One of Sequoia Capital’s biggest attributes is its insanely storied history going all the way back to founder Don Valentine’s roots at Fairchild through Atari, Apple, Oracle, Cisco, Yahoo and so many of the companies that made Silicon Valley what it is today.
You can understand why the firm has always stubbornly stuck to venture capital classic: Small number of partners, taciturn with the press, reluctant to overpay for valuations, and a sense that an investment from Sequoia meant something. For some years, it was considered one of the closest things the Valley had to a sort of country club. When you were in, you’d arrived. They even had their own secret society, until recently.
But the new generation of partners is starting to shape Sequoia in the image of a modern VC firm– ever so slightly. In the last year, it’s hired an internal PR guy, and have sought to become more open and friendly with the press. There have been more cocktail parties. And today, it’s launching a friendly new face towards entrepreneurs not in the Sequoia network.
It’s called The Grove, and it’s essentially a hub for entrepreneur information and events. The articles are closer to First Round Capital’s recently launched First Round Review, which takes a Harvard Business Review tact to solving problems all startups face. Similarly, the Grove includes articles on topics like the psychology and strategy around setting prices.
Even cooler is a series of Drink Ups where a Sequoia partner and entrepreneur will hold interactive town halls about topics the site is exploring. (That’s not too dissimilar from our own PandoMonthlys.) I asked if they’d hold them in their office, and Sequoia’s Aaref Hilaly scoffed and said they were going for more of a dive bar in San Francisco vibe.
It may not seem like a huge move, but the thought of Mike Moritz hanging in a San Francisco dive bar is very, well… different than the image of Sequoia when I first moved here. The firm hasn’t exactly been known as “approachable.” When I noted that in our call Sequoia’s Aaref Hilaly groaned at my somewhat outdated view of the firm. “Places don’t stay 100 percent the same,” he says. “Our goal is to respect and observe the principals hat have allowed us to be successful but the world isn’t static. Just like our team evolves, our tactics change too.”
The articles on Grove — from what I saw of them pre-launch — are substantial and written by pretty successful names in Sequoia’s portfolio, like Phil Libin or Qualtrics’ Ryan Smith. I saw a lot that could help me in challenges PandoDaily is facing right now. This is not cliche, we’ve-heard-it-a-million-times advice like “hire great people!”
But, of course, a content site is the ultimate iterative startup. You have to continue to produce great content regularly, no matter how evergreen it all might be. Sequoia was wise to hire Ben Worthen from the Wall Street Journal to run this, rather than assume people will just send brilliant articles in. I’ve seen plenty of VCs set up blogs and assume great content somehow just happens.
It’s clearly similar to First Round’s Review, and the direction that a lot of venture firms are going in to be platforms that leverage their portfolios as much as their partners’ expertise. But Sequoia’s Hilaly pushed back on the idea that Sequoia was changing much at all at its core. “The feedback that we get from entrepreneurs all the time is that the number one thing they value is the time and attention they get from our partnership,” Hilaly says. “That’s the thing we optimize for. We deliberately only invest in a few companies a year. We don’t outsource board seats, we don’t invest in hundreds of companies. What works for other people is not what we are about. Yes, we are looking to do more things for entrepreneurs but we are doing so by virtue of the role or position we already occupy. This fits into our model in a different way than it does for other firms.”
He also added this: “I can understand for younger firms that don’t have so many years in the business something like this is a more important part of the strategy. For us, we look at it as something that’s not hard for us to do and really helpful for entrepreneurs.”
Yow. That certainly reads like a not-so-veiled knock against the strategies of Kleiner Perkins (who, for instance, installed Mike McCue on Twitter’s board) and First Round which is known to invest widely and be on the board only a few years. Probably the young, widely investing, and newly powerful Andreessen Horowitz too. But venture capital is competitive, and Sequoia is justifiably proud of its track record.
They are changing, engaging in branding, and opening up to the outside just a bit with this move, while still playing up what has made Sequoia successful. It’s a smart strategy, and they’re putting some content out that I think entrepreneurs will truly find valuable. Positioning and jockeying between VC firms aside, that’s the only thing that really matters.