In my next installment of How Did You Get Here, I spoke with Gautham Sivaramakrishnan who leads Market Networks at Blume Ventures. Gautham focuses on adding value to our companies by leveraging strategic partnerships, revenue channels, growth drivers, and financial services. All of this is part of an evolution in how we look at working with the companies we invest in and being by their side. Gautham recounts his journey and how he believes his DNA matched what Venture Capital as an industry was looking for, and how it was an even better fit at Blume.
(Bonus - look for his unique formula of what helps a finance professional transition successfully into such a role - it’s not quite that simple!)
Gautham, thanks so much for doing this. Really happy to have a chance to sit down and talk to you and peel back the layers on what I think is another super critical part of what Blume does in the ecosystem as a venture capital fund, our platform side. You work in the Market Networks function and this function has gone through a lot of evolutions, both for Blume and since you've also taken it on. So a lot of what we cover today will be shining a spotlight on what it is that you do, both for Blume and our founders. And I think more importantly, how did you get here? What was your journey? What were the steps that you took to get here? What were the decisions that you made that helped you in this process so that other folks can have that in the back of their mind if they're considering a career VC? I would love for you to start a little bit with where your career began. What sort of things did you do? What was interesting to you, what did you follow, and what did you say no to?
Thanks, Ria. Folks always think about investments when they think of VCs and I think it’s a great opportunity to share through this conversation what it’s like to be driving one of the most satisfying, fun & fast-moving functions in a fund that’s not core investments.
Looking back on the past 15 years of my career, I am actually amazed at how far I have come. When I first embarked on this journey, my ambition was to become a CFO by the age of 35. However, fate had other plans, and I found myself venturing into a completely different realm as a part of the Venture Capital world.
I grew up in Chennai and as someone always interested in Math, Economics & Patterns, decided to pursue my CA, which opened doors for me at Deloitte and try my hands at their Audit & Assurance function. Starting your career in a Big 4 in your early 20s shapes you well, for the larger enterprise world.
Four years into the role, I decided to switch to the other side and join Infosys in their Business Finance function, allowing me to work closely with the leadership. It truly allowed me to understand the impact finance professionals can make on the growth of any business by leveraging one’s analytical and strategic skills. As a pricing professional, balancing the aspirations of the Sales function and the expectations of the Finance function can be challenging but crucial for the success of a business. It gives you a bird’s eye view as a young hungry professional to the most strategic elements of any business.
One of the best experiences in that role, was infact the last deal that I had worked on, which was a $Billion RFP, driving digital transformation for a Fortune 500, at a scale never imagined. This is where I hit my peak love for solutioning.
During this time, Infosys was also actively beginning to invest and collaborate with early stage startups, through the Infosys Innovation Fund (IIF). One random conversation with Deepak Padaki (Head of Strategy, M&A and the IIF) & Anantha Radhakrishnan, CEO, Infosys BPM on how Infosys could co-build & co-sell with startups effectively, led to a big move from my Business Finance role to a new Digital Business team, with the responsibility to chart the strategy for the org on collaborating, co-building & co-selling with startups, augmenting its capabilities while servicing its customers.
This big switch helped me dive deeper into the world of Open Innovation and practice it zero to one, at a large tech major. Post Infosys, I had a short but memorable journey with Microsoft, building its VC partnerships and enabling growth stage startups to integrate, co-build & co-sell across the Microsoft universe.
These two stints allowed me at great depth to experience what it takes for an enterprise to be able to accept a startup into its fold to co-build, co-sell or be its customer. This groomed me for what’s probably the biggest move of my career - driving Market Networks, Platforms for Blume, getting to work with startups on their readiness to build with industry partners or sell to them or sell through them to their customers.
With founders at an event in Delhi, Dec 2022
I'll just jump in here. Having started on a slightly traditional path, so to say, what sort of values did you hold close to you at that point? Were there certain moments where you felt that your purpose was changing? Like you said you started off aspiring to be a CFO and then started getting exposed to many other options out there. So how do you feel the journey of your values and your guiding principles changed as you started making these decisions?
I’ve had a lot to learn from the leaders I’ve worked with at every org in the last decade - be it Deloitte, Infosys, Microsoft or Blume. I guess I realised that we are who we stick around. A large part of one’s 20s and early 30s are all about the orgs you get to work with and the managers you get to spend most of your week under. Their influence can inspire us to make healthy choices, build a strong foundation and set audacious goals ahead.
