The Angel J-Curve: Super Connectors, Workhorses, Show horses in tech

How operators get their wings in Silicon Valley 

I joined my friend Harry Stebbings on a recent episode of 20VC to discuss trends in early stage investing including the state of scout funds, the whitespace for “triple threats” who operate, angel invest and have their own beat on social media and why I believe more operator angels should start their own funds.

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In this essay, I’ve split the discussion into a few key phases with tactical suggestions for each phase.

While there’s no single path to start investing, The Angel J-Curve is a guiding framework to better understand the opportunities available for operators in Silicon Valley based on your time and revenue (social/working capital) in the ecosystem.  

Where are you on The Angel J-Curve? 

Let’s start with a definition of each phase and high-level overview before we move into tactics and recent examples: 

Super Connectors: early career operators who seek high-growth opportunities such as startups on the Breakout List³ or look for well-funded startups backed by a16Z, Sequoia and top-tier firms. These operators build a broad network that later converts to professional opportunities, such as an internal referral at a hot company or opportunity to invest in a friend’s company.  

Tldr: Social capital converts to professional opportunities

Workhorses: operators who build a track record and reputation by helping early stage startups on evenings & weekends. Capital can come from a number of sources including small personal checks, scout funds and some choose to raise outside money as Operator Angel Funds

Tldr: High value per dollar invested based on operator angel’s skill/sector/stage alignment 

Show horses: super angels with a trusted reputation and proven track record based on breakout tech experience and subsequent breakout angel investments. While many still operate with similar characteristics as a Workhorse, the real value is in their signal to other investors. 

Tldr: High social signal irrespective of sector/stage/dollars invested 

What are the guiding principles for each phase? 

Based on your time and revenue (social/working capital), there are a number of guiding principles and baseline activities to build a track record.  

Super Connectors: 

For Super Connectors, geographical location and a hyperlocal network is an important factor to accelerate social & knowledge spillover. 

These operators learn by simply being exposed to other super connectors, workhorses and the occasional show horse at an event or conference. 

Silicon Valley has the highest concentration of early stage startups and hyper compressed environment for Super Connectors who want to accelerate both professionally in their tech career and socially as an angel investor. However, many operators outside of the Bay Area have built a reputation through tweeting, blogging and podcasting. We’ll look at examples from both Silicon Valley and beyond.  

Without working capital, Super Connectors build a reputation using social capital and ‘cool as a currency’ meaning these operators have a unique ability to discover new products, spot trends before they blow up and build, ship and share on social media.   

A few baseline activities for each phase: 

  • Build, ship and share on social media

Twitter is a great place to start, however SubstackDev.to are great places to further develop ideas and build an audience. 

  • Find your beat aka “be known for a thing” 

Breakout Super Connectors become a go-to person for a specific topic, sector or area of interest, which requires consistent publishing around a specific topic. 

Founders building in the space and investors should be able to articulate your beat in a few words, so others can easily seek you out based on your known expertise.

  • Optimize for a high-growth experience

Choose your next career move based on where you’ll have outlier potential with high-growth experience and a valuable network of Super Connectors. 

In the first two years in the Bay Area, the relationships you build will influence your view of the world and your professional opportunities in the future.   

Look for entrepreneurial cultures where the person sitting next to you is likely to start something new. 

If you’re a Super Connector, say 👋

I host a monthly happy hour in SF and would love to follow your newsletter and compare notes on your beat. 

A few Super Connectors to follow: 

@sarthakgh

Sar has mastered the power of Tech Twitter. 

In a matter of months, his name was consistently mentioned in coffees with founders, Monday partner meetings at VC firms and he’s consistently tagged in relevant conversations on Twitter. 

Sar is by all accounts a Super Connector or as I call him the DJ Khaled of Silicon Valley: he knows everyone, hypes everyone and gives up-and-comers more visibility.

He reads a tweet, jumps in with relevant commentary and tags individuals who have recently shared similar ideas or have deep expertise in the space.  

A lot of great original thinking gets lost in the Twitter feed, so Sar’s ability to invite relevant people to a discussion is incredibly valuable.  

