Q&A with Frontline Ventures' Carolina Küng

Carolina Küng is the Head of Platform at Frontline Ventures, based in London. Prior to Frontline, she was the Portfolio Community Manager at Insight Venture Partners in New York City.

What attracted you to venture capital and working with startups?

Venture capital is all the hype at the moment, but for me it was happenstance. After getting my undergraduate degree in European Studies and International Political Economy at the Royal Holloway University of London, I wanted to explore a career in diplomacy. As much as I loved my degree, it quickly became obvious that I was lacking in any practical skills - I could debate you passionately for hours, but that was about it - and after several stints at several Swiss Embassies across Paris, Madrid, Zurich, Chicago and NYC to try my hand out in diplomacy, I opted to purse journalism instead. I went to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, initially enrolling in political journalism courses. But there was a business and financial reporting class that piqued my interest. Fraud, intrigue, mystery? sure! I was very lucky that the professor let me audit the class because I was instantly hooked.

We had a number of reporters visit the class including the journalist who uncovered the Bernie Madoff scandal and we dove deep into some of the most riveting business and tech cover-ups in history (think Enron). I became fascinated by investigative tech reporting. Post graduation I was lucky to work for Al Jazeera in Washington DC, followed by the Newsweek video team (The Daily Beast). It was tough; right about when I joined, Newsweek shut down their print magazine. Print was declared dead - though we’re currently seeing a revival - and it put me in a very precarious position even as someone on the video team. At the time I was moonlighting at Newsweek while working at United Nations during the day for the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children. On the weekends I worked at a bar. Even with all of these jobs, I could barely afford rent living with 5 roommates in deep Brooklyn.

It made me realize two things. What I was doing was unsustainable and, if I wanted to stay in New York, journalism was sadly in no position to help me secure a visa or a living. Since I liked reporting on technology, I figured why not try working in it? I began by joining an e-commerce start-up and then moved onto to Appway, a Swiss FinTech firm that was expanding from Switzerland to the US. I joined the 5 person team that was leading the expansion into NYC - my title was literally “Head of Pipeline” for a while - I was in charge of developing our talent, business dev, and our marketing pipeline, and I loved it. I was there for over four years during which time we grew the team to 20 employees and I rose up the ranks to Regional Marketing Manager for North America. Four years was enough to build a solid engine and I had pretty much hit the growth ceiling for my role at Appway, so I started passively thinking about what I might want to do next.

By chance, I’d received an InMail on LinkedIn from a recruiter looking for someone to join a top VC/PE firm in the city. My instant reaction was no way! I worked at startups. I liked to wear jeans to work. I was hesitant to respond but the recruiter was persistent and the job description seemed pretty interesting. The firm, Insight Venture Partners, was seeking a candidate to supercharge its portfolio marketing and operations as part of the post-investment Onsite team. I decided to take an interview and met with Hilary Gosher, the formidable managing partner. The rest is history. I knew I’d met someone amazing and took a leap of faith to join the team.

What was it about Insight that made you want to move from a successful startup career into venture?

Until that moment, I’d never had a strong female mentor. I’d had plenty of strong male mentors, who I’m very thankful for, but this was new and exciting territory for me. Hilary has been at Insight for 20 years on the growth team and is known for building Onsite, the portfolio operations team, from scratch. She created Onsite long before most VC/PE shops started noticing the importance of value-add services. Her experience and presence convinced me that I wanted to be part of this team. Working with someone like Hilary was an opportunity I could not miss and having access to strong leadership made me realise that I hadn’t really thought about my career critically until then.

For Negotiating the Terms, I’ve interviewed a number of Parity members. Can you tell me more about the organization and what led you to start the Parity chapter in London?