In the initial years after my CA, finance & taxation were my biggest areas of interest and naturally the aspiration to build a career path towards becoming a CFO. My love for business finance and solutioning grew with my time at Infosys where I was fortunate to work closely with the leadership on Pricing & Pre-Sales of large deals. Another org that I’ve spent a large part of the last decade was Headstart Network, a nonprofit volunteer-driven community of founders and enablers, paying it forward to support early-stage founders, since 2008. This was where I picked my obsession for startups and to be around founders almost every single weekend, for years.
Connecting these dots, I’d say it led to the right elements required for a Platforms professional in a VC firm. Strong foundation in finance, love for solutioning & sales, coupled with an ever-increasing obsession to help startups win. I truly believe that an attitude of giving first and a penchant to keep learning from those around, can help you stay nimble and keep evolving as a professional. This has helped me evolve as a person and as a professional over the last decade, utilizing the right mix of all my past roles for what’s in store ahead as we scale the Platforms function at Blume.
I think that’s an interesting formula that you've come up with, which I haven't seen in a lot of places and may be relevant to a lot of people who are interested in coming to VC. A lot of people do have business finance experience and say they're interested in startups, but just those two alone normally don't cut it enough. Obviously, the pre-sales, the solutioning bit changes you into a very customer success mindset, which I think is important. But I'd love to hear a little bit more about your time at Headstart. It's been a significant part of your life and what exposed you to what's out there. It has also put you in very different positions of creating a community, creating an ecosystem sort of, and generating results. I think that's the interesting part that's come out of it. So we'd love to understand what were some of the highs and lows of the Headstart journey. What were some moments where you were super proud, some moments where it didn't work out, where you felt like you failed? And what were some of the hard questions you were asking yourself while all of this was going on?
With the Blume team, Bangalore, Oct 2022
Headstart has had a very large role to play in shaping who I am today. So the missing piece of the puzzle has always been, where is the startup ecosystem experience or where did startups come into the picture, in my career ?
Headstart was started by a bunch of ambitious folks from the startup ecosystem with a simple intent to create a volunteer-driven platform to bridge early-stage founders who needed support, with founders & operators who were looking to pay it forward. You don't necessarily have to expect an outcome out of it immediately. It’s just about being there and building meaningful relationships and learning from each other and strengthening your network. One of the things I took from there is that great people want growth, freedom, and a strong sense of purpose.
I think that's also what made my role a lot of fun at Blume as well. The fact that there's been growth, freedom, and a strong sense of purpose in what we need to do as Platforms at Blume.
I have an interesting question. Do you feel like there were any personal moments or experiences when you were growing up that brought about this thought and this value in you? Because this thought of giving back does come from having seen it firsthand. I know I have a lot of memories, specific ones that I can point to that I know changed me, but if you just think for a second, this sense of giving back or paying it forward - was there anything that happened or when you were younger from your family, the things you grew up around that you feel like sparked that thought in you?
I’ve never had a chance to take a moment to pause and look back at this but I think my parents have had a huge role to play at every stage of my life. I grew up in Chennai and a large part of my first couple of decades have been about modelling myself around my father, who was a big inspiration. He was someone who had a big heart and always put others' causes ahead of his own. This coupled with the interest for sports & eventually doing my CA, was all in a way subconsciously trying to replicate his journey. I am glad all this at some point led me to discover Blume and the people who do the real work.
A lot of times life works where you don't expect outcomes, but you want to be in a place just because you enjoy being there. I think that's worked for me most of the time.
The focus always was, how can I do more, how can I add value. That’s why it's so great that the role I’m in at Blume is nothing but just that. It's a single-line JD that says, “Just keep adding value to founders and ensure that they win”.
So let's segue into that. I think the one part of what I wanted to talk about was how did things come about for you to consider a shift to Blume? I'd love to understand where were you in your career when you saw the opportunity that was at Blume, what did you first think it was? Because I know we've had a challenge describing this role internally and externally. So what did you think the role was as you went through the interview process? What came out to you and how do you feel the role has evolved in the year and a half that you've been here?
I have known Blume for over a decade and its leaders were one of the most respected in the ecosystem, for building a founder-first fund.
When I first heard about Blume’s intention to reimagine its Platforms function and hire for their Market Networks role, it definitely was an opportunity that I didn’t want to miss. Coincidentally, three Blume team members reached out on the same day saying this could be a role that’s designed for someone like me. I was also warned that Blume never hires people for pre-defined roles, but Blume “dates” people first to see if there’s a broader alignment with the overall vision and then carves a role to suit the ambition and capabilities of the person they decide to bring onboard. Bizarre as it may sound, this is what I think differentiates Blume from the hundreds of other orgs out there in the ecosystem, in the journey to build an institution with a strong culture.