@HipCityReg

Reggie’s newsletter Product Lost covers things he’s seen, heard and experienced (typically well before anyone else). While his discussions are not directly startup or business strategy related, it consistently delivers big ideas and new opportunities for founders and investors to explore.   

@HarryStebbings

Harry started 20VC long before he started his own VC fund. 

One of his secret weapons for building his network is sending cold emails. Before every episode, Harry emails founders, investors and mutual friends to prepare for each guest.  

Workhorses: 

For early career Workhorses on their first or second startup, this is where you start to cultivate a more strategic network based on your beat. 

  • Build your intercompany peer network

Want to be known as a go-to product person? 

Make a list and meet every product person at breakout companies. 

Find something to work on together: organize a monthly dinner, host office hours for startups, any excuse to get together on an ongoing basis. 

  • Advise for free or minimal equity 

The best advisory relationships happen organically and will likely come from your Super Connector network, however if you’re new to advising startups you can seek out opportunities to help startups that are one to two funding rounds behind your current startup. 

In this phase, optimize for experience and build/iterate on your offering as a startup advisor. 

During this phase, I taught classes at General Assembly as a way to build my own offering and continuously iterate after each class. 

After 4 years, I had taught over 5,000 students without ever writing an angel check. I did however amass a mailing list of 8,000 readers through consistent coverage in General Assembly’s mailing list. 

  • Start writing $1-5K checks 

If you’re a helpful operator, there is rarely a minimum check size. 

Start to build a small, concentrated portfolio and remember your check size can easily scale up or down based on your personal working capital and conviction level based on relationship with entrepreneur and your skill/sector alignment. 

At this stage, your goal is small checks into pre-seed companies especially founders before they apply to YC or similar program that serves as a strong signal for future investors. 

For later career Workhorses, this phase requires consistent, compounding activities that both strengthen your existing networks and create access to startups outside of your immediate network. 

By this point, you’ve had a number of shots on goal and likely have access to a number of alumni syndicates to invest in founders that you’ve worked with directly or have enough first degree connections to get to conviction quickly when referencing the founding team. 

A few baseline activities for this phase: 

  • Subscribe to alumni syndicates, newsletters and events
  • Determine scout potential: if you’ve been an operator at a breakout company or have coverage across a number of startups, reach out to VC firms to gauge scout interest. 
  • Prioritize external visibility: To become a magnet for startups, you’ll need top of mind awareness and visibility in the ecosystem 

This exercise is different for everyone. If writing or speaking at conferences is not your thing, choose to work on external facing projects. 

For me, I made the strategic decision to work on startup-facing products at Zendesk which included Zendesk Apps Marketplace and building Zendesk for Startups for broad startup coverage and an accelerated strategic network, which included partnering with incubators, accelerators and VCs. 

In parallel, I spun out of General Assembly and used the same content to start my own program called SaaS School. 

Rather than building this alone, I asked my intercompany peer network to join me including product leaders from Dropbox, Drift, Slack, SurveyMonkey and other operators I had previously met at SaaS Growth events hosted by a friend/mentor Guillaume Cabane at Segment. 

Because there’s a great deal of nuance when it comes to scout programs, self-funded angel portfolio construction and the rise of Operator Angel Funds, I will cover this in-depth in future posts. 

In the meantime, here’s the deck I used to raise $5M from Marc Andreessen, Eric Yuan and early investors in my new fund Work Life. 

Show horses: 

The most common Show horses are growth stage and post-IPO CEOs who both LP in Operator Angel Funds and continue to invest on a deal by deal basis. 

Show horses are well capitalized and typically build a concentrated portfolio of Series A+ investments. They have access to the best deals via their existing relationships with top-tier firms and strong CEO network. 

In recent years, many Show horses have hired a dedicated Workhorse to serve as an investment partner to both meet early stage companies and help scale their portfolio support while they continue to operate a high-growth tech company. 

Now, where does this leave the Silicon Valley Elite? 

The Angel J-Curve is a guiding framework with a fairly linear path for any operator who wants to build a track record as an angel, so by definition the Silicon Valley Elite are an exception to this model.

For simplicity’s sake, the definition of Silicon Valley Elite is defined as outlier operators who are part of a collective ‘Mafia.’