Parity Partners was started by Beth Haggerty, (former COO of Nielsen), Hilary Gosher, Caryn Effron (Senior Managing Director at Ackman-Ziff), and Claudia Iannazzo (co-founder of AlphaPrime Ventures). Parity’s initial goal was to correct the lack of women in the board room. However, it quickly became obvious that placing women in leadership roles was not enough - many women in finance and tech break into the industry, but the vast majority of us never make it past middle level management. To address this, Parity places a strong emphasis on content and tactical workshops. But what really differentiates the program is the P3 Pod system. We build a support system by placing women in an intimate group of 8 to 10 members who meet face-to-face on a monthly basis. The pods consist of mixed seniority and complementary industries. For example, my pod includes women across VC, early stage tech, late stage tech and legal firms. Members are sponsored by their employers and the program has a one-year commitment (to fight high drop-off rates that typically plague other mentorship programs). There are so many networking events for women in finance and PE/VC aimed at helping career growth, but few of them offer structured guidance on this journey. Parity addresses the entire trajectory of a woman’s career track - from piercing to growing and establishing yourself in finance and tech.

Parity is now 450 members strong across New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London. That’s a big part of the value add - getting access to members across the globe. We encourage members to do business with each other and to expand their personal networks. For example, when I now travel to the West Coast or NYC, I have a whole network of women in VC/Tech that I would otherwise not have access to.

When I moved to London, I was eager to stay involved in the program and quickly noticed there was a vacuum for this type of initiative in the local ecosystem. So, I reached out to the Parity team and we agreed to launch a prospective cohort in London. We had our first event in May of 2018 and much to our surprise, sold out the event and received a flood of applications for the program. We now have a local community of 60 and growing. There are so many ways that Parity has been an incredible community for me, but here’s one example: when I first joined Frontline we did not yet have a set maternity leave policy. As the first woman on the team to go on maternity leave, I volunteered to conduct some market research and submit a proposal to my team on our official policy; I then partnered up with two London based funds via Parity and together we collected solid data on what the industry offers and crafted policy proposals for our firms. My partners were extremely supportive and my proposal has now been adopted by Frontline as our official maternity policy.

Have you faced major challenges in VC as a female platform leader?

That is a very tricky question. Whilst I have - unfortunately - been in numerous inappropriate and uncomfortable situations throughout my career, I also feel like now is the best time to be a woman in venture. Obviously our industry is nowhere near respectable parity, but for the first time I think we are witnessing real engines for change versus just talking about the problem endlessly.

That said, it all starts with improving your own work environment and I am extremely fortunate to work with a supportive and forward-thinking team. Back in 2015, before diversity and inclusion issues were at the forefront of public discourse, Frontline's partners, William McQuillan, Will Prendergast and Shay Garvey wanted to track female-led deal flow. Unsurprisingly, traditional deal-flow tools were not built for diversity tracking at the time. They had to ask our provider, Sevanta, to custom build this feature.

Six months in, the team analysed our deal flow. It didn’t shock anyone that most founders were male (89%). They decided as a firm that it wasn’t good enough, and more importantly, that Frontline needed to critically think about how we present ourselves and how we conduct our deal-flow process if we were to make any real dent in these figures. The team embarked on a complete overhaul of the Frontline website and branding materials to weed out any subliminal messaging that might deter founders and candidates with diverse backgrounds from approaching us. They re-designed our internal hiring policies to ensure that 50% of all candidates in final rounds were of diverse backgrounds, updated job descriptions, and personally committed to speak on panels about improving diversity in VC. As a team, we have sponsored several female founder-focused incubators and events in Ireland and the UK. We actively encourage all of our founders to think about diversity from day one to weed out any potential roadblocks to attracting diverse talent for their teams. More recently, William McQuillan partnered up with Fearless Futures and Diversity VC to expand unconscious bias training to other senior partners in VC across London and Dublin.

We’ve seen some early indicators of success; Frontline’s female founder composition has increased from 11% to 25% since 2016.

So, when you ask about difficulties as a woman in VC, I think a lot of people will say that it's hard to get great female candidates because there aren’t enough in the ecosystem. We challenge that. Frontline is proving that if you’re willing to put in active effort over time, you should see changes in diversity numbers that trend in a positive direction.

Is that commitment to diversity why you joined Frontline Ventures?

Although I am very proud to work in a team that is committed to making actual change in my industry, what drew me to Frontline was its genuine commitment to my area of work, Platform. In the good old days, it used to be enough to be a venture capital firm with a strong portfolio (and a flashy partner or two) to attract the best founders. It’s not like that anymore. With an increasing number of seed and early stage firms in London and across the globe, VCs are realising they need to do something to differentiate themselves.