It was clear that the expectation was to help reimagine the Platforms function and look into the next decade of supporting Blume’s portfolio companies across their growth needs. The early stage founders are always hungry to grow and if all possible support in that important phase is extended by its own investor, it’s the most trustworthy support you can have.
It was clear that the potential of the Platform role was boundless, I just had to make sure I had the ambition to be along for the ride.
With founders, ecosystem and Tim Draper - Bangalore, 2022
So a lot of VCs have different structures, the investment team is broadly the standard, but if you go over and above the investment team, Blume has built out a platform, we have specific functions, and not everyone has taken the same approach. People have different ways to do something like this. How has it been to explain what you do at home to people you meet? It's not a cookie-cutter role. There are some things that you can pick up. There are some things that you know it's going to take time, but what is something you didn't expect? What is something that people don't realise goes into this role?
The role keeps evolving and this is not just for Blume. I think the VC Platform function across the world is something that's constantly evolving because we as platform professionals are obsessed with adding value across different areas for our startups and hence we are continuously discovering ways in which we can keep adding value to our fast-growing portfolio of startups. Globally, one in every eight team members at a VC firm, focus completely on Platform. This ratio has improved in the last decade and I’m sure will get even better in the upcoming years, as startups realize capital is a commodity and they need funds that add value across functions beyond capital.
Though the typical JD of a platform professional is still loosely defined the world over, I think my family took less time than I had imagined to figure out what my journey at Blume would look like.
My wife, in her typical style said “Looks like you’ve found your Ikigai. You're passionate about building relationships & communities, you're obsessed with making founders win and you're finally getting to use your CA, Business Finance and pre-sales skills."
Quite simply put, I found somewhere that was ready to pay me for what I loved to do!
What are some successes that you're most proud of over the last year and a half with Blume? Some areas where you feel like you really cracked it. How do you feel you've grown as you started this role over here with us?
Platform first approach has always been in the DNA of the leadership at Blume for a decade. This was seen as early as the days we seeded Constellation Blu & MetaMorph, to support financial advisory & talent needs. Our efforts on Community & Capital markets are mature and very well appreciated. The Marketing team at Blume has ensured that we are seen as a fund that churns out amazing content, most relevant to the startup ecosystem.
With the Market Networks function, the idea was to deepen our existing industry partnerships to help our startups across business development & growth, access to debt, bring in exclusive access to partner programs or deals that help reduce costs.
With an ever-growing appetite for debt across our portfolio, we started spending more focused effort on working with our BFSI partners in curating products that were tweaked to suit our portfolio’s needs and evolving business models. It was very important to work closely through the entire process of awareness, readiness, structuring, origination, sanction & monitoring to ensure that there was better comfort for our startups as well as the partners we work closely with.
Likewise, the task at hand was very clear when it comes to supporting your startups on the Business Development front. Build the right partnerships with decision-makers across enterprises to help your companies with warm intros periodically. This drastically brings down their sales cycle or increases the chances of conversations to conversion ratio. In B2C, it’s always about working with the right partners as a fund that can help cohorts of similar startups with access to newer channels to acquire customers, potentially at lower CACs.
While the above sounds simple, this requires folks to fully focus on this as a part of the Platform function. One needs to keep identifying strategies to attract & engage both partners & portfolio companies to create a virtuous cycle of growth & success. The value & impact of the Platform function increases with more active partners & portfolio companies. It’s your responsibility to ensure high integrity & reliability on both sets of stakeholders.
We have definitely invested a lot into nurturing and building strong industry partnerships, especially with BFSI and Tech majors. We believe that these are strategic partnerships where you need to keep giving as a team, without expecting transactional returns and build for the long term. The power of compounding is real, especially in everything Biz Dev or Debt. and we’ve started seeing the results bloom!
I have two last questions, stepping back a little into big picture. One is, how do you balance the needs of the org Blume and the needs of the founders? Do you sometimes feel like they are in conflict or do you feel like addressing the founder's needs automatically is a win for Blume? And I asked that in context of the fact that venture capital firms are much more decentralised than traditional organisations. Even if you were in a place like Infosys, there is one decision maker, there is one mandate that comes down that this is what we're going to do. Venture capital firms have multiple partners, people looking at different sectors. You are servicing all of them as an org resource. Where have you felt the conflicts or the tension come in a little bit in terms of being pulled in different directions?
It’s important to understand that while VC funds have verticalized investment teams with specialists who are the best in their respective sectors, the platform function cuts across them as a horizontal, looking to serve all portfolio companies across investment teams, be it Talent, Capital Markets, Community or Market Networks.
All founders are equally important, there’s never one more important than the other.