Some Show horses may swing in the same social circles as the Silicon Valley Elite, which means they have similar access however they do not benefit from the compounding advantages of the ‘Mafia’ network: first look at alumni founders and ability to compete head-on with ‘Mafia’ peers at other top-tier firms.

If you’re based in Silicon Valley, say hello @briannekimmel!

I host a number of angel dinners and events throughout the year for angel investors across all phases of The Angel J-Curve.

My pitch to Marc Andreessen, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan and investors in Work Life.

As an operator and active angel investor, I left Zendesk a year ago to build Work Life, a future of work focused fund, backed by Silicon Valley investors and executives from breakout $1B+ companies.

While there are many paths into venture, I’d like to share my background, fund strategy and how I raised $5M in just two weeks to help other operators, angels and emerging fund managers break into what I consider to be one of the most high impact and meaningful jobs in the world.

It’s an honor and a privilege to partner with founders on the long road to success. If nothing else, I hope this post inspires you to get involved with early stage companies in some capacity. Startups require so much more than capital to be successful.

  1. How to start angel investing
  2. Why start a fund?
  3. The pitch

The pitch is an early version of the deck that closed Marc Andreessen, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan and Silicon Valley investors and executives at Dropbox, Slack and other 🚀companies.

How to start angel investing

Like many angel investors, I got started by meeting early stage on evenings and weekends, while I was operating full time at Expedia and later Zendesk in various product roles and lastly in a GTM strategy role where I built Zendesk for Startups which included a network of incubators, accelerators and VC firms.

In addition to operating, I taught classes at General Assembly for over four years and built my own GTM bootcamp as a way to expand my reach and build a trusted network with 5,000+ operators in the Bay Area (many have gone on to start companies).

I then decided to rebrand the program as it’s own stand-alone entity and call it SaaS School, a self-funded & community-led program taught by executives from Airtable, Dropbox, Notion, Superhuman and other venture-backed startups.

In my recent interview with TechCrunch, I shared that “you start by advising, then you start with very small angel checks.”

Today, there are a number of programs to get started ie: First Round Angel Track, AngelList Spearhead (up to $1M for founders) and most VC firms operate their own variation of scout program.

In the beginning, I used my own capital to invest in early stage companies including Webflow, Command E, AirGarage , but most importantly I sent a high volume of companies to VC funds.

Through Zendesk for Startups, SaaS School and other events I hosted, I became a super-connector in Silicon Valley.

I would take the first meeting and help founders find their lead and access other angels in my network.

A few thoughts for those who are just getting started:

  • Access is everything when you’re just getting started: meet a lot of companies and start to narrow your filter over time
  • Lean into existing networks: Venture capital is an industry built on trust and reputation. Your reputation with colleagues and peers at other companies matter a lot, especially as they leave to start companies or you want to recruit them to your portfolio companies
  • Give, give, give before you ever ask for anything: Before raising a dollar for my fund, I had taught over 5,000 students, hosted weekly startup dinners and jumped on diligence calls when firms had questions that aligned with my experience in SaaS growth and GTM

Why start a fund?

While there’s no shortage of scout programs or ways to play an active role in the early days of a startup, I chose to start my own fund for three reasons:

  • Values alignment: People spend 1/3 of their lives at work. Technology has the power to create new jobs, improve existing ones and give people more control over their career progression without employer dependencies.
  • Market opportunity: “I had friends like Ryan Hoover,  who started Weekend Fund focused on consumer, and Alexia is one of my friends as well and I saw what she was doing with Dream Machine, which is also consumer. It felt like it was the right time to come out with a SaaS-focused fund.”
  • From SaaS School alone, I see 200 applications twice a year from Seed and Series A founders. There was increasing demand from the community for a dedicated program to technical/product founders learn GTM best practices from leading experts.
  • Skills alignment: The ability to partner with founders where I can immediately add value through operating experience, network and general interests was a core driver for not joining a firm. I wanted to stay focused and continue to develop my craft as a bottom-up SaaS and workplace product expert.

