best founders don’t have all the answers, they want support, and they ask the most questions – of themselves, their team, their advisors and their investors. The best founders draw on the most support along their path to building greatness. And if the relationship developed between a founding team and an investor is successful, there is always a place to add value.
The irony in all of this is that if your VC’s peak aspiration is to invest in you but not be good enough for you, that is counterproductive to your mission. Conversely, does it really make sense to invest in a startup and then consciously or unconsciously limit the effort you would expend to support that investment?
Unfortunately, the nature of founder support across the Aussie VC spectrum is diluting as portfolios expand, and engagement without a value-add becomes the standard model. Whilst the best companies in many portfolios receive the most ‘attention’, the experience of early founders is that of a big-promise, low-outcome soup of disorganisation, and misaligned expectations of what support is needed.
It would be easy to dismiss this as a mere generalisation––it is obvious that all generalisations are flawed––however, the recent State of Australian Startup Funding report highlighted the problem. It is telling that a survey of more than 500 VC-backed founders said that 62% of founders do not believe investors have delivered on non-capital value-add promises. Furthermore, 67% of women founders don’t feel supported by the ecosystem and 50% of men feel the same.
The data is clear. This isn’t just a case of differing perspectives on what value-add looks like; it's an indication that the investor-founder promise of support is broken.
Whilst nobody wants a VC as a shadow executive, and, equally, VCs should ideally be ‘hands off’, the emerging trend is one of investor disengagement, wooden and ineffective board participation, unmet promises post-investment, and a tendency for ‘tweets and term sheets’ as a solve-all for more demanding challenges.
Support doesn’t scale
VC ‘support’ can be encapsulated in a wide range. From zero or irregular engagement, community initiatives, regular 1:1 founder engagement, board participation, selective direct services, ‘full stack’ support provided by 100-person teams, and hands-on activities that cut a fine line between deep engagement to overbearing shadow executives. There isn’t a right model, but each end of this spectrum could justifiably be argued as the wrong model.
Ideally, founder support should not be limited to funds with big balance sheets and big funds. Support should be fit for purpose, and start with a genuine intent to give founders multiple shots on goal as they build an enduring company. This can start at a small scale by simply asking your founders what they need and creating a system of external support to service these needs.
Typically, however, a VC’s decision to provide support at scale across a portfolio comes down to the firm’s philosophy, the firm’s balance sheet and its willingness to trade team outcomes for portfolio outcomes. In this regard, too many VCs have argued that support should be limited to breakout companies because support doesn’t scale, and it's too costly. The result is often little engagement, periodic 1:1 engagement, or reliance on the power (and often confusion) of community to do the majority of the work. These can be constructive approaches, but if a VC struggles to find a middle ground or to innovate, too many opportunities to add value fall through the cracks.
Just like a world-class engineer can 10x-100x the work of a good engineer, VC support can have similar dynamics. The value of drawing on the collective wisdom of truly experienced people around the table is clear, so long as the advice is credible, engaged and we would argue aligned to the outcome. We have seen too many all-care-no-responsibility participants around startups who are frankly damaging the founders' journeys and causing confusion. This also includes flippant and uninformed commentary from VCs prepared to offer low-conviction advice at the expense of company outcomes.
Don't get me wrong, I know a lot of partners, principals and emerging investors who would eat glass for their founders and who are always there for support (as we saw this week with SVB), and I have seen extraordinary efforts play out that have saved companies. But there’s not enough evidence to be confident that this ecosystem is heading in the right direction.
So what’s our answer?
Introducing the Folklore Support Stack
Folklore doesn’t want to be known for logo-squatting, or an all-care-no-responsibility name on a cap table.
Our starting principle was that support should be available to all portfolio companies, and not just the upper echelon of performers in a VC’s portfolio. We listened to our founders and their teams and systematically iterated on different approaches over a number of years to achieve our current working model, which is a refined support stack that is suitable for our entire portfolio and complementary to the journey of every Folklore founder.
