Katja Gagen on Creating Connection and the Evolution of VC Comms

Mixing Board member Katja Gagen leads marketing and communications activities at the venture capital and private equity firm TCV. Her experience includes managing brands for innovative leaders, companies, and organizations in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. She was previously at General Catalyst, Cisco, and several global private equity firms. Katja currently serves on the board of Playyon, a female-led online communications and commerce platform for amateur sport and recreation activities.

Here are excerpts from this Mixing Board Studio Session between Katja and Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett. They talk about the emerging trend of more vulnerability and collaboration in comms, how Covid taught us to throw out old playbooks and start with a clean slate, and how to keep community from just becoming a buzzword.

SG: I would love to hear your journey to TCV. You’re a former paramedic — does this early experience still shape your thinking?

KG: As a paramedic, you get thrown into triaging. You learn that the person who shouts the loudest isn’t the one who needs all the attention. It’s the ones who are very quiet. I grew up in Germany and worked for the Maltese Emergency Service as a paramedic during college. I did everything from going on weekend shifts to driving an ambulance. You start out very idealistic, thinking you’re going to swoop in and save lives, and everyone’s going to hug you and say how great this is. But it’s nothing like that.

In emergency situations like massive car collisions or motorcycle accidents, sometimes it’s too late for you to do something. You have to decide who gets attention, because we have three people here, and 10 are injured, so what are you going to do? It’s also about how to build trust quickly and devise a course of action when people are putting their lives into your hands. These experiences prepared me for venture capital and private equity, because I never lose my cool. You can throw things at me and I’m still thinking, okay, what’s the most important thing here that I need to focus on?

So how did I get here? I studied political science, international relations, economics, and languages, and I’ve always had an interest in storytelling — providing context or connecting the dots. I began freelancing for a few publications and worked in the press office at Sotheby’s and local foundations as a student. But when venture capital popped up, I thought, this sounds really interesting. I applied and got into a firm that funded companies that eventually went public. It was a fast paced environment where everything changes and the technology keeps evolving. I really wanted to be part of that.

SG: From there you were in NYC for a bit, And then you eventually came to Silicon Valley where you worked in marketing and communications at Cisco, General Catalyst, and TCV. Tell me about your role at TCV, and how it may be different or similar to other marketing partner roles at venture firms?

KG: I’ve been fortunate to start functions at some firms, including General Catalyst and also at TCV. I loved my time at General Catalyst. When TCV was looking for someone with an international background, we started talking, and I liked the firm’s crossover approach. TCV takes a long-term perspective so that an IPO is a financing event, not an exit. TCV first invested in Netflix in 1999 and is still on the board today. I liked the idea of sticking with a company for a long time, and then being able to establish a marketing function and a brand.

When I joined TCV, I did all the things that you would do to build a brand foundation. The website needed updating and we wanted a shared narrative. We went through an exercise of defining who we are, what we do, how we do it, why we do it, for whom we do it, and be clear about it. It’s hard to be differentiated in our industry because we all have brains and money. Our websites are similar so we had to go deeper into, okay, so who are we? Why does it matter? To whom does it matter? From there, we established the brand foundation that was reflected in the website and all the materials that we created.

On the media side, you’ve got to get people warmed up to what it’s like to build relationships with reporters. It’s not transactional. The same is true for working with entrepreneurs. It’s not like a first meeting leads to a term sheet and close. You have to work with people.

When I first started at TCV, the question I was asked first often was, “Do we all have to tweet now?” which made me laugh. I’m not the chief tweeting officer! Yet if this channel attracts a lot of the people we want to get close to, then I want everyone to have a conversation. In our case, since we are doing mostly growth stage investments with companies that are post product market fit, they’re probably on Twitter and even more active on LinkedIn or other channels. How can we engage with them in a way that feels organic versus transactional? How can we add value, so they see us as not just the money giver, but as a partner?

SG: How do you think, at a meta level, VC/growth equity marketing and communications has evolved in the last decade? It felt like so many of these organizations brought on marketing/communications people, but really weren’t sure why. Now with those people on board, hopefully things have gotten a bit more sophisticated, but what have we learned from that evolution?

KG: In the beginning, it was a bit more of an educational or mindset shift. People made those early hires mostly out of necessity. At first the thinking was, if we do good deals, that will take care of the marketing. But that only works if there’s little competition, and you have such a strong stronghold in the market that nobody is biting at your ankles and trying to take your place.

Marketing is both strategic and focused on execution. This is not just throwing a menu of marketing activities out there and hiring someone to execute on it. Instead, how do you go about building platform topics, building a program around a network of companies, or C-level executives? How do you think about thematic investing or thought leadership in a way that appeals to your audiences?

Marketing should have a seat at the table in a strategic way, but also, we all execute like machines. That’s what we are good at. The lesson learned is that you have to be able to go at it from different angles, and be consistent, and be creative. Everyone now has a podcast and a blog. But again, what are you solving for? How does this help you achieve that goal? Whether it’s in a quantitative or qualitative way, your marketing activities should tie to something that speaks to sourcing, reaching prospects, closing deals, and winning deals. Or in the post close, how do you build a community of portfolio companies that can add value to each other? With you being the orchestrator or facilitator of that, but not the one that is the bottleneck that holds all the strings.

