Stephanie Manning is the Director of Platform at Lerer Hippeau, an early-stage venture capital firm based in New York City. Prior to Lerer Hippeau, she worked at Work-Bench and AppNexus.
What attracted you to venture capital and working with startups?
I went to Colgate University where I studied political science. At a liberal arts school, I didn’t have a business specific major. So when it came to finding a job after graduation, I interviewed for roles in everything from consulting to marketing. One of the positions I came across was a campus recruiter role at AppNexus, a software platform for programmatic advertising that was recently acquired by AT&T for $1.6 billion.
AppNexus had this air of intellectual curiosity when I interviewed on-site. With only 250 employees, I saw an opportunity for dynamic growth and collaboration. I decided that going to a startup would be more exciting and challenging than more traditional career paths. I was at AppNexus for 2.5 years, focusing on hiring technical and non-technical college students. It was a great learning experience to see AppNexus through multiple stages of growth from a large startup to mid-size business with 1,000 employees. You tackle many different challenges when a company is growing that rapidly.
After a few years, I wanted to try something new. When I was looking for my next role, I knew I wanted to join a company in NYC that had a similar learning curve as that of AppNexus. I also knew I wanted to stay in the startup ecosystem. That’s when I learned about Work-Bench, a venture capital firm and community for enterprise tech. Work-Bench’s Community Associate role was a pivot from recruiting, but was built on a similar foundation. I was in the role for a year and a half working on all things community, events, and standing up their talent function. In the spring of 2017, I joined Lerer Hippeau as the Director of Platform.
What I love about venture is working with founders who have the same air of intellectual curiosity that I found at AppNexus. Each founder and team I work with is dynamic, hungry, and working on really interesting things across enterprise software, consumer tech, digital media, and more. As industries keep evolving, I am constantly learning what it takes to build a successful business and all the things founders need to do across talent, marketing, and operations to get from the Seed to the Series A.
What brought you to Lerer Hippeau?
The team reached out to me. I knew a few people who worked at the firm; the New York venture community is pretty tight knight. LH has a reputation for being one of the best early-stage investors in NYC with investments in all categories. Throughout the interview process, I knew it was a great opportunity for me.
I loved my experience at Work-Bench and have nothing but amazing things to say about co-founders Jess Lin and Jonathan Lehr, and the community they’re building around enterprise tech. When I looked at my career trajectory, I knew I wanted to gain exposure beyond enterprise, and, LH, given the breadth of its portfolio, would allow me to support startups across the all categories. That category diversity was really the impetus to shift.
We have a great Q&A with Jess! She emphasized Work-Bench’s commitment to community. Is that a shared value with Lerer Hippeau?
Absolutely, though both firms focus on community in different ways. Work-Bench’s community is centered on enterprise tech, and they have done an amazing job creating a nexus for startups, corporations, and investors. Work-Bench is a co-working space where they host regular Enterprise Tech-focused events. They share their space with their portfolio and other enterprise companies, enabling cross-pollination as well.
Community takes on a different meaning at a place like LH because we’re invested in hundreds of startups across the country. We truly have power in our numbers. We’ve taken the approach that other founders and teams in our portfolio are often very helpful for answering and triaging challenges. For example, if a seed-stage B2C company wants to learn more about customer acquisition cost (CAC), we can connect them to a Series B startup that has a robust CAC toolkit. We also host tons of social and educational events throughout the year for founders and their functional leaders to learn and share knowledge. Forming a true, authentic community among our portfolio companies is a very valuable asset especially at scale.
How would you describe platform operations?
It widely varies by firm. I describe platform operations as post-investment support and services for portfolio companies. Some platform teams only focus on talent and events. Others just support business development and customer acquisition. A lot of small firms don’t have platform teams, but we’re now seeing platform shift from a nice-to-have to a must-have. There are countless VC firms; capital has become a commodity that founders can get anywhere. You have to offer much more than money to set your firm apart.
LH focuses on investing in seed stage companies. We’re often the first institutional check a founder receives, so our services tend to focus at that early stage. My team helps with community events, hiring and retaining talent, prospecting partnerships with large tech companies like Snapchat and Google, and helping our founders with their launch and fundraising announcements. We’ve specifically designed our platform services to scale as a company grows.
I like to call myself and the platform team “dot connectors.” As a founder, you may have a question for me, and my job is to build relationships with people who have the answer. Are you raising venture debt? We know people at Silicon Valley Bank. Do you need a CFO? Here’s Nomad Financial and Propeller, two businesses that offer interim accounting and financial services. We build relationships with vendors and consultants in the broader ecosystem that startups will eventually need to know.
