As venture capital becomes a commodity, it's all about community

By Erin Griffith , written on May 16, 2013

From The News Desk

You know something's up when companies are pitching to join a venture capitalist's portfolio, no investment required.

That's a surprising trend that Peter Boyce noticed at, the student-run venture capital program supported by General Catalyst Partners in Boston. Roughdraft has invested up to $25,000 in 10 Boston companies since its launch in December last year.

The program is one of several efforts by VC firms to have a stronger presence on college campuses. Last year, First Round Capital launched Dorm Room Fund in Philadelphia, New York, and San Francisco. Accel Partners, NEA, and Polaris Venture Partners also launched The Experiment Fund.

In each, student investors chosen by the firm back other students' projects with small amounts of money allotted from the firm. All of them emphasize the importance of community; First Round hopes that as Dorm Room Fund expands across several cities, the student-investors and portfolio companies can learn from the experiences of their peers across the country and leverage the benefits of being a part of the Dorm Room Fund network. Likewise, fosters community with its portfolio companies by linking them with mentors, hosting networking dinners and forging connections between founders.

The program's founder, Harvard alum Peter Boyce, was surprised when he noticed students from schools outside of Boston asking to pitch their student-investors. He was even more surprised when he realized some of these student-founders didn't even want the money -- they just wanted to be in the portfolio. It was less about the optics or credibility that comes with having raised venture capital investment and more about belonging to a community. For students outside of the country's three largest tech hubs, Silicon Valley, New York, and Boston, the desire to connect with those embedded in one of those scenes is particularly acute.

"In some cases the financial need wasn't as strong, because they had the summer to raise money," Boyce says. "The financial feedback and connections with other students were much more valuable, and they know we had this cool network."

Roughdraft is still figuring out how to potentially include students from outside of Boston, sometimes without even taking on an investment, Boyce says. The goal is to be helpful to all students while proving capital for them as well as access to the best possible mentors.

This speaks to a larger shift in the VC industry. Cold hard capital is a commodity. The good companies can raise from any variety of investors (and when a company is hot, VC's are known to pounce like lemmings, as Brian Goldberg outlined in his astute observations about "one" and "nine" investors). In-demand companies get to choose which investor they want; investors are now aggressively expanding the suite of services and benefits they offer to their portfolio as a way to entice the good startups.

First Round Capital -- the firm behind the Dorm Room Fund -- has a variety programs to differentiate itself from its VC peers, including Josh Kopelman, founder of First Round (and personal investor in PandoDaily), explained the philosophy behind the strategy at a PandoMonthly earlier this year:

He built First Round Capital with the the idea of building a community between its portfolio companies, not the old-fashioned way of VC’s holding all the knowledge and passing it individually to their portfolio companies. Sure, it’s important to have partners that add value. “But wouldn’t it be amazing instead of having companies that operate as independent silos, you can build a community of entrepreneurs that share that knowledge with each other?,” he said.

On the flip side, almost every VC firm differentiates itself (though perhaps that's a contradiction of terms) by offering services to their portfolio companies. Many firms have in-house PR people. Others offer in-house recruiting and design services. Most offer mentorship and access to advisors. The money is almost the least important thing. For young, early stage companies, this community -- being a part of something -- is a VC firm's biggest differentiator. Roughdraft knows that.