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 Katie Birge discuss network and engagement at M25.
Katie is a Midwesterner at heart and has a passion for growing the tech industry in the Midwest. She went from running a coworking space that housed accelerator programs to translating that into her passion for start-ups and VC. A marketer by trade, she’s currently Associate, Head of Platform for M25, an early-stage VC firm.
Find highlights from the interview below:
Evan: What’s your role right now? What made you decide to get into this field of work, and how did you find your job?
Katie: My role is Associate and Head of Platform at M25. We’re an early-stage VC firm headquartered in Chicago investing in early-stage Midwest headquartered companies.
As for how I got into this, to spare you my 30-minute origin story, I've always been interested in growing the Midwest tech ecosystem. I’d been running a coworking space with a couple of accelerator programs and knew that I wanted my next role to be in Venture. I wanted to play some kind of part on the investment team, but also really wanted to play to my strengths of being a generalist for startups. Having the opportunity to work at a Midwest-focused VC firm is honestly a dream and a perfect scenario for working in venture for me.
In terms of finding my job, the Midwest VC network is growing, but still a lot smaller than the coasts. M25 as a firm was prioritizing opening an Indiana office and having a presence here, so the stars just aligned perfectly for me.
Evan: How would you describe your role as Head of Platform? What does a typical day look like for you?
Katie: I'm going to be very cliche and tell you that no day is typical for me. Platform means lots of things at lots of firms and for us, as a smaller AUM firm with 131 portfolio companies, and a platform team of one — plus an intern — we define platform in five pillars.
- Brand, PR, and marketing for the firm to help with inbound deal flow and M25’s reputation.
- Events. We host a very large event that we just wrapped up called the Club M25 Summit every September in Chicago. We also host happy hours in Midwest cities where we have three or more portfolio companies.
- Traditional portfolio support. We offer perks, discounts, and one-off assistance requests.
- Community management. This is very unique to us as a firm. We own midweststartups.com and it's our way of showing off everything we know about startups and VC in the Midwest. It's pretty unique for a VC firm to have a secondary brand like that but it’s where we post blog content, annual Midwest cities rankings, or we gather data points on 59 cities and rank them according to their startup activity, business, climate, VC climate, etc. We geek out a lot about the Midwest!
Evan: For somebody who might be trying to get an idea of what it's like to be in your role, or even someone in your role in another organization, how do you think about the buckets of your time?
Katie: It’s seasonal, and it’s cyclical. And it also changes with the broader economic climate. This probably won't surprise you and the Getro team, but when I first started this role, talent was such a small component of it. But during a normal month now, it takes about 40% of my time.
Of course, that fluctuates. I spent most of last month prepping for our annual summit, and we had two happy hours, so it was very event heavy for part of Q3, but if you averaged it all out and looked at my metrics and OKRs, right now, it’s 40% talent.
It'll be interesting to see what happens once the market starts to cool off a little, assuming it does. I'm already seeing our number of job posts steadily dropping, so how much time we'll be dedicating to talent if there are fewer open roles or companies remains to be seen. The Midwest is fairly well insulated compared to the coasts in terms of correcting what's going on in the market after how crazy last year was. So while there are layoffs happening here, per capita, it’s a much smaller downsizing happening in tech in the Midwest region.
Evan: How long have you been in the role?
Katie: Oh, great question. I joined in January 2020. What a time to be alive! (laughter) We used to do our summit twice a year, so I pulled off our first one the first week of March. Really just slid under there! The pandemic changed the scope of what this role wasn't necessarily designed to be.
Evan: Observing what you saw during COVID and if you see any similarities the way the companies are behaving in this moment in the market, or if you think it's actually fundamentally different?
Katie: That's really interesting. I think many VCs would say that their pipelines look really similar right now to what the early months of the pandemic did in terms of not seeing as many deals. For us, that was a huge opportunity. During the slow parts of the pandemic, we took the extra hour of our pipeline meeting time to really focus on rebuilding our Midwest Startups domain. That's where talent first came into play for us. Previously Midwest Startups had been a very stagnant website — you could upload a resume in a Google form if you were looking for a role, but it wasn't dynamic the way it is now with the job board, the talent network, more robust blog posting, etc.
It's hard not to make parallels, but I also don't want to re-earth any trauma that any of us have had about the economy. I can tell you since we have nearly a hundred companies on the jobs page on Getro right now, representing companies of all sizes, we've seen a pretty decent drop in the number of jobs posted.
As we go into strategic planning for 2023, it will be interesting to see what that looks like in terms of how much time I should be allocating to talent. How much time the rest of the team should be working on complementing the work that I'm doing on talent. And if it's back to the drawing board or if it's just a late summer/fall lull.
Evan: Are there any talent related activities you do to help the portfolio companies in times where they're not doing lots of hiring?
Katie: I'm not a recruiter. I don't come from a recruiting background. I'm the best we've got! What I lack in expertise and talent, I make up for in trying things. I've actually found a couple of really interesting ways that M25 is innovating in the talent space.
People are having a hard time filling specific roles, either because of too many applicants and they don't know how to filter or their job description isn’t as concise as it could be. I've been doing a lot of one-off conversations with founders where we look at their job description and say, ‘you did this fast because you wanted to hire someone quickly when there was a wave of available talent, but is this actually what you need now? Is this written the right way?’
All kinds of studies have shown that there are better ways you can write job descriptions for a diverse range of job-seekers, so many of our companies have been helpful in providing suggestions to create a more equitable hiring pool. This is the time when we’d double down on a webinar about that topic so our companies can really focus on improving what they've already got.