You recently attended the 2018 VC Platform Summit. Did the event underscore certain best practices and did you identify things that LH is doing differently than other firms?
I remember when I was at Work-Bench and New York platform meetups would just be 10-15 people getting drinks at a bar. Then we had a summit with 30 people, and this year’s event crossed 100 platform operators! The event covered everything from tools to talent strategies. The biggest takeaway was that everyone is working on cool things, but the ultimate focus is on serving the portfolio. Every service needs to tie back to that mission.
A highlight of the summit was during a session with founders who had worked with multiple VC platforms. One of our founders gave a shout out to LH’s Founder Forum, a Google group for founders. It’s an invaluable resource to share best practices and ask questions. Our founders know that they can email the group and receive a ton of valuable responses without added digging and due diligence. It really warmed my heart to hear that our community is considered a standout resource.
Is Lerer Hippeau looking at platform services that help executives and teams beyond the founder?
We are starting to test how can we service the rest of the C-suite, including CFOs, COOs, and CMOs. We know that founders are inundated with events and resources. And that’s a good thing because they regularly tap those reserves. But what they also need is help for the their functional leaders.
We recently hosted events for talent and marketing leaders. We’re also kicking off a quarterly breakfast for CTOs, bringing these tech leaders together to talk about anything from infrastructure to hiring and scaling dev teams. We know there’s a need and we’re assessing what platform services will best support these executives.
Lerer Hippeau has more female investors and operators than a typical VC firm, including recent hires like Amanda Mulay, Caitlin Strandberg, and Isabelle Phelps. How is your firm thinking about diversity?
Overall, we value diversity because it enables the best decision-making. Studies show that diverse teams outperform homogeneous ones, so we value all types of diversity. Our team is over 50% female and we have three generations of investors and operators. Folks on the team have backgrounds in various industries such as traditional media, startups, and finance. We have purposefully structured ways to encourage diverse input. For example, the entire team participates in pipeline and partner meetings and can contribute to investment decisions.
While our team is 50% female, our industry has more work to do. Women still only receive 2% of VC money and only about 8% of partners at VC firms are female. The stats are even lower for women of color. But we’re seeing change start to happen. These kinds of troubling statistics have driven amazing initiatives like AllRaise, a new nonprofit organization behind efforts like Female Founder Office Hours (FFOH) and Founders for Change. Along with other NYC VCs, Lerer Hippeau spearheaded NYCBlend to promote diversity and inclusion at VCs and startups. We’re definitely taking steps in the right direction.
Have you faced any major challenges in the space?
I’ve been really lucky to work at two firms that value platform as an investment strategy. Though sometimes people view a platform leader as “just the events” team - what we do is so much more. We’re responsible for a majority of the post-investment support & services our founders receive. Educating people about my role and the importance of platform has occasionally been an obstacle.
One challenge that I’ve faced in my career is overthinking things and being too hard on myself. I think this tendency has to do with the confidence gap that many women in mostly-male industries fall victim to. If you make a mistake at work or get constructive feedback, take it as a learning opportunity, move on and keep doing great work. As you grow in your career and perform well at work, I think the confidence gap closes. But I do think women, more so than men, can overthink the negatives and not give enough credit to all the positives.
It’s helpful to remind yourself (in your head or even out loud): “I’m qualified to be in this role and I got this.”
Any advice for young women who want to enter venture capital - on the investing, operations, or platform side?
You have to know why you want to work in venture. When you’re ready to do coffee chats, reach out to VCs who align with your interests. You can start with people in your network: past companies, your alma mater, etc. LinkedIn is a great tool for seeing where people work and how you’re connected with them.
If you’re interested in the investing or platform side, New York has lots of events to learn more about venture capital. For example, I’m speaking at an IBM Tech Talk on August 21st on ways VCs add value beyond capital. Attending these types of events is a great way to educate yourself and network with folks in the industry. Twitter is the place to find out about these events. Start following investors or funds you’re interested in and see which events they’re promoting and attending.
One important thing to note is that it’s all about timing, so be patient! Venture firms don’t scale the way startups do. We don’t hire hundreds of people a year. Hiring usually happens when a firm recently raises a new fund and has more capital to invest in the team or when a fund needs to backfill.
Lastly, if a VC role isn’t lining up immediately, joining a startup is a great way to set yourself up to join a VC later. Lerer Hippeau helps place candidates at our 250+ portfolio companies through our TalentTracker and via open roles in the portfolio on our job board.