We recently had a conversation with Brett Bivens, venture investor at TechNexus Venture Collaborative, exploring what makes TechNexus unique, the importance his network plays in the firm’s growth, and growing a newsletter.
What defines TechNexus as a firm, and how did you end up working there?
After my baseball career was over in college, I became enamored with technology, startups, and how these small companies can have such a big impact on the economy. I started off working with a number of different early-stage companies in New York, Bangalore, San Francisco, and then eventually moved to Chicago and worked for an early-stage SaaS company called Visible VC. And Visible was interesting because the customer base was largely either early-stage companies or venture capital firms. So through all of those experiences, I developed my interest and understanding of a wide range of business models and markets.
Since I enjoyed working across and advising a number of different companies, I felt investing could be a good next step. Four years ago, I started to get to know the team at TechNexus. The company started as one of the first incubators in the Chicago tech ecosystem and was in the process of evolving into more of an investment-focused model.
From the beginning, TechNexus has sat at the intersection of the early-stage world and the corporate market. And has tried to find ways for early-stage companies to work more effectively with corporates, get distribution into the enterprise, build technology partnerships with them, and develop new products alongside corporate partners. And on the flip side, we find ways to give corporates the ability to work more effectively with startups and inject new thinking and technology to drive sustainable growth.
What that looks like today is a number of different vertically focused funds backed by corporate partners. Our focus in each of those is to play an active role in fostering collaboration between the ventures and the corporate partners that we work with.
What would you say separates TechNexus from your peers?
I definitely think our focus has always been being at the intersection of the early-stage world and the corporate markets. We’ve developed an expertise, along with a lot of internal resources, that help companies we back work more with large corporate partners to create value for both of them in that relationship.
This then means that we are quite well-aligned with other VCs we are investing alongside. We tend to bring a very different set of capabilities to the table, that allows us to help the companies we are backing in a way others that may be a part of the syndicate can’t. The corporate network and relationships we have are one piece, and the other would be how we’ve developed an international infrastructure. We can help companies based in Europe expand to the U.S. or vice versa.
We have a handful of portfolio companies in the United Kingdom, and we have a company in Israel, and I anticipate we’ll have a couple of investments in continental Europe very soon.
What insights would you share with a firm in the U.S. that’s looking to make an investment abroad?
There will obviously be legal and tax considerations, and with each country, those will be different. I believe it’s very important to have an ear to the ground in all of these different ecosystems. Whether that means having a person on the team touch base in those different locations or trying to establish relationships across these places.
I think part of it is to build a name for TechNexus and myself in those ecosystems. So that investors know who we are, without having to travel to every different place we need to, by communicating online and trying to build up that reputation. Trying to find those methods as an investor is to scale your own messaging and to scale yourself so that you’re at least recognized in those ecosystems and not entering relationships cold.
Any success stories or best practices from building the TechNexus brand?
It’s going really well. Our number of high-quality companies we are speaking with on a regular basis in Europe has definitely expanded since we’ve moved out here. Overall, we haven’t been extremely active from an investment perspective, just because we are building our relationships, but those relationships we have built are very strong. The focus on scaling our messaging, by writing and putting thoughts online, has been a great way to build bridges to all of these different geographies and keep a finger on the pulse of all these different places.
Could you tell us about your overall network development efforts?
The relationship-building I just mentioned is a big part of it. For a firm that is trying to invest globally or even in the U.S., there’s not really a realistic way to grab a coffee and talk to everyone, unless you want to travel every week of your life. You are not going to bump into people on a regular basis, that you’ve invested or worked with, so there are a couple of things that we do.
The first is a method I call “learning in public.” A really great way to attract new and interesting people to your network is to share thoughts with people you know on the internet, through blogs, podcasts, newsletters, and social media. There’s a tremendous amount of leverage to be able to use your own time to connect with great people like this. I’ve been seeing it play out in spades as I’ve been more active, writing, and connecting online. That’s the biggest piece of it for me, in terms of building a network and managing that network; continually staying in discussion.
I discover people through their writing, get to know them through following their thought processes online, and then try to find a common ground for discussion or a working relationship of some kind. It’s been a great way to build context, trust, and relationships with people that you otherwise may have one opportunity a year to see. If you see someone write an interesting piece on a topic that you’re interested in, that’s an opportunity for you to reach out and say, “I really enjoyed your article, here are my thoughts”.
Are there other ways that you approach that kind of cold outreach?
I’ve done this with a number of different people. I’ve read something that they talked about, and sent a DM on Twitter, or sent them an email, just responding to what they wrote with some sort of positive sentiments or positive feedback. It goes a long way to start off a relationship with that person and build a shared context. It’s always tough. You can see someone who knows a lot or has been successful and has done interesting things and try to figure out the route to a person investing or working with them.
A lot of people wrongly take the approach of just trying to connect with people versus actually trying to build a collaborative relationship. That’s one of the interesting things about people who are active on platforms like, Twitter or Substack, who are trying to be collaborative. People are trying to work together to get closer to the truth, gain value from those relationships, and gain long-term benefits. You need to be upfront about what your intentions are if you’re looking for long-term relationships. Try to make it as much about adding value for them before there are any expectations about something on your side.
