August 9, 2023

Gossip, complaining and back-channelling — the WhatsApp groups that run tech

WhatsApp groups are the lifeblood of the tech and VC industry; they're where business is carried out and true friends are made

Illustration by Lexie Yu

It’s been blamed for bringing down Silicon Valley Bank. It’s fuelled the rise of top-secret super angel groups and luxurious founder retreats. And it’s kept more than one founder awake far longer than they'd planned. 

WhatsApp has become an industry within an industry, a vital and almost unavoidable tool for VCs, founders and operators in a business built on personal introductions and advice from individuals who have "been there and done that".

“If, for some reason, someone doesn’t have WhatsApp, they won’t be able to participate in social and work conversations. The panic shows in peoples’ eyes when they save your number and it doesn’t immediately show up as a contact in WhatsApp,” says Rayan Dawud, a former investment partner at Dubai-based Outliers Venture Capital, who's now building a startup in London.


He says he sees “subgroups” of colleagues or friends form on the messaging service — “That's where you start to see collaboration: like the sharing of deal flow, introductions, back-channeling, and the usual gossip and complaining.”

From lawyer intros to making deals 

London-based fund manager Jonathan Sun is the founding member of two WhatsApp groups, Emerging Fund Managers and Gen Z VC London — an offshoot of popular US group for Gen Z VCs, which was started by the former investor Meagan Loyst — which have grown into communities that Sun says “essentially run themselves”.

The Emerging Fund Managers group in particular was started by Sun so he and other fund builders could access expert advice typically “hidden underneath a black veil”.  The group, now 120 people strong, has “unofficially turned into a Reddit” for anything related to alternative fund managing, whether it’s advice on lawyers to speak to or LPs to hit up.

Part of being a WhatsApp group creator is also allowing your creations to evolve with their users; the Gen Z VC group, Sun says, is no longer a 20-something VC hangout but is mostly for VCs and angels over 35. 

“We share events with each other — mostly about how every fund is hosting a rooftop summer party and either you’re invited or you’re not — or stuff like ‘hey we need two judges for this demo day’ or ‘we need more investors to sign up for this female founders’ thing',” says Sun.

But it’s not just recommendations and intros — there are also real deals being done on the messaging platform. One VC tells Sifted they've even closed investments from LPs over WhatsApp. 

Dawud, recalling his time as a VC in the Middle East, says that “an inappropriate amount of business” was conducted over WhatsApp, as is common for emerging markets. 

It’s common for VCs in the region to share closing documents over the platform — and occasionally even sign them, if it's a time-sensitive situation, he says. 

Collecting information to onboard a company after signing a deal was also common to do over WhatsApp, he adds: “I have passport copies and address verifications still sitting in my WhatsApp today.”

Pros and cons

Tech workers say WhatsApp is such a popular platform because it works almost anywhere in the world — startup teams are often remote and decentralised — and because building and investing in startups often involves the blurring of personal and professional boundaries: your investors are your friends, your staff are your friends, and founders are your friends. 


It’s for this reason that Hana Besbes, investor at healthtech firm Heal Capital, describes WhatsApp as “the platform of fusion, or melting point”, where the personal, private, intimate and formal all blend together. It’s the most “authentic channel” for her — she tells me in a 40-strong group titled "Ladies dinner club" — where she can send and receive long voice notes with founders and connect with other women and healthcare professionals in tech.

But WhatsApp is also emblematic of  a culture in tech where everyone has to be "on" at all times. 

“Ophelia is a machine,” Chaz Englander, cofounder of "stuff" rental platform Fat Llama, told Sifted back in 2020 of one of his investors, Ophelia Brown of Blossom Capital. “She’s just so bullish, but also the kind of person who’ll casually send me a WhatsApp in the middle of the night — and then four hours later text me to say, ‘Did you read my message?’”

If loads of founders have your phone number, that’s a big problem on your hands

If you aren’t careful, WhatsApp can become an extra, quickly filling, inbox.

“If loads of founders have your phone number, that’s a big problem on your hands,” says Sun. “Before long, your WhatsApp turns into your email inbox and you end up with 250 unread WhatsApps before bed. That means you’re not going to be there for the people that matter.”

Naturally, there’s also the risk of hundreds of people having your personal number. Both male and female VCs tell Sifted of instances where founders have made inappropriate advances to them over WhatsApp — but at least there’s the option of blocking people. 

Community and support 

In an industry known not to be particularly inclusive, WhatsApp groups can also be a place for underrepresented founders and VCs to find support and community. 

Sarah Hinkfuss, partner at Bain Capital in San Francisco, is part of a group called "Badass VC Mamas", for expecting mothers and women with young children. “We’re all women of a similar generation and there’s such implicit trust created in this group because of the similar lived experience,” she says.

Topics to have surfaced in the group in the last week, says Hinkfuss, span the personal and professional — from how to move a two-year-old from a crib to a bed and recommendations for healthy meal delivery services to market standard compensation for particular roles in VC, how to build a platform team, and even "a guy said this to me at a board meeting and I can’t believe it,” explains Hinkfuss. The group was a source of truth and accurate information during the SVB crisis, she says, when nobody knew who to trust. 

It's been a vital resource for the many new mothers who are the first at their firms to be expecting a baby, Hinkfuss says, as they can ask the group for advice on how to talk about it with their team, given that many funds across Europe and the US don’t offer parental leave. 

There’s such implicit trust created in this group because of the similar lived experience

“It’s not always easy to be a mum in venture, or a woman in venture. And I find this group to be a really important place of community,” she says.

Community is also what a WhatsApp group named "Desi Tech Mafia" has provided for south Asian tech founders, employees and investors in London. 

The group, founded by Speedinvest partner Deepali Nangia and Earlybird investor Akash Bajwa, started out as “just a couple of Indians” the pair knew in London, says Nangia. Now, it’s grown to a collective of 309 members, and counting. 

“Every time I need help, I ping the community,” says Nangia, whether it’s to connect to Indian VCs ahead of a trip there, or to hurriedly update an expired American visa.

Among the things that bind the group's members is the feeling of having left one’s own country and having to start from scratch, adds Nangia. The Desi Tech Mafia have helped each other make connections and discover the lay of the land in London. But there’s also always space for light-hearted conversation. 

“Of course, we talk a lot about business and there’s a lot of exchange that goes on there. But we also like to discuss things like where to find the best Indian mangoes in summer,” says Nangia.

WhatsApp groups are the lifeblood of the tech and VC industry: a place to not only get in on the best deals and to get invited to the best parties, but to make good friends. “There’s an unwritten saying in tech that if you’re not on WhatsApp, you’re probably not worth hanging out with,” concludes Sun.

Miriam Partington

Miriam Partington is a reporter at Sifted. She covers the DACH region and the future of work, and coauthors Startup Life , a weekly newsletter on what it takes to build a startup. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn