Is the venture capitalist’s role restricted to financial investment? In a deep-dive conversation on the topic with Kevin Hoffberg, a Venture Partner at Ulu Ventures, we learn how the firm not just funds, but facilitates new businesses and founders with the right engagement on platforms like GetProven.
Ulu is a 13-year-old seed-stage specialist, venture capital investment company with a keen focus on “funding, supporting and championing” early-stage entrepreneurs. Since its inception, Ulu has made over 200 investments. According to Kevin, the firm is crucial to their startups’ first 2 years, at which point most will raise another round of funding.
In a world filled with the newest “world-changing business ideas,” there are some core values that help Ulu filter for the ideas that might be the right fit. With a good startup–VC match, the firm can help them grow into a successful business. In fact, the first things you see on Ulu’s website are its core values, what drives them as a firm:
The decision-makers at Ulu understand that diversity—in a startup or a VC firm—is not simply a matter of ethics, it’s more profitable. By bringing a wide range of perspectives and talent, diverse organizations tend to be more efficient than and out-perform their less-diverse peers.
When it comes to portfolio construction, Ulu takes a disciplined, repeatable decision-making approach that analyzes risk–reward trade-offs. This approach sets them apart from other VCs and makes them similar to conventional institutional investors.
Setting expectations is a high priority, and Ulu communicates its views loud and clear. Prior to meeting with a startup for the first time, Ulu makes an evaluation rubric available to them. This rubric helps the investment seekers to understand the firm’s expectations.
According to Kevin, at any given moment the company is actively working with around 50 startups—half in the first year following a funding round, the other half in the second year, while working toward another funding round.
Ulu funds, supports, and champions new entrepreneurial talent. When they invest, they aren’t simply a source of funding; they become partners with a far more holistic approach of helping the business take-off from a strong foundation. Founders are provided with guidance and resources along with the funds that help them be efficient in a more expansive way.
The reason behind this sort of involvement and engagement is that it helps the firm have more control over where the new business is headed. Having made over 200 investments for names like BetterUp, Freewill, Ellevest, SoFi, and more, one can safely say Ulu has earned experience and credibility when it comes to decision-making and risk analysis. Sharing this wisdom—and the bank of resources Ulu has developed over the years—is a way of reducing risk to the growth of the business..
Monetary risk analysis aside, Uluwants to align its partners and entrepreneurs with its core philosophy from the get-go. For them, the central thesis of every venture they invest in is productive experimentation and problem-solving.It wants 100% of every company’s attention and resources to be involved in what it’s fundamentally supposed to be doing. To that end, it aims to minimize the time and effort spent on anything other than productivity for the company as it moves ahead toward its central goal.
The GetProven platform can be a crucial part of Ulu’s relationship with the new companies in which the firm is investing and mentoring.. With a wide range of trusted and credible vendors, GetProven becomes a hub for pre-vetted service providers. As we said, the firm’s principal focus lies in helping the founders and the business with all sorts of initial stage processes, which means building a solid foundation through vendors that can be relied on for their quality and pricing. Instead of leaving the founders to fend for themselves, the firm ensures that they have easy access to resources and partners that a new business needs as it starts from scratch.
Kevin explains that the onboarding process begins with an email welcoming and introducing them to the Proven platform. This welcome is followed by an onboarding call that takes the founders through an orientation for the firm, and gives them an overview of the different platforms that enable efficiency—GetProven being among the most important. More often than not, founders are soon found on the platform exploring and familiarising themselves with it.
Every year, Ulu’s founder community receives about 45 emails from the firm. Kevin’s intent behind these “Good News Emails” is to provide readers with quick nuggets of wisdom and information that might come in handy for people who often have a lot on their plates.
These emails are intended to be as advertised—good news for the founders—and feature trends, hacks, and hot takes that might greatly benefit their recipients, without them having to invest too much time into researching or reading up. The email is structured as three vital items that Kevin finds of interest and wants to share with the community, and the sign-offs feature takeaways and recommendations for books and articles that he found insightful. Admittedly, often one (and sometimes all three) of the items in the newsletter are in some way pointed to the GetProven platform and how it can be used to create more efficiency.
In a world where inboxes seem to be always overflowing, are emailers a good way to engage with the community? Well, if done right, definitely. Kevin’s emails have a fun tonality, an easy-to-consume template, and don’t spam founder inboxes. The fact that his emails get an open rate of around 50% speaks volumes about how much the community likes hearing from him.
While founders and startups are focused on making their one business work, VC firms are watching out for many such new and budding businesses. This broader scope means that they often have the network and insights that the companies themselves might not. Ulu skillfully uses this advantage to their and the founders’ benefit; they ensure they are in constant touch with the new companies in terms of their requirements and needs, and continue active platform curation as a result.
For instance, although hiring is a key part of the new business journey, Ulu does not limit its assistance to providing funds for hiring. They ensure that the company spends minimal time and effort to find the right talent by actively suggesting reliable recruiting firms.
According to Kevin, he spends a good part of a day, every week, working on this aspect: he doesn’t consider it a separate task or an additional to-do item. For Ulu, constant engagement with their founders and companies is very much an essential part of their principal goals. By investing time in keeping in touch with this community, Ulu ensures efficiency across companies and provides meaningful support for them that goes beyond the transactions of funds. For Kevin, it is a key part of their proposition and what sets them apart from many firms.
Being a new business owner or a start-up founder is no cakewalk; the pressures of making a business take off mean having your feet in multiple boats at the same time. This pressure is why one can’t expect founders to stay engaged with the platform after merely a conversational introduction. Ulu quickly understood that its role does not end at simply creating the platform and leaving it up to the founders to engage with it—it requires constant and active efforts by the firm to remind them of it. This ensures that the firm gets the most out of its investment in the platform as well as the new businesses.
Putting in the work for this engagement with portfolio companies ensures something that’s a critical goal for Ulu—keeping founders focused on what they set out to do. Having funded these companies to run productive experiments, the firm does not want them to be engaged in the nitty-gritty of finding the right recruitment agencies or getting the right deals and discounts from vendors. With a platform like GetProven simplifying the process and the firm directing the companies toward the platform at the right time, founders can stay focused on their original tasks of building a successful business.
Another advantage of having a platform like GetProven that caters to the business-building needs of new companies is the accountability it brings on the part of vendors. With the VC firm in control and looking out for the best interest of founders, it becomes essential for vendors to deliver high-quality services, especially in very competitive markets. With the active presence of the firm in the equation, any vendor shortcomings could risk not just the loss of that one business, but of the several businesses that the firm is handling.
Other venture capital firms might benefit by seeing how Ulu keeps its founder community consistently engaged. The broader approach that the firm takes ensures efficiency and the right kind of productivity for the new business they have invested in. While a lot of firms create vendor and service platforms for their business partners, it is just as important to keep startups actively engaged with the platform.
As an investor, you will be more successful if you help your underperforming investees brainstorm solutions and strategies for the problems they face instead of giving up on them.
We crunched the numbers, and these are the tools that portfolio companies are demanding the most, across all of our VC partnerships