Paving the Way for Women Founders with Dannie Herzberg of Sequoia Capital
It takes a tenacious spirit to go the extra mile. Dannie Herzberg, Partner at venture capital firm, Sequoia Capital, is a perfect example of someone with an unwavering drive — making her an outstanding role model for other aspiring women founders and investors.
Dannie is focused on investing in growth stage companies. She also coaches founders and CROs (chief revenue officers) across the entire Sequoia portfolio on go-to-market strategy and execution.
Prior to joining Sequoia, Herzberg spent four years at Slack, where she led self-serve/PLG through enterprise sales, helping the company grow from $100M to >$1B in revenue. Before Slack, she worked at HubSpot for nearly six years, joining just after the company’s inception — helping to lead sales and build its platform from HubSpot’s earliest days through the company’s IPO.
We spoke with Dannie to learn about her career path and transition to venture capital, her role as a partner at Sequoia, and her advice for other women founders.
From enterprise sales to VC
HubSpot for Startups: What initially sparked your interest in enterprise sales?
Dannie: It’s a perfect combination of my two greatest joys at work: helping and winning. I studied psychology as an undergrad. I find great fulfillment in uncovering people’s unique motivators and helping them realize their ambition. As it turns out, being great at sales is a lot like playing the role of a therapist or executive coach—the key skill is curiosity and the ability to ask the right questions to help the prospect connect the dots.
Do your homework, ask the right questions, and you earn yourself a chance to win. You’ve scoured the market for businesses that are a good fit for your product and then you pour your all into demonstrating to them that you have a key ingredient for their growth and success. Close the deal and there’s nothing sweeter than celebrating the win / win together.
HSFS: What has been the greatest accomplishment in your career thus far?
Dannie: I don’t think of my career in those terms. I think of where I’ve driven impact. At HubSpot, it was the opportunity to stand up different functions: first direct sales; then the channel program; then the platform.
At Slack, it was building and developing a high-performing org that drove results, while helping each member create a launchpad for his or her career. I see where the folks on my team have gone on to work and build teams of their own, and it makes me beam with pride. At Sequoia, my impact is driven by helping founders achieve & even raise the scale of their ambition. I strive to do this by challenging teams to think bigger when times are good, playing the role of shock absorber when times are tough, and wearing the hat of an active recruiter every single day.
HSFS: What specifically intrigued or interested you in Sequoia?
Dannie: Easy: The platform and the team.
Whether it’s a company or a venture firm, I want to ‘sell’ the premium product in the market. At Sequoia, I am proud to look a founder in the eye and say, you have an unfair advantage if you partner with Team Sequoia. I’ve experienced first hand how Sequoia provides amazing signaling that helps founders recruit star performers — people who have seen the movie and lived it a few steps ahead of where the founders are in their own growth trajectory. Sequoia’s network of connections is unparalleled; building a company is hard – I want to give founders every unfair advantage they can get to make it as easy as possible to seek out the best customers, candidates and wisdom.
The team at Sequoia is exceptional. We are a crew of “spikey” individuals – each person is world-class at one thing (typically far more than one thing, to be honest) and it is inspiring to join forces with my partners. To be honest, I had ruled out venture in the past because I thought of it as a lone-wolf endeavor. Sequoia proved this notion wrong. When I got to know Sequoia, I realized that every investment is made as a team, and our investment decision-making process leverages that entire team. Once we’ve partnered with a company, the entire partnership is all-in on making it a success. It's not, “Oh, that's Dannie’s investment, or that's Pat's investment” – there may be one or two key sponsors, but each founder gets the weight of all of Team Sequoia helping them reach their goals.
Targeting the right companies for growth
HSFS: How would you define your role as a growth partner?
Dannie: My role as a partner is to invest in companies that are post product market fit and experiencing an inflection in demand and growth. I search for this inflection at any stage in the company’s funnel – it could be voracious demand for a free product or more concrete revenue momentum in selling paid seats / consumption.
