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Greylock wants techies to schmooze more in person, not just online

July 1, 2015, 6:06 PM UTC

When Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor Reid Hoffman was building professional networking site LinkedIn, he often sought help from business friends like Max Levchin, a co-founder of online payments giant PayPal. Having a core group of experienced people he could turn to during crucial moments of building and running a technology company was key to his and LinkedIn’s success.

Taking inspiration from his own experiences, Greylock Partners, the venture capital firm where Hoffman is an investment partner, has decided to recreate these professional ties at on a larger scale by launching a series of networking events called Communities.

For years, Sand Hill Road venture capital firms have held networking events, as a way to tap into the potential talent destined create the next Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat. These firms also hold events for their own portfolio companies to mingle, share ideas and more, a concept pioneered by early stage investor First Round Capital.

Greylock is trying to differentiate its event series, which it quietly launched in 2014, by creating groups of people around technical areas like design, big data, infrastructure engineering, user growth, data science, and network security. Each community has several founding members, most of whom work in the specific domain at a technology company. Communities include an average of 40 people, who get together on Greylock’s dime around once a quarter in the Bay Area to talk through problems.

Most of the invite-only communities are made up of product managers, engineers, and technologists from Silicon Valley’s largest and fast growing companies including Facebook (FB), Google (GOOG), Apple (AAPL), Salesforce (CRM), and Twitter (TWTR). Only 30% of each group include a founder or employee from a company that Greylock invested in, a ratio that is rare at VC events.

Each group has two to three “founders” who help curate topics to talk about at each event.

So why did Greylock start this now? Hoffman says the timing was influenced by the rapid growth in the Silicon Valley ecosystem. “Silicon Valley is becoming a much more intense network,” he said in an interview with Fortune. “Communities are ways to make parts of the network denser, more easy to find, more impactful, both for individuals, talent and founders, and for companies.”

Last year alone, Greylock held 26 community events in the Bay Area, says Greylock partner Dan Portillo, who spearheads organizing the communities along with community lead Chris McCann. This year, the firm expects to hold at least 75. The events themselves have more than a 90% response and attendance rate, and counts 1,000 active participants.

Lia Napolitano, a former Apple product designer who worked on Siri, was invited as a founder of the design community while she was still working at Apple. As a twenty-something designer in Silicon Valley, the design community was a way to find additional mentorship as well as a forum to talk through design challenges. As she left the company a few weeks ago, she had no trouble finding freelance work — several members of the community reached out to her with contract design opportunities.

Gavin Sherry, the founder of the big data community and head data science engineer at EMC spinoff Pivotal, has wanted to form an industry group around standardizing big data technology. He ended up meeting all of the founding members in the Greylock big data community to create the association. “It’s been one of the best ways I’ve been able to form business relationships,” Sherry said.

For Greylock, Communities isn’t purely a networking play. The firm is also connecting with future entrepreneurs who could create the next hot startup, Hoffman affirmed, which the firm could invest in and make a windfall.

“I don’t think a venture firm acts rationally without always having some eye to deal flow,” he said.

But he doesn’t see Communities as generating a large number of deals. In fact, Greylock has only done one seed investment in a founder the firm met through communities, said Portillo.

For Hoffman, going to the events was a real realization of his and Portillo’s vision. Hoffman said that seeing people trade tips on things like using Big Data software Hadoop for data analysis was fascinating because those were conversations he had previously at LinkedIn, but now these interactions are happening at a bigger scale. And these conversations about data science also helped him understand key trends in the space at a deeper level, he added.

“I think in networks,” Hoffman said. “And the next step in the evolution of venture capital is having venture capital be network operators.”