Boosting Community Growth: An Interview with F50’s Sydney Lai

Securing funding for your startup isn’t nearly as scary when you have a group of people to help you. F50 is that group of people, and Sydney Lai is the person in charge of their community and growth.

Understanding what F50 is starts by understanding what it isn’t: It’s not an accelerator or an incubator. Instead, F50 is an investment network that helps startups raise money.

“We do partner and accompany incubators, but F50 focuses on the needs of founders related to capital,” explains Sydney Lai. She equates it to an ongoing alumni network of peers and resources to help you continue to build your business.

If you’re a startup, the ideal time to work with F50 is when you are looking to raise pre-series A, from $500,000 to $5,000,000, maybe you’ve even graduated from an accelerator. If you’re accepted into the program they’ll guide you in the right direction and make connections with the kind of investors you’re looking for within their network. F50 is venture-funded, so Lai said neither startups nor investors pay anything when entering the program.

Lai’s path to becoming the Community and Growth Manager at F50 may not seem super obvious at first. She got a a degree in Sociology from UC Berkeley, then worked as a banker. But, when she explains her career path, it’s obvious that it’s not only planned and intentional, but kind of brilliant.

Lai talked to us about her double-duty role at F50, her new position as a curator for Startup Digest, and the ever-evolving startup climate.


When did you first become passionate about startups?

While the path from sociology, to finance, to F50 may seem nonsensical, it was actually very deliberate.

My earliest passion began in high school. I came from a family of entrepreneurs. At University of California, Berkeley, I studied sociology because consumer buyer behavior is crucial to sales and growth in any business. UC Berkeley also has an impressive sociology department that focuses specifically on the sociology of entrepreneurship.

After jumping on consulting projects and business plan competitions, my post-college career propelled me to heavily participate in hackathons. While in the banking world, my role was to support local startups and venture capital firms with an array of capital products.

F50 was a marriage of everything I have passionately worked toward. So for me, supporting and rallying a community of founders and investors became a natural step.

Can you describe your role as Community and Growth Manager at F50?

I help founders discover F50. Specifically, I currently lead Silicon Valley Entrepreneurs, a grassroots community division of roughly 35,000 members within F50.

My role as a Community Manager is to provide educational and demo opportunities for our community of founders to grow their startup in front of an audience. Picture an array of pitch and demo events, workshops, partnerships, etc.

Silicon Valley Entrepreneurs partners with F50 by nominating outstanding startups from the community into F50’s seasonal cohorts for funding opportunities. At that point, I become an application reviewer. My  colleagues and I pour over hundreds of applications to identify the scale and funding potential of the startups.

The growth portion of my role is to initiate and leverage partnerships with influencers in Silicon Valley, encouraging them to rally behind F50. A concrete example is using social media to network and engage with these Silicon Valley thought leaders, to provide their communities with resources to grow.


“Community and Growth Managers” didn’t really exist 10 years ago. How do you fit in with F50’s operations and how has your role evolved?

As the startup ecosystem rapidly evolves, so do the hats we have to wear.

A Community Manager has evolved from curating a website’s forums, to a leader that listens and engages a fanbase in various means. Growth Manager, Growth Hacker, whichever term fits your startup’s needs, is sometimes explained as the “new marketing manager.”

However, I’d say the growth manager is an ally of the Marketing Department, as this role is specifically designed to get a product or service into the hands of an audience efficiently and exponentially.

Titles change as they adapt to an evolving startup ecosystem. I could soon become a Unicorn Cheerleader.

The Community and Growth Manager role is part of the bread and butter of F50’s operations, as it is valuable for both F50 and founders to discover each other.

While I work with a community of founders and various institutions that support them, I currently work most closely with David Cao, who is the founder of F50 and the original brainchild of Silicon Valley Entrepreneurs.

What were some of your first growth initiatives at F50?

The growth initiatives I’ve had to tackle involve continual engagement of a preexisting community and a continual growth beyond a large community we already have.

When I came into F50, the network from Silicon Valley Entrepreneurs alone was 35,000 members. Therefore, my initial growth efforts focused on continual engagement with the preexisting community through events and online interaction and buzz.