The Pitch

Work Life is a future of work focused fund not tied to “Consumer” or “Enterprise” labels, but rather focused on new tools and services to unlock individual potential through creativity, productivity and new types of work.

Here is an early version of the deck that I used to pitch early LPs.

Overview: bullet points to describe the fund strategy and high signal LPs involved

Fund I has a fairly high number of investments by design.
The goal is to build a broad network that aligns to my core thesis. I’m anticipating 70% of companies will fall under the “work” category and 30% will fall under “life” such as education, childcare and services that are consumer, but directly impact your work life.

Fund I has a fairly high number of investments by design.
The goal is to build a broad network that aligns to my core thesis. I’m anticipating 70% of companies will fall under the “work” category and 30% will fall under “life” such as education, childcare and services that are consumer, but directly impact your work life.

About slide: value proposition to founders, achievements and fund differentiators 

Market opportunity: Define the market opportunity and provide examples of companies that align to your thesis.

In this case, my LP base is focused on Silicon Valley investors and executives with deep expertise in the space, so this section is fairly light.

Theme slides: A key trend, unique insight or thought that demonstrates access, expertise and ability to win deals aligned to the theme.

In this case BYOT is a term I coined to describe tools that people discover on evenings and weekends, bring to work and land & expand inside of companies.

For creative tools such as podcasting, publishing, design platforms for architects, jewelers, graphic designers and animators, these tools grow through influencer adoption and social mentions, industry communities and creative agencies/freelancer platforms.

One of the core pillars of @WorkLifeVC is new technology that reimagine work.

The greatest innovations we’ll see in the workplace will come from new consumer tech that people discover & use daily to improve their work life. Technology gives consumers more leverage to advance their career without employer dependencies.

People want more ownership over their career and flexibility to seamlessly transition into new sectors and areas of expertise

People (not employers) will solve problems like career progression.

Affordable skills-based education is giving people more ownership over career progression @LambdaSchool and @WhiteHatGB accelerate & launch high earning careers not possible before @knowablefyi@superhi_ for ongoing learning to accelerate careers or start something new.

Online communities and forums create a compressed learning environment & safety net for members – Peers share insights and validate ideas – Members collectively refresh content & moderate – Safe space to job hunt or start something new @ThePracticalDev@girlboss

Professional coaching, on-demand advice & remote workspaces create new outlets for people to break into a new field Interests snowball into careers: self-education & consistent publishing to build expertise Interest based calls like Dial-up https://dialup.com

GTM for software companies is increasingly similar to DTC brands: brand matters, community reduces customer acquisition costs and customer support costs and social signals drive purchase decisions over pure functionality.

Your work life is part of your identity.

For early builders, you’ll have periods with long hours and insane focus but at the end of the day you’re building what you love.

As you scale, keep in mind: people spend 1/3 of their lives at work, it’s a big part of who we are and how we view the world.

The modern workplace is a community with shared values, a discovery platform for new goods and services and a trusted source for news and information.

Offices are designed for Instagram.

Employees choose companies based on benefits and services.

Companies compete on culture.

I recently told Harry Stebbings on 20 Minute VC that “great company cultures aren’t coincidental. It requires insane focus and a commitment to company values.”



Fund Strategy slide: A clear definition for how you plan to source, pick, win and support companies.

Track record: List angel investments and advisor roles to demonstrate both access and deal judgement.

In this case, Webflow had received raised a $72M Series A from Accel and all angel investments were alongside top-tier firms or high-signal angels in the cases where I invested before a priced round.

Personal brand: What are you known for in the ecosystem? Why would they pick you over other angels and micro-funds?

Access & Scale: How do you currently meet founders? How will you help your growing portfolio with limited resources?

Fund strategy: target fund size, average check size, carry & management fees

Strike zone: What companies and align with your thesis and fit within your strike zone of sourcing, picking, winning and supporting.

Note: LPs also look for examples of companies outside of your strike zone, however I have removed outside strike zone slides to avoid any signaling risk for founders.

If you’re an angel investor, scout or first time fund manager, I’d love to connect and compare notes.

I host monthly dinners for emerging managers and frequently share best practices for angels and emerging fund managers on my blog and Twitter @briannekimmel.