Here at 4Degrees we’re setting out to learn how the best VCs in the world go about building their strongest assets: their professional networks. For the fourth part in a series of interviews, we sat down with Kelley Mak of Work-Bench. Also check out our previous conversations with Devin Leichtman, Keji Mustapha, and Lindsay Knight.
Work-Bench is a bit different than other VC firms — they consider each team member to be “non-traditional”, starting with the founders, who came from Morgan Stanley IT and Cisco. Looking at the VC industry from the outside, they felt that there was too much fascination with cool technology and not enough thinking about the real problems that needed solving in the world. So they set out to do what they knew best: finding pressing problems in the enterprise world that could be solved by software.
This approach drove much of the firm’s early activities. It focused on building out a real (physical) community of corporations and technologists that could exchange ideas and find issues to tackle. They built out a community space and committed to hosting 200+ events each year. Essentially, they created a center of gravity in New York City where corporations knew to come with their problems and technologists knew to come in search of problems to solve.
Their focus on corporate partnership is what really sets Work-Bench apart, and no one in the firm spends more time on it than Kelley Mak. His work consists of a continuous stream of 1-on-1 meetings, workshops, round-tables, and executive briefings all focused on bringing large corporations into the Work-Bench ecosystem and learning about their problems.
For the corporations’ part, they’re getting direct access to the pulse of the technology community — finding out what companies are solving what problems and which technologies are promising versus which ones are just tech journalism hype. Whether they have a specific question or are looking to gather knowledge around a general topic, Kelley is an easy first call for them to learn and get access to the people who can help solve their problems.
All of this corporate partnership turns the standard VC model on its head. Rather than going out and finding startups with interesting technology, Kelley and Work-Bench work top-down with the problems they’ve learned about from their partners. They distill all of these conversations down into specific theses then go out looking for companies solving these specific problems. Not only does this make their sourcing more efficient, it also drastically reduces the burden of diligencing a potential investment. They already know that the problems the company is solving are real, since that’s why the conversation is happening in the first place. And when they do need to tap into their network to learn a bit more, they already have a rolodex of dozens of relevant industry professionals who would be happy to weigh in.
Going forward, Kelley is looking to expand Work-Bench’s network a little farther from home. Although NYC is a massive hub of corporate offices, there are many, many more opportunities throughout the rest of the country that the firm would love to learn more about. He’s optimistic that the model has matured and is now ready to scale to a larger network of corporations and the technologists looking to solve their problems.