We’re not proposing our Stack is the answer, and we have not built a support model to create jobs for ourselves or justify our existence. Moreover, our willingness to support our companies doesn’t mean we want to operate those companies, nor does it suggest we have all the answers for our founders.
Rather, the Folklore Support Stack is a dedicated experience allowing our founders and their teams to run faster and more efficiently at their visions, giving them access to a toolkit, resources, programs and connections that matter – it is designed to scale from 1:1 to 1:1000s and to give our teams more shots on goal.
We are constantly developing this Stack so that a year from now it will have materially improved.
One of the benefits of having a high-conviction investment approach is that we’ve always been able to provide direct support to our portfolio through our team and an extensive advisor network.
The Folklore team is known for always being available – in fact, it’s one of our fundamental values. Whether founders are looking for support with big hairy decisions, strategy, hiring and firing, shifting macro conditions, PR campaigns or subsequent fundraising, our team jumps in.
Over the last three years we developed Campfire, a purpose-built platform for the Folklore community that has allowed us to scale support as our portfolio of startups has grown.
Campfire includes a private messaging platform that connects all of our founders and teams. We provide an ever-evolving open-source resource of all of the best templates, policies, frameworks and best-practice playbooks that our companies might need – think of it like an extensive library of practical content and tools. We also share credits, discounts and deals from our vetted partners and third-party vendors
The dedicated Campfire job board has all of the portfolio roles available and allows us to scale our hiring support by connecting the best talent in our community and the wider ecosystem with amazing opportunities. This complements the bespoke team development support that we offer when needed, to place leaders and operators into our portfolio.
And because time is limited, and every company needs quick access to the best advice, the Campfire directory lists all of the best, and fully vetted, service providers in the Folklore family and beyond.
We believe that magic happens when people come together. Our events foster strong bonds and creative spark across the entire Folklore family of founders, operators, investors and experts.
This is where learning turns into implementation and growth is accelerated. Each Expert Session features curated programming from specialists to help founders and operators in our portfolio to learn from real-world experience. The sessions run for half a day and cover granular advice on a range of functional issues such as hiring, culture, strategy, infrastructure, ESOPs, tax, compliance, engineering and leadership. Expert Sessions are closed for our portfolio founders and their teams to encourage learning, problem-solving and connection.
Folklore created Chapters to nurture the next generation of talent and startup operators across ANZ. Chapters offer immersive cohort-based learning experiences for hundreds of people and are open to the whole startup ecosystem.
Each Chapter cohort goes deep into the critical knowledge required to build and grow startups over 4 - 6 weeks, and participants learn from experts at global companies like ClassPass, Netflix, Uber and Canva, as well as local greats like Koala, Eucalyptus, Linktree and Airwallex.
In 2023, we’ll be rolling out more Chapter topics to cover all areas critical to company building – we are launching Product Chapter in March, an immersive deep dive into product management led by some of the best in the business.
You may have read the State of Australian Startup Funding Report, or you may be a part of the VC Women Down Under community. Both of these are examples of pay-it-forward programs that Folklore has supported to make our ecosystem stronger.
Folklore continues to consult investors, founders and participants in our industry on new ideas and opportunities to ensure our ecosystem is more informed, more diverse, more inclusive and ultimately more successful.
We are not proposing to have the answer to portfolio support, but we do believe investors needed to reflect on the question of what it really means to support portfolio companies. We hope that by sharing our Folklore’s Support Stack we can inspire some new thinking to help fix a broken model, and in turn, support the next generation of Aussie and NZ success stories.
Calling all founders, operators and investors
We want to hear more about best practices and the needs of founders. If you have insights or recommendations for making our support stack better, send them our way – we’re keen to hear what else we can do.
Folklore puts consideration into every company that we invest in because we want to be able to provide the investment and support they need. If you’re building something great, or want to work with us, drop us a line.
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