It was apparent to me at Insight that platform operations were a value-add service. But my experiences with European funds at the time showed me that the ecosystem was slightly behind the US in this regard. Many of my peers were still having to justify their existence and ROI to the partners they worked with. When my husband and I moved to London, my number one priority was finding a firm that understood the value and competitive advantage that a strong platform strategy can deliver. Frontline was the first fund in Europe to hire for Platform - my predecessor, Kim Pham, heralded the way for most of the EU ecosystem and Platform is a central component of the Frontline investment strategy. When we meet new entrepreneurs, we can confidently say that we are leaders in community, capital, and network services for early-stage B2B SaaS businesses via our Platform offering.

Frontline has really impressed me with its entrepreneur-focused content. In particular, I enjoyed the Series A board and US Playbook. What drives Frontline to create material like this and open it up beyond the portfolio/to others in the venture community?

Today, every fund has a content and events strategy. There’s lots of noise out there, but very little focus on actual value. We think of platform as a product and we are very critical about what we take on. We don’t want to be another fund that puts out blog posts for the sake of putting out blog posts; if we do something, it's because we believe that we are uniquely positioned to add value to our entrepreneurs and the VC ecosystem at large. I spend time talking to the platform’s end users - the founders - and figuring out their pain points. What keeps them up at night? When I design a platform service around their needs, I’m also thinking about how to scale and deploy.

Sometimes this manifests as a research playbook like our US Playbook (for going to market in North America) and Startup Hiring Playbook. We also host tactical workshops. These topics aren’t broad but curated CxO events to design a specific roadmap. I’ll get back in touch with them to support implementation and next steps. Platform, like product management, involves continuous iteration.

I know you were a competitive surfer some years ago! Have you continued that passion? Does it relate back to VC in any way?

My mother got me into surfing and then… regretted it. I grew up in the Portugese countryside by the beach. In my tweens, I was the only girl in the neighborhood and ended up playing a lot of video games. I think that worried her. She enrolled me in a surfing program when I was 12. I started going to a few classes after school, but it evolved into a bigger commitment when my coach enlisted me to join Portugal’s first competitive girls’ team. I traveled around Europe with this team until I was 19 and ranked number 4th in Europe. I had to stop because we were training 5-6 nights a week. I would come home at 11 PM in the summer and winter; sometimes it was so cold, my mother would actually feed me because I couldn’t move my hands. I had to make the choice between college and surfing. It was a passion and it shaped so much of who I am, but I didn’t see it as a career where I could make a sustainable living.

My husband is a New Yorker and played ice hockey all his life. He has so many nuts and bolts that we joke about him creaking when it rains. Whenever one of us is going through a hard time, we always remind each other that this is “peanuts”. We like to say that we’ve got a whole other gear within us. If someone dropped me in the ocean, I could tread water for a long time if needed to.

Sports has that ability to make you feel that way. You’re constantly out of your comfort zone. When I was surfing, the coaches would send us into the water knowing that the waves were too big. We couldn’t catch any - they intended for the waves to beat the life out of us so that we wouldn’t be scared to go in the next time. That mentality stays with you. It grounds me whenever I’m facing challenges at work or in my personal life.

What advice do you have for young women who want to enter VC - on the investing, operations, or platform side?

I always thought venture was daunting. People talked about cap tables and total addressable market size… things I didn’t know about. But to be successful at the early stage, it’s all about people. When Frontline makes a decision, we’re investing in founders, their vision, and what we believe they can accomplish.

That said, the majority of our deal-flow comes to us via our network of partners and VCs. Investing is a people sport - If you can forge strong relationships within the tech and venture community, you will get access to best deals in your ecosystem.

Another important quality is resilience. Will Prendergast wrote a blog post about venture as a game of rejection followed by failure. We see thousands of entrepreneurs every year. Of those, we roughly invest in 10. That’s one of the hardest things in venture capital: having to say no to people who are passionate and hardworking. Even then, of the 10 we invest in, many will not be as successful as hoped/planned. The odds are crazy. It’s tough because we develop close relationships with our founders and become emotionally attached to our teams. When it doesn’t work out, it’s not just the founder that’s heartbroken. You can’t take it personally. If you want to pursue a career in VC, you need to know and be comfortable with failing.