Often times the growth community focuses on gathering more or new users. However, by nurturing an existing membership, their word of mouth is ideally more important for growth than any A/B testing strategy growth hackers can muster up.


What major changes have you seen in the F50 community thus far?

The F50 community is changing so rapidly it’s hard to pinpoint just one major change. But I have noticed how more key players in the startup ecosystem are actively engaging with us in partnerships to nurture the greater startup community.

Key players in our communities are founders and investors. Our more notable additions are strategic partnerships with institutions such as Google, Up Global and influencers from Andreessen Horowitz and a co-founder of LinkedIn.

Partnerships were acquired by pre-existing relationships that we have continued to nurture, personal connections, and just by simply asking. Typically these were warm leads that led into a partnership.

How do you learn about your community’s needs?

Beyond the typical online strategies of engaging in conversations and feedback, F50’s Silicon Valley Entrepreneurs network is a strategic, “boots-on-the-grounds” type of operation.

We ask, “Why do touring entrepreneurs travel to Silicon Valley to experience the culture, when they could read about it online?”

It’s important to us not only to learn about our community, but to truly interact and engage with them on a personal level. By actively engaging with the community through weekly events, we are more than just an anonymous institution; we’re a tangible and rich community. Weekly events entail pitch and demo nights for the community, mixers, speaker panels and so forth.


What is one of your finest growth achievements so far?

One atypical growth strategy that I’ve been testing is creating strategic partnerships to exponentially grow a community.

Our goal has not been to acquire others’ communities, but to share audiences and for us to provide value to them. We also provide benefits for our partners by freeing up their bandwidth as we educate their communities with content.

One example is by partnering with the Google Developers Group to create events, conferences and marketing, which has allowed us to exponentially grow our audience.

What changes have you seen in the world of Growth Hacking and Growth Management?

“Growth Hacker” grew from a novel title to a vital role that accompanies any startup’s marketing strategies.

Growth hacking has become the new inbound marketing. Yet, I see that growth has become more than just content marketing and social media marketing. Now I even see strategies where companies like Creative Market or MailLift will use physical and tangible growth tactics like handwritten letters, which then go to an engaged audience that Tweets about them.

What’s different about managing growth at a startup vs. a larger company?

Startups can test and adapt quickly with minimal approval. Most larger companies have a very formalized process that limits the speed and creativity of growth executions due to a hierarchy of management.

It’s easier for a Fiat to make a U-turn in a bustling intersection than for a semi-trailer truck to do so.


You recently became a curator at Startup Digest. How did that come about?

I have been a long time reader of Startup Digest because I recognize the value of having curated suggestions of quality events, especially through all of the noise that floods Silicon Valley.

The platform itself is the community, because we as curators interact and learn from what our readers are interested in and find the most value from. My adoration for the platform and the reason why I am excited to be a Startup Digest curator is to continue my passion in educating aspiring entrepreneurs and developers in the startup ecosystem.

The experience that led me to Startup Digest was my continual organizer role in Startup Weekend. Being an active member in Up Global (an entrepreneurial non-profit) has led me to lead their communities such as Startup Weekend, Startup Next Pre-Accelerator, and now Startup Digest.

What topics do you plan to focus on as a curator?

Overall, Startup Digest curates opportunities and events that are educational and are great assets to our community. The content that we share ranges from events to notable articles. While we, as curators, don’t focus in on a particular sector, IoT (Internet of Things) has been a popular sector that our readers frequently engage with.

With my past background in finance, I will continue to bring fintech content to interested readers. I also want to draw attention to the startup ecosystem in the East Bay, as Berkeley and now Oakland become integral parts of the tech community.

What advice can you give to people looking to grow their community organically?

Some of the best advice I have learned earlier on is to share. Share your story, your passion, your vision with anyone who wants to listen.

Parents teach you to share when you are growing up. When wary entrepreneurs first arrive to Silicon Valley, we tell them to share their idea because this is how you will get introduced to the people who will help you.

To grow a community organically is through word of mouth and through partnerships. This is not the only solution. However, this is one solution that I have used to not only grow, but the grow exponentially quicker.

Images courtesy of Sydney Lai and F50 

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