The Head of Platform Series is a compilation of conversations between Evan Walden, Getro’s co-founder, and CEO, and VC platform operators who are sharing their approach to driving value for their portfolio companies. In this interview, Evan and Daniel Morris discuss platform and support to founders at NFX.
Meet Daniel! With a storied career in talent management, recruiting & people operations for companies like Trulia, Uber, eBay, and Walmart, and an extensive background advising for several start-ups, he’s now the VP People & Platform for NFX.
Daniel likes to say that it’s all about empowering founders. For him, it’s not about telling, it’s about helping, supporting, and showing, providing the tools they need to succeed on their own.
Evan: To kick off the conversation, can you tell us how NFX defines “platform”? How do you describe your role as VP People & Platform?
Daniel: Our platform is made up of about 150 companies within the NFX portfolio. Of those companies, 300-400 individuals make up this community that we call the guild. The guild is the portfolio of companies that we’ve invested in. We call it the guild because it's a secure place where people can trust each other and share ideas. It's also where they can leverage the resources that we've been building at NFX to help them accelerate their growth from seed through Series A.
My role has been to help bring different perspectives on how to scale. To do that, we had to attract the right talents from software companies to operate. We’re now nearly 60 people globally at NFX.
I’ve also built what we call the platform support team. It started with providing talent HR culture support. If not number one, it was undoubtedly the second ask we heard from founders daily. Finally, we identified additional areas where support was needed, and we built the support team: financing, pitch deck design, communications, marketing, and legal. So the onboarding experience for a new founder is not about ‘Hey, welcome to NFX’; it's ‘Welcome to your virtual team.’
Evan: That's a huge investment from the fund’s point of view. Why do you think NFX has chosen to invest that many resources into platform functions?
Daniel: I think we believe fundamentally in helping founders to build their companies or realize their dreams. We’re a seed VC firm with an accelerator mindset. We know that it's not scalable to have a classroom-like model. We also know that we need to figure out how to do expertise at scale, so a lot of the work we do is content driven.
We’re made up of four major groups:
- The Platform Support team, my team!
- The Tech Team, made up of product developers, software engineers, data engineers, product managers, designers, etc. They're building all the internal tools and external products to help identify opportunities. And then making sure that the founders that we've identified have an incredible experience, no matter what aspect of NFX they touch.
- The Content Team, which is all about writing essays, podcasts, creating educational material, all the pieces that you see on nfx.com that are target focused on the founder community.
- The Investment Team, as you probably guessed!
Evan Walden: How are you spending your time day to day? How do you see the buckets of your time breaking down?
Daniel: I wear a couple of different hats, and less and less of my time is spent on internal people operations. The only way I'm getting away with that is by automating every process, every workflow. I'm implementing an internal HR tech stack that allows one touch to do everything you could imagine an employee might need to do. The rest of my time is spent building this team of experts, writing playbooks, creating content, and helping to manage a product internally that we call Guilder.
Guilder is a platform that's designed for our portfolio Founders to meet, share ideas, and communicate, but also to access this growing library of shortcuts, playbooks, and educational content designed to help founders accelerate the growth of their company.
With talent support, I'm first introduced to a founder. We do an intake session, which typically starts with, “I've got to fill all these positions”, then quickly pivots into a conversation about culture. One of our playbooks helps Founders manage a 3-hour session with their founding team on how to define and develop their culture & values, which is then communicated to new hires — from orientation all the way through the employee life cycle. Then it's about helping them to implement a recruiting process that identifies the right people based on the behavioral competencies they think are important to develop the organization. These playbooks help them to implement those processes, from selection of HR tools to identifying the competencies and rubric they’ll need to select the right next team member.
The other topics we’ll cover are around compensation design and philosophy: an equity plan design, for example, that effectively attracts and retains great people. We have these conversations early on because I’ve seen first hand how important it is to get it right from day one.
Evan Walden: You have so many founders that are within the Guild community through NFX. A lot of them are probably saying, ‘Hey, can you please help me find a CMO?’ But you can’t be the full-time recruiter for every single company. So how do you manage that and still add value?
Daniel: This is the ongoing challenge for us and any investment firm like NFX that believes philosophically that when you're investing at seed, the magic is in not doing the job for them but setting Founders up to become great recruiters, the best leaders, inspiring managers, top CEO’s. So, it's about providing the tools, the expertise, and advice, but also saying, “here's the tech stack that we know works” or “Here's a playbook on how to implement…”.
When it comes to recruiting support, we prefer to say “No, but….” – i.e. “let me help you think about the profile” or “this is how you can write a great job description that people are actually going to want to talk to you about.” And then, when the Founder has their top three candidates for a role, who is going to be the right fit for their company – not because of what they do, but how they do it.
And then, ultimately, we’re going to talk about how to resource their talent sourcing – which could be a combination of solutions or it could be a retained recruiter. I usually counsel them on what the costs are going to be depending on the direction they go and what the likely ROI will be in terms of the time it takes and the quality they may see. It's those kinds of conversations that create behaviors and good habits, rather than just sending over resumes.
Evan Walden: You’ve been doing this a while now. Do you have any advice that you would give yourself first starting out as you were approaching the function of the platform?
Daniel: Founders know what they need, so don’t try to assume anything. I’d also tell myself not to try to be the answer. Really understand what the problem is they're trying to solve, but have the empathy to realize that the answer isn’t going to be the same for every founder in every situation. There has to be flexibility. A founder wants to know what the answer is, and that's okay. But I don't want to say this is the way you should do it because it may not fit that model.
Evan Walden: I’m curious how you think about the future of platform support or community building at NFX. When we first started Getro in 2017, platform as a function was fairly rare in VC. Now it's almost table stakes to have some kind of founder support, portfolio support. You’re definitely on the cutting edge, both in terms of how you think about the various functions, the investment you've made into the platform, and the tools you've built. If you look three years out, where do you see the future of how you're going to be supporting founders? What are you excited about?
Daniel: First, we're in a very fortunate place that we're a seed investor that has the resources to be able to invest in a platform team and a platform experience like this. We truly believe that just by providing the right support, the right information, the right answers at the right time, and the right place for Founders, we can help them to accelerate and get to the Series A or to a higher valuation faster. That's the value we’re bringing today.
So, where are we in five years? We're not going to be hiring aggressively internally. This is all about expertise at scale. E.g. How do I scale the knowledge that I've accumulated over the last 25 years? How does a PR strategist scale the ability to get a story picked up by TechCrunch? How do we scale a designer's time when it comes to building a pitch deck story that a VC is going to want to say yes to? I think we can use software to do 90% of that. So we're going to leverage our relationships with our internal engineering team and product management team. For example, we have a Head of Data, and working with her has been phenomenal. This is how we're going to scale the platform.
Evan Walden: We're in an economic moment that's precarious for a lot of founders. I wonder if you see any interesting things happening in the portfolio around how companies are thinking about hiring or even more broadly, wondering how you're supporting founders right now, specifically in the talent function?
Daniel: I think there’s just been a renewed focus on quality. The initial knee-jerk reaction was, of course, to stop and even correct in many cases and then start building back again. The great founding teams out there have resilience. It's part of the DNA of being a good company founder getting through times like this. And then leverage as many resources as you possibly can. Those founders that had the foresight to partner with firms like NFX have an unlimited basket of resources that they can pull from. You just have to be frugal and have fun with frugality. Make really smart decisions and hire people that bring a lot of leverage with them.
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