True University and the Power of Community

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The NFL has the Superbowl. Apple has WWDC. Hollywood has the Oscars.

Here at True, we have True University.

Kicking off next Monday at Stanford, True U 2014 is shaping up to be our biggest and best ever, with 28 workshops and five keynotes on topics our Founders have told us they care about, including recruiting, growth, sales and marketing, design and more.

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Grand annual events like this remind us how far we have come in the nine years we’ve been together as a firm. When we founded True in 2005, the world was a different place. Very early-stage entrepreneurs had fewer options as fewer firms were taking big risks on unproven products or markets. Since then, True (along with other great firms) has changed the venture capital market and the startup ecosystem by embracing the type of very early-stage opportunities that historically have made venture capital great. We’re often asked by investors which market we would prefer: the early days of True or today. Our answer is, unequivocally, today. We’d rather invest in the vibrancy of today’s ecosystem, an ecosystem that provides Founders with institutional funding options, crowdfunding, accelerators, incubators and more. It’s a rich and exciting ecosystem that we’re all a part of, and we are building stronger, faster, bolder companies today than ever before.

But sometimes the excitement and scale can be noisy. One of a Founder’s greatest challenges is focus: how to separate the signal from the noise, and how to direct a team to focus on the right things and not the distractions. Our answer at True has always been to foster collaboration and community, which in the True platform initially took the form of our Founder Camps. Early on, “Founder Camp” was simply getting Seth Sternberg, Matt Mullenweg, Om Malik, Tod Sacerdoti, and a handful of others together for coffee at Pier 38. These initial gatherings didn’t yet have Blue Bottle Coffee, but they did have the magic tonic of trust and sharing. Our earliest group of Founders set the tone for others who would subsequently join the group by banding together and supporting one another through uncertainty and challenge. We saw this magic and have since poured significant resources into fueling its growth. Today, our annual Founder Camp draws more than 250 of our Founders from all over the world.

And how does that get us to True University? When we recognized the exponential benefits that our Founders experienced from the collaboration and community built at Founder Camp, we realized we could use our resources and our position in the ecosystem to do more. We wanted to foster collaboration deeper into the portfolio and make stronger companies across the board. What if it wasn’t just Founders and CEOs who could build a peer network through True—what if every employee in our portfolio could do that? So, in 2011, we developed True University, a two-day startup school through which we hope to extend our impact to as many of the 3500 employees in our portfolio as possible. This, to us, is the value that our platform can produce. Not schmoozing, not parties, not demo days for other VCs (though they are fun, too), but education and collaboration instead.

At True U, in addition to learning about design from Jeff Veen in 2011 and SaaS sales from Kenny Van Zant in 2012, teams from our portfolio companies get to know more people at their level, in their discipline or just in the general True community. Bonds are formed—the bonds of trust, collaboration and peer support that are essential to career and personal success. For all participants, True U is a chance for a team to grow and build more muscle in their domain, or maybe just in management or communication. This year, for example, we have a keynote on negotiation led by a West Point graduate and professor. We’ll also be announcing two major initiatives for our platform, and those in the room will be the first to know.

True University is specifically not restricted to Founders or CEOs; instead, it is open to any employee in the True portfolio at any level. It is participatory, and it is anything but a lean-back event. In fact, everything we do at True—our Camps, Forums, even our LP meeting—is, in the words of our partner Tony Conrad, a “contact sport.” The True platform works because of participation. People get what they give, and each person who attends provides a real benefit to all of us in the room.

True University helps us remember that we’re part of something larger than ourselves, something with deep and lasting meaning. In the venture capital world, there is significant debate about whether platforms work. We believe that today’s entrepreneurs deserve more than money and that by connecting the talent in our ecosystem, we all benefit. Learning, collaboration, and helping one another succeed and achieve our fullest potential is at the heart of True U—and, in fact, of everything we do as a firm. We can’t wait to learn from our amazing professors and interact with the talented people who make up the True community. The impact we can have together is enormous, and we’re excited for Monday to remind us, once again, why we do what we do.