That was the question I wanted to answer as I spoke with Jay Acunzo, who holds that very position at NextView Ventures, a Boston-based seed-stage VC firm investing in web and mobile startups (full disclosure: InsightSquared is a part of the NextView portfolio). As part of his role, Jay is a fixture in both the local VC / tech startup community, as well as the burgeoning content community and industry. His ubiquity and influence is well-felt on his blogs, through his educational marketing emails and certainly by the portfolio companies he was successfully worked with and advised.
I had the privilege to sit down with Jay to pick his brain on the growth of content marketing, the challenges of working with portfolio companies and the importance of culture at early-stage startups.
1) Tell us a little bit about what it is exactly that you work on as the Director of Platform and Community for NextView Ventures and its various portfolio companies?
So, it’s a little bit of a new trend in VC to hire for this platform-type role. Essentially what the word means in a VC context is a hybrid between start-up support and marketing. So most of my job is spent figuring out what are the biggest problems facing our portfolio startups, and how can we create programmatic, systematic or scalable initiative solutions to solve those.
One example might be if our companies are all really interested in content marketing – which is my background – how can we consult them in a way that’s not just one-to-one? We want to provide something that supports them across the portfolio. Can we create a resource, like a guide or host a workshop, or bring in a few experts to do a blog series? And then by definition, a lot of that also serves to increase our brand perception and our brand reach into our ecosystem, right? Because a lot of those initiatives are by definition things that we do that are specific to the portfolio, but are also partly public.
2) When you first joined NextView, did you know of any other people that had such a position in the VC community?
There are a few precedents – the first one that comes to mind is First Round Capital. They basically built a whole team around the idea of platform. In Boston, to our knowledge, I was the first one hired in this ecosystem to do platform for early-stage companies. There are later stage firms that have marketing consultants and sales consultants, but in terms of not being a consultant, it seems like I’m the first one in Boston.
3) Was this a need for NextView, a need they saw in their portfolio companies? Or was it something where they saw an opportunity to provide value and assistance to these other companies?
I think it’s the latter. The firm’s 3 partners – David Beisel, Rob Go and Lee Hower – all have tremendous operator experience. Lee for example was on the founding team of LinkedIn. David and Rob were both successful entrepreneurs, so that had established themselves in the tech startup world. When they broke out to start their own fund, they reached the point where they wanted to add way more value to the portfolio than the traditional model, which usually offered investment, advice, support and introductions – things of that nature. And that’s all great value-add! But the next wave is literally like finding a person to run all of that and build up more initiatives like content, workshops and the like. That’s a long way of saying that basically they saw this opportunity to do what they’ve always been doing, but on a full-time basis. That’s what I do.
4) That’s a great segue to content, which is a huge part of your focus and your background. We’ve seen content marketing – especially in B2B – really explode this year. Why do companies see value in this, and what about the B2B selling and buying experience lends itself to content marketing?
It’s interesting – I found myself in the field in a roundabout way, like a lot of content people did. My background was in ad sales in Google, and then I went to Dailybreak and they needed to build an editorial team, and because I had aspirations to be a sports journalist before joining Google, it was natural for me. I had these old skills that I used in school. I started looking around the industry and there were more people hiring for it, and then it just caught fire and became ubiquitous. And I think a couple of things happened.
Intuitively, content marketing makes sense – it’s more benevolent and adds value to your consumer.The first is that it’s intuitive, right? If you’re the consumer, it never really made sense why interruptions would work to get you to buy something. Ads like preroll on YouTube or banners on a media site were never in the flow of a normal human being’s interaction with media. Intuitively, content marketing makes sense. You feel good when you do it because it’s more benevolent and adds more value to your consumer. It seems to make sense at first flush.