SG: You have talked about how marketing buzzwords in the past have been around customer, competition, cost, but now they are around connection, curiosity and creativity. But for most venture capital firms “connection, curiosity and creativity” are not typical values you hear from them. These are more emotive terms that you’re using that feel very different.

KG: If Covid has shown us one thing, it’s that people are craving connections and context in addition to funding. There’s so much happening across industries, everything is accelerating. If you can’t connect the dots or provide some context, it’s really hard. These are things I care deeply about.

In parallel, Covid required many of us to live without things like events, so we had to respond. In our case, we hosted a lot of roundtables and found that people were looking for new ways of thinking about their roles. They were looking to talk to someone who had been in their shoes and had dealt with a similar situation, so they didn’t feel isolated with their problems. People want to connect and share ideas.

The role of the marketer will also continue to evolve. It used to be mostly PR in the beginning. We’ll see a shift to more of an equal balance, because people don’t just want support on the PR front, they want marketing support. We need to evolve to do that; a lot of marketers, including myself, started out in comms and storytelling, which is still near and dear to my heart but I’m also rounding out my experience, because a lot of the companies are looking for marketing support. I’m currently involved in an MBA, and I’m really stretching myself to dive deeper into finance, statistics, and digital marketing and the various tools out in the market on the analytical side. As marketers, we all need to evolve.

SG: One day, we can have German beers talking about this subject. The people who can only live in a single box will die out. I view comms more expansively. It fits storytelling into a more broadly written positioning and then it’s about being able to bring that to life, whether that’s through paid advertisements, etc. It’s one thing to me.

Community is obviously near and dear to Mixing Board’s heart. Why do you think that the connection and the magic you can get from community is something that’s going to last? How do you foster community building?

KG: Covid required many of us to throw out our playbooks because whatever you’ve carefully crafted was going out the window. In-person events didn’t happen, so we had to respond. We hosted a lot of roundtables and found that people were looking for new ways of thinking about our roles. They were looking to connect with someone who’s been in their shoes, whether it’s about dealing with reporters, responding to a crisis or aligning sales and marketing. People wanted to connect and share ideas.

We are also bringing together a lot of people who are experienced, and that’s because TCV has been around for 27 years. We always press our speakers to share stories and to share insights that you can’t just search on the web. We had a recent webinar with Karen Tillman who is now at Brex and previously led a rebranding at GoDaddy, and she shared learnings and best practices from these experiences. Our roundtables aim to provide content you can’t find online since they are based on hard work and learnings.

I’m also going to say that we’re seeing companies make really big strides on diversity. And this is coming from within; people want to see more diversity. People also want to see more openness and vulnerability. They don’t want to feel like they’re being sold to all the time, or fed some canned messages. We’re taking a deeper look into what’s driving us beyond generating returns, and what we are here for.

SG: Are these lessons applied in your portfolio companies? Some of these companies have been around for a long time. Are they approaching the way they do marketing and communications with some level of vulnerability and a sense of community? How are they changing in how they do things?

KG: Every company is going through a transformational evolution. That has inspired some rethinking of how we do marketing. What are some of the checks and balances we need to have in place before we put something out? It used to be way more results, or in some cases — activity focused. But now we stop and think, what are the unintended consequences? I have way more conversations now about unintended consequences instead of a narrow focus on getting a campaign done because we need to show some activity to the sales reps.

SG: One of the key roles that the comms person has, broadly speaking, is helping articulate who you are and why. When you go through this natural generational transfer, there’s a connective tissue between the best of where you’ve been and the best of where you can go.

KG: It’s not easy to be differentiated. Everyone has their nuggets, whether that’s your stellar board members, or what have you. But what does it actually mean? You need to dig deep to define that. For TCV, our crossover focus is key. You must have seen a lot of the same, in your work, when it comes to positioning. What is this nugget or the things that you can actually attribute to someone? And back it up with some real stories or evidence? It’s not an easy exercise.

SG: It’s not at all. I’ve probably worked with maybe a dozen VC firms now. Every single one of them, you walk into it, and you’re like, well the color of money is green. And then you dig in and try to find something. Some of those things you find are more interesting than others. But generally, there is usually something that is different. The question becomes, how relevant is that difference?

In some cases, it’s not that interesting. And you have to be okay with that. Then you really have to think about how can we do this in a way that really expresses the best of who we are? When it comes to VC marketing, when you’re talking about doing it for the firm and not for the portfolio, you’re trying to portray a true perspective on what these individual partners are like — when they’re in the boardroom and when they’re working directly with you. If they’re an asshole or they’re super hardcore… some founders may be into that and so that should be their whole vibe externally. If they’re really calm, collected, have a lot of context, then that should be their thing. If they’re super into data and metrics, they should be the data/metrics firm in how they communicate. There shouldn’t be surprises between the public perception and their actual self. That’s where most VC firms run into trouble is when those surprises occur, and there’s an expectation mismatch.

KG: You’re speaking from the heart, I couldn’t have said it better. I use this example sometimes — everyone wants Steve Jobs in their portfolio. But what if Steve Jobs actually walked in and wanted to know what you can do for him? Would you be on board with his vision or not? You have to see what you can offer, what you want, and who you invite into the conversation. Are you willing to engage in healthy debate that leads to a good outcome?

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Previous Mixing Board Studio Sessions are here.

For more on Mixing Board and how the community can support organizations, see this recent post.

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