We also chat with a lot of fractional C-suite firms. So anytime someone says, ‘hey, we're a fractional CFO service (or any fractional C-service)’, I'd love to meet them. So whether our companies are downsizing and dropping their CFO, or if they weren't ready to hire a CFO to begin with because of how small they are, or maybe they’re almost ready to hire a CFO, but won't be for another six months, we try to connect them to those fractional services that can help round out their team of usually two to five people until their next funding round.
I've also really focused my efforts on how I can use the existing features within Getro. I've been experimenting with ways I can use Getro’s talent network to innovate in follow-ups both with our hiring managers and with our companies. Targeted email campaigns to the hiring managers and targeted email campaigns to the people within our talent network highlighting recently added roles. There's already a digest that people can sign up for, but this is a more comprehensive lineup of all the roles in the hopes that some may get forwarded to a friend.
We’ll send the hiring managers something that says 20 new candidates have been added in the last two weeks, as well as a bi-weekly newsletter, and the click-through rate on both of those has been incredible so far. In other words, really taking the time to try new things. Because I'm not a recruiter, I don't know what the right way is, but I think that's been a benefit during this competitive job market.
Evan: You mentioned that there are a few innovative things M25 is doing in talent. I wonder if there's anything else you want to share.
Katie: Well, we've tried a lot of things. We have a company in our portfolio called Human Predictions that uses predictive analytics to determine — based on activity on LinkedIn, Dribble, Meetup, and Twitter — who’s likely looking for their next role in the next three months and with great accuracy. We're huge fans of theirs, and while their target is recruiters, they've let us be a test case on how VC firms might use it.
They've also offered to do some curated matches for us for a low cost, sourcing some quality candidates that are likely to be leaving their jobs in the next three months, and we let them know what we think. We've been trying to figure out ways that we can partner together to source more leads. I come from a marketing background, so for me, phase two is how can I create a drip campaign in an authentic way that doesn't sound like every other recruiter that's reaching out.
Our firm is a huge believer in the power of LinkedIn, so I try to do regular call-outs for that. We also have a bi-weekly Midwest Startups newsletter which is meant to read like a Morning Brew or the Skimm. We try to keep it lighthearted, but we've been adding our talent to that and then featuring highlighted jobs at the bottom as well.
Evan: Zooming out a little bit. If you can think of yourself when you first started the role back in January 2020, I wonder what advice you have for yourself at that time now.
Katie: This is advice for all platform teams of one or platform teams where everyone is brand new. I feel like I spent a lot of the first year really trying to figure out, what am I spending the most time on? And of these things, what’s the biggest value add to our companies? There will never be enough hours in the day for platform teams to accomplish everything on their wishlist. And as my time in this role has gotten longer, I've really started to think about how is our time best spent to help generate returns for our companies. To get them to their next fundraise quicker and better.
One piece of advice is to keep track of what you're spending your time on and categorize it. I outlined the five things that we focus on as a firm with the platform team of one. That's a lot, but at least we know that. And it means that even if I want to do some Biz Dev work for one of our companies, I tell myself I don't have time to do that right now.
Another thing that I've been talking a lot about with peers at other VC firms is better understanding what your co-investors have in terms of capabilities and strengths in platform, so you're not duplicating work. If you've got a firm that you do a significant number of co-investments with, and they have really good biz dev services, then that shouldn’t be your priority if you have to make a decision about what areas you're focusing on.
Evan: Is there anyone in your journey who’s really helped you that you want to give a shout out to? Someone you really admire?
Katie: Gosh, this is ridiculous, but I want to shout out the M25 team. I’ve felt very supported in trying new things. I think that a lot of platform roles are very specialized, and this is about as general as it gets. And I've had the team’s support and feedback the entire time when we decided to really revamp our Midwest Startups brand and make that the home for our talent and our jobs board.
I really felt like I had the backing of the team and we're starting to experiment collectively with new ways to continue to add talent at a quicker rate to the talent network and get more referrals from beyond just my network. Having their support and their enthusiasm for when I try new things in platform has been really critical to the success of this role.
Evan: One thing I meant to ask earlier is what’s the main interaction that you have with partners and other folks on the team?
Katie: We're a team of eight and we're hyper collaborative. I’m currently the only non-Chicagoan so I work remotely and I’m the most isolated. We have an office in Indianapolis and we'll be adding to that team in 2023, which is really exciting. I do think that the pandemic made us all stronger by forcing everyone online. I always joke that for the first six weeks of my job I’d get on our team pipeline meeting, which was a Zoom call, and would wait for 10 minutes and start texting them, ‘Hey, are you going to start the Zoom? I’m here.’ So, going from that to, as hyper-connected as every company or firm is right now, it really made us stronger.
The whole team sees every deal that comes through the door. We're not set up so that associates or analysts feel like they should be hesitant to share something with the partners or wait until they get something really good. We all see every single deal that comes through, and our goal is to see every deal in the Midwest. So we have to be tag-teaming that as much as we can.
Evan: This has been great. Is there anything else you want to add?
Katie: I'm excited to keep working with Getro and to continue seeing what features you roll out. I have fairly regular calls with the product team, and I always get really excited to see what new features are coming our way.
Read more interviews from Getro's Head of Platform Series:
-> The role of Head of Platform: A conversation between Shannon Shroyer and Evan Walden
-> The role of Head of Platform: A conversation between Daniel Morris and Evan Walden