- Jay Acunzo
The second thing is that if you match content marketing to all the trends we saw over time with how people consume media and the stimuli around us, old school marketing has been rendered almost obsolete. It’s certainly less effective. Consumers have millions of options – if nothing I’m saying right now is interesting, that’s OK – you can go find another blog post or any other type of medium. The consumer has all this control over where they spend their time. The most powerful thing is consumer choice and they don’t choose advertising – they choose content. They choose things that educate, inspire or entertain them. There was this huge wave of content overflow that made all this noise possible, and now really the only way to survive as a marketer is to contribute more to that noise. There’s too many options – you have to be what people choose.
5) There’s the danger that content marketing becomes over-saturated because now everybody’s doing it. What would you say to current practitioners to guard themselves against this content marketing oversaturation?
The word noise is dangerous because it means you’re just contributing stuff to the world. Clear away all the trends and tactics and technologies for a second and think about what is content marketing? What’s it supposed to do? It’s just a way for businesses trying to solve the same problem for customers that their product solves, but in a different medium. That’s it. That’s all it is.
Before NextView, I was head of the content team at HubSpot, who wanted to help people practice inbound marketing. They wanted to help people adopt digital, modern ways of marketing, and that’s what their product did. Their content did the exact same thing. We would publish advice and practical lists and guides and templates. It’s not about adding to the noise; it’s about solving a problem for your buyer. Every entrepreneur – including the ones that founded InsightSquared – can say without a doubt they’re building the best solution for X, Y, Z problems in the market, and that’s why they created this company.
You do the same thing with your content as your product – look internally and figure out what you’re trying to solve.With their content, it has to be the same way: “We’ve identified this problem. Yes we’re building a system to get people to buy our product or download it or use it. We want to publish media that addresses the very same problem in the market and then reels in not just traffic, but qualified users and buyers. So, it all comes back to that. Instead of looking at these macro-level terms, you have to look internally and figure out what you’re trying to solve with your product or service. You do the exact same thing with your content.
- Jay Acunzo
6) You work closely with startups and entrepreneurs. What are some of the challenges of working with portfolio companies, compared to when you were working in-house, like back at HubSpot?
It’s like any kind of consultancy or advisory role: I am never going to know all the problems facing all the companies we invest in. What I really have to start doing a good job of is figuring out what do we stand for. What does NextView as a firm care about? What drives us forward? And how do we help our portfolio companies get around that? Since our firm does seed-stage investing, we want to help exceptional founders give their companies the best possible start, so we think about those three words a lot: Best. Possible. Start.
How do we serve early-stage startups? We have to help them get traction. That’s the output of our mission. Instead of writing about Uber vs. Lyft on our blog, we’re going to write about how you get your first hundred customers. You run a closed landing page, or a beta sign-up campaign. Another example is we created a board-backed template for founders to use because we would always get questions about what makes a great board deck. It’s really tactical, helpful stuff.
It solves the same problem we’re trying to solve as a firm, which is giving these founders capital and runway and advice and time to find traction and product-market fit. It can become overwhelming when you’re not actually embedded in these different companies. I can’t sit back in my office and know everything thats going on, or every problem the company is facing, but I can think about this mission we have at NextView and figure out how to systematically help all of these companies get a little bit further toward finding traction.
7) In working with these early-stage companies, what are some common obstacles you see, or areas where you’ve been able to provide the most impact and value?
It really ranges, but across the board, talent and hiring a great team comes up a lot. At a young startup when you don’t have a whole team internally, hiring is sort of everybody’s job but nobody’s job. But it is so critical.
When I do one-on-one work with our portfolio startups, it tends to be in marketing since I’ve been doing that my whole career. People like the idea of doing content marketing in startups because its the modern way to do marketing – and every startup is ostensibly a modern organization – but the problem is they run in a million different directions and don’t ground it in reality. I always have to come back with the founder and think about tactics for the problems you’re solving. It’s kind of like framing their marketing and their go-to-market strategy the right way so that it’s not just like noise and flashing things everywhere, but actually strategic.