Could you share a bit about how your network development efforts play key roles in other areas of your work; such as deal-sourcing, due diligence, and portfolio support?
On the deal-sourcing front, I find it important to focus on building a unique network in all different ways, through writing online, learning in public, and connecting via these different internet platforms. That’s what brings all sorts of unique information flows. It gives a differentiated perspective on the type of companies that exist. The geographic nature of me living abroad, where I’m from, and who I connect to, is built off of using that network and those relationships.
I have access to all these people in various groups and communities that I’ve been a part of. They give me a different perspective at the evaluation level. I can go to those people and have a conversation about what they’re seeing. One example that comes to mind is the creative economy that I’ve been interested in. TechNexus has invested in that area quite a bit and because of a lot of the writing I have done, I have had the chance to build a pretty cool network; consisting of founders, operators, investors, and creators. All of these different people I can put ideas in front of, debate with, and get really direct feedback from people who have their ear to the ground.
The same applies to the portfolio company side. Trying to expand that network into areas such as corporate executives or later-stage investors is always very helpful. The approach is pretty much the same. It often starts with the seeds of something in online writing, writing an essay about something, joining a podcast and getting those ideas, getting involved with different people, and getting introduced to new people.
Do you have any set of workflows or systems in place to keep track of your relationships?
Every Friday for about a two hour period, I sit down and look at the meetings I had in the past week along with all the ongoing communication flows I had with individuals. I take notes or give myself a reminder to do something or close a loop. I try to set myself up for what’s next in all those relationships. That’s been one of the biggest things for me around workflow. I think that’s helpful in any category really, dedicating time to get organized and set up for whatever’s next. It’s one of those things that you just have to bake into your schedule. It can be very easy to let less important things seem more urgent in the moment and push it off.
And as a result, you may not follow up with the type of consistency that you should or remember the details of a discussion. So sitting down for an hour a week is crucial.
Tell us a bit about Venture Desktop.
Venture Desktop is a newsletter that I started, to figure out how to stay connected with all the people in the U.S. without having to have Zoom calls with 40 different people every week. Then at the same time, think about how I would build some recognition for the work that we’re doing at TechNexus and the work I’m doing across all the different ecosystems in Europe.
My hope is that by being an American investor, based in Europe, I have a different perspective. And I can use my writing to provide some insight into the unique information and network flows that I sit in, and create value for founders, other investors, and people in the ecosystem.
I’ve been writing online for a decade, at this point. But I figured that if I could continue with a bit more consistency and really dedicate time to build up that audience, it would be more than worth the time. It’s been about seven or eight months since I’ve started, and the idea the entire time is, “How do I put out interesting, new ideas?”. That idea of learning in public and sharing that journey with other people attracts smart, intelligent people; the kind that you want to work with for the long term. So far, the thesis has been proven right, it’s been a great experience.
How big is your following, if you don’t mind?
It’s about 2500 subscribers. It’s not massive, but it’s certainly a great group. As I look through my list, it’s a number of investors and founders that I admire a great deal. I’ve probably had conversations with 50 different people that I’ve taken to the next level, either through constant emails, twitter interactions, or even setting up Zoom calls for more deep-dives. It’s been a great way to build a bigger group of people giving good feedback on a constant basis.
Are there any specific methods tied to how you grew that following? And more broadly, how did you go about producing your writing and other forms of content?
It’s not a business for me, so I’m not really trying to market what I’m writing all that much. I really don’t have a great strategy for that. I honestly want to get it out there and be done with it for a while, since I’ve spent so much time immersed in a topic during the time I was writing about it. I have a lot to improve on with regards to distribution.
These micro-communities become something you can leverage over time. You get to know a group of people, there’s mutual interest in what is being discussed, and then you start to just organically promote each other because you want to see each other succeed. I’ve been the fortunate beneficiary of other people who have done that for me and promoted my work. I just try to do that for others.
There’s really no growth hack. It’s just using that work to build relationships and getting people on your side.
Any predictions for the future of private investing in Venture Capital?
One of the things I’m extremely excited about across the broader economy is one-person companies. Taking somebody with a great skill-set and equipping them with the tools, distribution and really the confidence they need to go it alone. I think we’re already starting to see that play out in Venture Capital in a significant way. Investors growing out of the support team for founders and helping them with marketing and HR will likely continue. It’s definitely valuable, but I also think we’ll see massive growth in the one-person company that is backed with significant capital.
A friend calls it “Solo Capitalists”. I think it’ll expand internationally.
Is there anything that we didn’t cover that you’d like to discuss?
You alluded to this earlier, but a mistake I made, probably a number of times earlier in my career around networking building, is that when you’re initially establishing a relationship, you should do everything in your power to take the long view versus optimizing for some kind of short term outcome.
I think if there is a person that you know, either as a mentor from a distance or someone who you want to work with more or get attention from, the long-term is the priority. The best way to accomplish any of those things is to focus on the value you are creating for them. Promoting them, trying to support them for their careers and work to flourish. It’s about providing resources, it’s all about not even needing to make an ask, but establishing the cadence of collaboration over time. All of those initial goals, having a process that supports it, is great.