There are maybe one or two companies minted every given year that will go on to become legendary. My focus is on figuring out what those are, how we can help them, and how to put ourselves in a position to become the chosen partners.
It’s a thrilling job – you never know which meeting will allow you to meet “the one.” This career is all about finding great investments – be they ‘diamonds in the rough’ or just diamonds – and bending the arc so that they have an unfair advantage for growing & dominating a market.
HSFS: What types of companies do you target and how do you effectively help them grow their business?
Dannie: At the earliest stages, I look for founder-market fit — is there a unique insight or experience that makes the founder the best person in the world to start this company? I also have a litmus test for myself, which is: if I left Sequoia today, would I jump in to work on this mission with this founder? The best founders spike at 3 things: vision, execution, and recruiting.
Once a product is released, I look for customer effervescence. To-date, each of my investments has had a community-led, bottoms-up component of the product’s demand. In fact, my entire career as both an operator and investor has been rooted in joining forces with such companies — those who build a thriving community and figure out how to convert loyalty and mindshare into market share.
Industry challenges and future goals
HSFS: What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your current role or in the industry?
Dannie: Well, I think the market in recent years has been absolutely flooded with capital. So, what does that mean? It means, if you think a company is interesting, there are probably 10 or 100 other investors that also find that company interesting. There is no part of this job that is sitting back and waiting for inbound—it is all about cultivating a prepared mind and honing in on companies that you want to work with.
The days of founders touring Sand Hill Road to pitch VCs are behind us. Great companies are based throughout this country and the world, and they often don’t need to raise; the job is to figure out how providing capital and my partnership is strategic for them even in the absence of needing an injection of cash.
HSFS: What do you see in the future for Sequoia?
Dannie: Our mission has been consistent—to help the daring build legendary companies. We are aware that the market is not static; it is alive and always evolving. We keep up with founders' needs in what they look for in a company-building partner.
For example, when I joined Sequoia, I noticed that we had a tremendous amount of support for the founders but there was an opportunity to bring that same level of support to the C-suites and rising star operators who work for the founder. These leaders crave peer groups, camaraderie and guidance on their respective careers. They also have a strong appetite to help companies at earlier stages, which creates a wonderful opportunity for us to play bespoke matchmaker between builders at all stages.
Women in the VC and startup communities
HSFS: What are your thoughts on the state of women in the VC world — from both the giving and receiving end of the “pitch”?
Dannie: I am proud of how the VC landscape has evolved, and it remains a work-in-progress. When you think about the end customers that companies serve, they are split across genders. Companies need diverse teams from the IC to the executive level in order to understand and reach such customers. Founders and executives need women at the board level to help support them in the journey. Female representation across boardrooms is not where it needs to be, but it’s growing rapidly in the right direction. The camaraderie among women in tech is exceptional across both sides of the table — we seek opportunities to join forces and we constantly root for one another.
HSFS: What advice would you give to aspiring women founders?
Dannie: When I think back to the messages I received as a girl and even in the early stages of my career, I was nurtured to achieve perfection, rather than to take big, bold, messy risks. So, there are all these things that I think we have to unlearn as women to thrive in a high-stakes, corporate environment — and I really want to champion that and encourage it even more. Rest assured, my daughters will receive a very different message.
Women are not encouraged to embrace rejection early enough. In life, you see guys asking girls out, not the other way around, so we don’t have the luxury of hearing “no” as often. So, when I see women founders, I hope they will understand that they do not need to achieve perfection. No one does.
What I’ve seen, and I hope to continue seeing, are women founders playing an active role in supporting one another in their success. I see great community building and support for women founders.
I encourage women who have an entrepreneurial spirit to tap into it. Keep going, take the scarier, more risk-seeking path, and swing big. Remember that you are amazing and are paving the way for the next generation. Look at inspiring women like Christina Cacioppo, CEO of Vanta; Kate Ryder, CEO of Maven; Mathilde Collin, CEO of Front; Michelle Valentine, CEO of Anrok; Brie Wolfson & Eeke de Milliano, co-founders of Constellate; and so many others. You are in good company and you are paving the way for greatness.