And then getting to Series A, or whatever the next financial milestone would be. We’re really proud of the fact that there’s a lot of dialogue around how startups are struggling to raise series A, and we’ve seen over 70 percent of our startups succeed in doing that. That’s another core part of that traction that we want to help our companies get to. So those are our big three common problems – finding talent, getting to Series A and for me, marketing and how you articulate and execute your content marketing in a smart way.
8) You were at HubSpot in the pre, pre-IPO years. What was your most important takeaway from your time there that you share with other companies at a similar growth stage?
Talent is ultimately the most important thing, and that starts with articulating and dedicating actual calories to your culture.They’re really good about being transparent internally there to teach people, on the frontlines of the management team, just how the business is running at a high level. Not just what you’re doing day-to-day but how the business thinks about every different metric they care about. I could go on forever, but there is one big takeaway I’ll say:
- Jay Acunzo
After a certain stage, it’s going to be a lot harder to articulate and change or develop your culture. In other words, it’s probably already baked once you get to this stage. It’s harder to turn a big ship than a smaller, nimbler one. The culture that HubSpot has built, and the way they articulated it, served to get them great talent. If you’re looking at HubSpot as a good model for where you want to get to, it’s not about the product. We’re talking about talent that is ultimately the most important thing, and that starts with articulating and dedicating actual calories to your culture.
9) Is this culture something you share with the startup portfolio companies you work with?
We do not, from NextView’s point of view. The fact that you bring it up makes me think that it’s a good thing that we don’t. We can provide support, capital, introductions, practical advice for finding traction, but almost 100 percent of the success is on the entrepreneur and their team. For an investor to impose or suggest what a culture of a company should be would be too presumptuous. It’s telling people what they should care about, right? That’s not a good relationship, to point your finger and say, “This is what you should care about.” That’s not the role of a good investor at all.
10) Along with content marketing, data-driven sales and marketing has really exploded in recent years. What advice would you give to aspiring data-driven marketers who aren’t sure where to begin in terms of looking at their own KPIs?
A lot of the pitfalls of people trying to use data in content marketing is they latch onto vanity metrics – views, shares or even blog subscribers can be vanity metrics. And vanity metrics only speak to top-of-funnel activity. The way I advise people to come at it is by asking yourself, “What’s next?” You got a bunch of people to read your blog – that’s wonderful! What’s next for those people?
You need the content to become a lead for you. That’s the B2B lead-gen model of content – you download a bigger guide on a smaller blog post that you read, but you have to enter information to get that guide. You have a lead – that’s great too! What’s next? Well, you have to qualify that lead and on and on until people are actually at the bottom of your funnel. A lot of people in content get excited about acting like a publisher – that’s really dangerous because you can’t actually finish your work when you get a bunch of views. You have to measure the whole funnel.
I am not originally a data-driven marketer; I lead with intuition and I course-correct with data, and I still like the creative arm of marketing. But if you are trying to be more data-driven in your marketing, especially with content, the way to come at it is saying “What is next for the reader?” And that’s where you find the next metric you need.
11) Let’s bring it full-circle back to content. Along with your work at NextView, you’re also co-founder of Boston Content, a local community group. What were your goals in starting this group?
For some context, I am the co-founder of this Boston Content group, which has 850 members now. It’s a free community group, run by volunteers, and the group was born out of this idea that a lot of us get into this field from totally different backgrounds, and it’s very unclear where we go next. I polled the group recently and 22 percent said they wanted to be a creative director, 24 percent said they wanted to be an editor-in-chief, a large percentage said they like creating content more than marketing, so it’s this weird hybrid role. And nobody really knows where it’s going, what skills are going to be required next year vs. this year. We started this group to basically put all these people in a room together and just have conversations around these things. For a while it was just an informal meetup group, and now we have quarterly events.
It all just comes back to speaking to the community as often as I can. Emailing the group, talking to them at events and trying to figure out what they are actually struggling with, and then just trying to provide something that helps solve them. In that way, it’s actually really similar to my day job at NextView. It’s been pretty rewarding.