Editor’s note: Gabby Contro is a partner at Crosslink Capital, where she leads early-stage investments in marketplaces, enterprise applications, commerce, and digital health. During her 10-year tenure with the firm, she has been closely involved with its investments in BuildingConnected (acquired by AutoDesk), Postmates (acquired by Uber), Flume Health, and Hungryroot, among others. Prior to her venture career, she was a consultant at EY in New York, where she worked in the valuation analysis and pricing group.

Sure, on the venture side Crosslink is a high-conviction, hyper-focused primarily early-stage firm with approximately $4.6 billion in assets under management. We lead seed and series A rounds in disruptive technology companies with exceptional teams and large markets across North America. We’re also generalist investors but spend a large portion of our time looking at the digital transformation of foundational industries like financial services, healthcare, supply chain and logistics, cybersecurity, and commerce. Frontier tech and defense tech are two other areas where we also spend a fair amount of time.  

I’d also point out that we’re very patient investors and enter every deal knowing that we’ll be there for the long haul. Plus, we put a lot of emphasis on teamwork, humility, and integrity, which are our core values and shape every aspect of the work we do.

That was great, thanks. So how did you get into venture capital?

I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs and artists that really valued innovation. My dad also started his venture career at a firm in Boulder, Colorado, and I always loved hearing about the founders and companies he was partnering with. That’s why after starting my career at EY, I eventually realized that I was far more interested in what the clients (hedge funds, private equity firms, and VCs) I was supporting were doing. After a few years, I got the opportunity to switch gears and moved across the country to join Crosslink. That was more than a decade ago and I’m still just as excited about getting to support entrepreneurs’ dreams today as I was when I started.  

Alpha is our proprietary network built for founders, by founders, and its mission is to create an environment where leaders and domain experts can foster relationships with their peers in a highly curated setting. At the center of the Alpha network are the more than 40 events we put on every year across the country, each of which is organized around a specific topic or theme. We also carefully select members to attend each event. That’s important because it means that attendees get a unique opportunity to exchange insights and ideas, and speak candidly about best practices, challenges, and emerging trends, with a very intentional group of their peers from across the ecosystem.

So who actually participates in Alpha?

There are 2,000 members and collectively they represent the best tech founders, investors, and executives in North America. We handpick every participant and regularly refresh the membership to ensure we always have the right people. In terms of the breakdown of the network, 70% of members are leading tech founders and CEOs spanning all stages and sectors. That includes our portfolio company CEOs as well as people we find by mining our network or who come recommended to us by our advisory boards.

The next 20% of members are pre-seed and seed VC firms as well as emerging and existing fund managers who, by the way, also help us identify the right founders from their respective portfolios for Alpha. Finally, the last 10% of members are thought leaders and are comprised of the CEOs and senior executives of large private and public tech companies who are able to bring domain expertise from just about every industry and business function to the network.

How did Alpha get started?

Eric Chin, one of our partners, launched Alpha with Mike Jung of Founders Circle Capital back in 2005. At the time, they noticed that there weren’t many forums for founders to come together, share best practices, and build relationships with each other in a private setting. Most of the programming available back then consisted of things like panel discussions that pushed content at founders rather than fostering an interactive exchange of ideas with them.

Recognizing that there was a gap in the market, Eric and Mike started hosting dinners and inviting all of their friends from the tech ecosystem. Over time those dinners grew and morphed into the Alpha network we have today.

What do you see at Alpha’s value proposition? How does it benefit its members?

It gives founders the opportunity to meet other like-minded founders who may be stages ahead of them and who they can learn from. It also opens doors to finding advisors, getting connected to customers, and meeting potential investors and acquirers. For seed VCs, Alpha offers a chance to connect with potential LPs, co-investors, and syndicate partners. We actually hold a lot of GP and LP sessions to help facilitate that.

Meanwhile, the other corporate members get exposure to the best and brightest founders as well as insight into what those founders care about. And it’s a way for them to identify potential service providers they should be partnering with as well as potential acquisition targets.

We are very mindful of the founding DNA of Alpha, which is to help the founder community, and always put them first. So, while Alpha benefits Crosslink too, that’s never been the core focus. That said, it has certainly allowed us to generate good will and develop strong relationships with key players across the ecosystem.

We have also sourced some great deals through Alpha, utilized the expertise of various members to help us with our due diligence, and been able to identify potential M&A opportunities for our portfolio companies. Again, however, I think if you were to ask Alpha members about the benefits that they’ve gotten from participating, they would far surpass the benefits that Crosslink gets.

After all these years, you must have gained a lot of insights from Alpha. Are there any key learnings that you can share?

Alpha has been a great way to stress test themes and topics we’re interested in while keeping our finger on the pulse of what’s happening in different markets and geographies. We’ve learned a lot about what founders actually care about, what keeps them up at night, and what they need from their investors and teams. All of that helps to inform our thesis and make us better investors and better board members. It also plays an important role in ensuring that we’re able to constantly refine the core sectors we invest in. Beyond that, it’s given us a better understanding of seed VCs in terms of how they interact with each other and think about co-investors, among other things. 

Last question: A lot of funds have tried to create something like Alpha but have either failed or haven’t been able to do so at the same scale. What’s been the secret to Alpha’s nearly 20-year success?

Platform functions are definitely popping up at major VCs, but the fact is that building them takes time, infrastructure, and capital. Meanwhile Alpha has been around for a long time and is already a well-oiled machine.

In my opinion, one of the reasons why other venture firms have struggled to create something similar is because they’re only looking inward at their own portfolio and network. Alpha is much broader than that and includes over 300 VCs with whom we’ve established a high level of trust. Many of those VCs are happy to recommend potential members to us because they understand the value that Alpha provides and that it’s not about us pushing our portfolio companies on them. I also think the diversity of the ecosystem is important because it gives Alpha a unique advantage relative to other platform functions.

This has been really interesting, Gabby. Thanks for giving us an inside peek at Alpha!