Feb 9 2022

Introducing Bolster Prime and Bolster Ventures (and their back story)

This is another big week for us at Bolster. On the heels of the announcement we made last month about our Series B financing, we are now announcing the launch of a new program called Bolster Prime and a new venture capital fund called Bolster Ventures. These are important steps in Bolster’s evolution and in the fulfillment of our mission, what we call internally our “Big Idea,” which is to empower the innovation economy.  

The roots of Bolster Prime and Bolster Ventures pre-date the founding of Bolster. In our prior lives, the Bolster founders worked together to scale up a business called Return Path and also 

worked as advisors and mentors to numerous early stage founders and startups. One of the things we noted in our very first post, now part of the About Us section of Bolster.com, was:

After exiting Return Path [the company where our founding team worked for many years], we wanted to do for others what we did for each other as a seasoned executive team. We wanted to know: “How could we help other CEOs, executives and boards bolster themselves to go the distance and scale with their organizations?”

While the founding team was exploring potential business opportunities that allowed us to make a bigger impact on the world, Silicon Valley Bank and High Alpha Innovation were together envisioning a platform to help VC-backed portfolio companies more effectively navigate the complex world of executive talent needs. When our three groups came together, we realized we shared a vision to build a company that puts people first in all aspects to drive high-growth businesses.

I’ve never written before about those other “potential business opportunities” that our team was exploring along with our prior investment syndicate, Fred Wilson from Union Square Ventures, Greg Sands from Costanoa Ventures, and Brad Feld from Foundry. The one our team was particularly excited about was a concept we were calling at the time “Venture Acceleration Partners.” The key points in the pitch deck we created were:

  • There is a gap in the market of investors adding “management” value to portfolio companies between Accelerators/Incubators/Studios at the low end and Private Equity firms and very large VCs at the high end. What about the middle?
  • “The middle” consists of venture-backed companies that are neither early stage nor mature. They are typically founder-led, often by a first-time CEO with new or incomplete management teams who need a lot of mentorship/development, and with a diversified cap table of firms that don’t own operating or consulting practices to help guide the scaling process.
  • These companies tend to have consistent and stage-unique challenges around scaling execution across every aspect of the business.
  • By creating an advisory firm made up of seasoned operators, we can quickly identify the risk areas and provide mentoring, guidance and execution to management teams for defined periods of time to keep them on the right track and increase their companies’ performance.
  • We want to create a firm that has enough skin in the game to have long-term relationships with management teams…and that doesn’t charge (much) for services because incentives are aligned as a co-investor.

Our original deck envisioned a firm that was sort of a hybrid of a “McKinsey for startups” and a venture investor. When I shared that pitch deck (and two other ones I’ll save for another day), with my long-time friend Scott Dorsey from High Alpha, he responded by sharing with me a related pitch deck he was working on with corporate partner Silicon Valley Bank out of the High Alpha Studio for a talent marketplace. We immediately looked at each other and said “we should put all of these ideas together with this founding team, High Alpha and SVB, and the Return Path investors, and change the way startups connect with talent.” That’s what we did, and we almost immediately started building the first part of the Bolster business, which was the talent marketplace.

About six months into our journey building Bolster, I was talking to Brad and reminded him that I was interested in bringing the Venture Acceleration idea to life now that we had a vibrant talent marketplace up and running at Bolster. 

Standing up a new program of this magnitude with limited resources at the same time as building a new venture capital firm from the ground up, on top of a still pretty brand new startup – that felt like a tall order, even for a large and senior founding team like ours. We needed another senior leader to join our team. 

Brad’s visceral response in this conversation was a very clear, “you should hire Jenny.” Enter Jenny Lawton. Jenny is someone I’d known peripherally for many years as a mutual friend and colleague of Brad, but we weren’t particularly close. We agreed to meet for breakfast at a diner halfway between our houses at a time in the pandemic when there wasn’t a whole lot of in-person meetings going on. 

As Jenny’s written about this week, it was the right call at the right time – we had a full meeting of the minds about the role mentorship plays in supporting entrepreneurs, the unmet needs of entrepreneurs even with all the support out there from accelerators and investors, and the desire that both of us had here in the back half of our careers to, as Steve Jobs would say, “make a dent in the universe.” Jenny’s experience as a multiple-time senior executive and startup advisor (including four years as the COO of Techstars) was a perfect match for us. She joined our team pretty quickly, first fractionally (the Bolster way, right?), then full-time in the middle of 2021. 

And the rest, as they say, is history. Working as part of the Bolster leadership team this past year, Jenny has spearheaded the creation of Bolster Prime, from selling and mentoring the first few clients personally, to designing the curriculum and programmatic learning, to figuring out the right positioning and pricing to developing the recruiting strategy for the program. We’ve worked together and along with the rest of the team at Bolster to bring in an amazingly talented group of experienced former and current CEOs and other senior operators as our first group of mentors.  Any entrepreneur would be lucky to have one of these mentors in their corner. We’ve now raised a venture capital fund as first-time fund managers from our own investors and our program’s mentors, all of whom believe in the power of Bolster as the next generation platform to help empower the innovation economy. 

Most good ideas swim in a sea of comparables. There are now a handful of other firms out there that combine advice for entrepreneurs with capital. But we believe our model, with thousands of Bolster Member CXOs already on board, is unique. Bolster Prime and Bolster Ventures, powered by Bolster’s on-demand talent marketplace, is here to help early stage founders reimagine the way they scale up their leadership teams, their boards, and themselves. We are changing the way the startup game is played. Come take a look and see what’s in it for you.