With the team and founders, Delhi 2022
Given that bandwidth is limited, you will have to pick your battles and work closely with the Investment team to understand which companies need your support and where we can move the needle tangibly, with our efforts. End of the day, it’s very important to measure, record and communicate the efforts and the outcomes to the Investment leads, as a Platform function. Keep an eye on the value you think you add versus the perceived value. As long as the delta isn’t significant, you’re doing something right. There will always be occasions when you might have to focus on one cohort of startups over others, either due to lack of bandwidth or the inability to move the needle significantly at that given point of time. It’s very important to communicate this promptly and effectively to both the investment leads as well as the portfolio companies.
End of the day, what doesn’t change is the fact that you remain that extended invisible team member to the founders and CXOs of your portfolio companies, helping them crack strategic partnerships, deals, investments, hire or learn - make them win across all possible functions and equally celebrate every bit of their success. Investment & Platform functions work hand-in-hand and obsess over seeing the fund & its portfolio succeed. The ability to network shamelessly, build meaningful relationships, communicate effectively & diplomatically while being extra empathetic towards your portfolio founders become the key virtues of every aspiring Platform professional.
What has made the platform team at Blume stand out is its hunger to go deep and see transactions through, end to end on a lot of areas, be it hiring, biz dev, access to equity or debt capital, learning efforts. More importantly, teams within Platform work as one, understanding the thin line that separates each while focusing on the common goal of making the founders win.
Super. So for my last question, which is a little more candid. There's massive interest right now from people to work in venture capital. We are very fortunate for the brand that we've built and the number of inbounds that we get. I think there are still sometimes mismatched expectations and what people think venture capital is versus what it really is. And I'd love for you to share because I think it's really helpful for job seekers to have that framework for themselves even before they're considering a role so they can self-select into it. We talk about hiring for culture, but I think sometimes there's a little more over and above that in hiring for the kind of people that we want to bring into a VC firm.
So I'd love your thoughts on what is the DNA of someone who will succeed in Venture Capital? What are you giving up if you work in venture and what are you gaining? I'd love a very bottoms-up approach because a lot of it also has to do with certain mindsets, certain expectations of what you're going to get out of this. Today, we are competing with a rapidly increasing, high-valuation startup ecosystem and people sometimes look at all jobs in a very similar light. So what should people know about working in VC before they consider it?
When we speak about VC, investment roles come to our mind first, and That's the core function of any VC firm. I think here's an opportunity for us to share with the ecosystem that the platforms function is fast growing as a focused initiative instead of what was also done by the investment team. It's a great opportunity for many to explore a career in. A lot of funds are making their initial moves towards having a focused platform function, and the need for a focused platform function is very clear and respected.
You need to understand how a fund works and what success for a fund would mean. It’s also important to understand that the two most important stakeholders for every fund are its portfolio founders & LPs.
It’s a great place for someone looking to build a long-term career. You get a ring-side view to the evolving businesses that you invest in and get to grow into being an extended chief of staff for all your portfolio founders, if you’re obsessed about adding value to them and seeing them win across needs that you can cater to.
While there’s no template for a great platform professional, you must be ready to work across teams, build & maintain meaningful relationships, look for every opportunity to keep giving whether its founders or partners, passion to see startups win, ability to soak in the pressure as there’s always fire (in one of the houses). Don’t shy away from people - you’ll always overdose on people internally and externally. Not all conversations & relationships are transactional and lead to an immediate outcome. Think of yourself harvesting the fruits of relationships - we sow seeds of different kind. Some grow to bear fruits in a 3 month cycle, some take 3 years and beyond.
In my case, I think the experience of Finance + Pre-Sales + Community could be what’s helping me ease into a stronger & bigger Market Networks, Platform function for Blume.
Yeah, I think that measurement bit has become even more important right now because everyone is also getting on board with this. People are talking about we add additional value as an investor. It's not just about making intros anymore, it is about what are those intros leading to. And when you have a hundred-plus startups, I can imagine the pressure on that to track it. I think that also just shows an evolution of where the Platform and Market Networks have come to, right? We started from intros, we started from connections, and we are moving into very tactical outcomes that we are also looking for. It's just one sign of how both we as a fund are evolving, how the market is evolving, how the industry and the roles are also maturing.
That's a great point to end on. Gautham, thank you so much for this. I think it was probably the first time you've talked so much about market networks, but it's been great to capture your thoughts, how your journey has evolved, how Blume has evolved with this, and how we continue to look at adding value to founders. I hope this was fun for you all. What we've hopefully tried to do with this is demystify another aspect of working in venture capital and give people ideas on how they can take this up as their career journey and what to keep in mind as they go forward in that. So thank you so much for this.
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