It’s Not My Company

VCs say a lot of stupid things.  I’m guilty of it plenty and whenever someone calls me on it I try to acknowledge and change.  One that I try really hard not to do is say “my company” when referring to companies I’ve invested in – I think it’s one of the most annoying things a VC can say.

I was talking to a VC the other day about a few companies he had invested in.  By the third time he referred to one of the companies as “my company” (as in “My company is working on X”, “My company would like to talk to Company Z about thing Y”) I felt myself starting to react.  I didn’t really have a relationship with this VC, but I knew that he had never run a company (investment banking post college, MBA, then VC). I realized I wanted to stop him at some point and say “dude – it’s not your company – you are merely an 18% shareholder in the business.”  I bit my tongue and had the conversation, but I’ve been thinking about this in the back of my mind ever since.

One of the great lines from TechStars is “It’s your company.”  That’s the way David Cohen and I remind the TechStars’ founders that ultimately all the decisions are theirs – the mentors (and us) are providing data, feedback, thoughts, and insight – but not telling them what to do.  Sure – a lot of our (and the mentors) language is directive (e.g. I just sent an email to a TechStars CEO that said “you should do thing W right now”) but ultimately the decision as to what to do is the CEO’s.

While I’ve got plenty of rights as an investor, I’m very aware that I’m “an investor.” If you are a CEO or an entrepreneur, I can’t imagine anything more annoying than hearing one of your investors refer to the business as “his company.”  Now, if the investor owns more than 50% of the company, I guess this is a legitimate legal perspective, but it’s still an incredibly demotivating position to take.

So – to all my friends out there in VC-land – let’s try to change the language.  Some of the VCs I respect the most – like Fred Wilson – diligently refer to investments they make as “portfolio companies” (as in “our portfolio company X").  I often refer to them as “our investment” or “our portfolio company”.  Regardless of the approach you take, think about the language you use, especially the impact on the people who are working their asses off every day to make “their company” successful.

Sorry if this feels pedantic to you.  It’s now out of my head and on this blog so I can move on.  As someone I love likes to say “my work here is done.”

  • Right on Brad.

    Couldn't agree more.

  • Your point is well taken, but given the depth and power of one's commitment to a "portfolio company", it can be a hard habit to break……..

  • Harry DeMott

    I have a slightly different take on it.

    If a VC really means "my" company when he is an 18% investor – then he is an ass.

    However, in the public markets, investors often refer to "our company" when talking to the CEO about the company – not meaning to be proprietary but merely to make sure that the CEO understands that they are both stakeholders in the company together.

    My guess is that the VC in question is probably just being proprietary about his deals and wanting to work them.

    Sure Fred's take is more politically correct and ruffles fewer feathers – but I doubt that the VC in question really wants listners to infer that they are in fact "his" companies.

    There's always a lot of talks on these blogs about management and founders and making sure they are treated with the utmost respect etc…, but I rarely hear the opposite spoken of investors – which is somewhat disingenuous. To my thinking the best VC's and founders will form deep and lasting partnerships – with one providing advice and capital (monetary) and the other providing management and capital (human)

    So in the end it is not "my company" and it is not "your company" – it's "our company"!

  • Pablo

    Do you think it is appropriate for one of two or more co-founders to say "my company"?

  • Brad, VCs are not the only one to say "my company". Pretty much every service provider you work with calls it "my company". If you listen to two lawyers talking about companies they represent, they will also say "…my company…".

    I always fell strange when they say that, but I haven't put enough thought to decide if that's bad, good or just lack of awareness of the situation.

  • I don’t think calling something “my company” vs. “our portfolio company” signals any difference in commitment.  If anything, I think it signals a stronger respect for the role between the entrepreneur(s) and the VC(s). I appreciate a VC’s deep commitment (and don’t question it based on language), but there’s a nuance here that has always felt important to me.

  • As an entrepreneur and cofounder, I can't help but feel the exact opposite. When customers, advisers, new employees, and even investors talk about the company as 'we' or 'my', I can't help but feel excited that they too feel the same connection that I do. Whether someone owns 100% of the equity or zero equity, if they dedicate 100 hours a week or if they only can add a couple hours, the more people who take ownership in the company and the vision, the more likely it is to succeed.

  • Well said.  While I agree that the “our company” language is fine (and is certainly reasonable to use between shareholders, management, and the entrepreneurs), it still feels wrong when one VC says to another VC “my company”.  It’s especially wrong when one VC says this to another VC IN FRONT of the entrepreneur.

  • I’m always fine with that.  I’m totally comfortable with founders referring to the company as “my company”.  I guess you can turn this discussion around and say that it’s not the founders company either, it’s the shareholders’ company (per the previous comment), but I never struggle with the entrepreneurs characterization of it – just the VCs.

  • I’ve actually been known to burst out laughing when a lawyer says “my company” when referring to a company that I’m an investor in.  THAT I’m not shy about correcting, especially when the bills are big ones.  I like to suggest that they should refer to the company as “my meal ticket.”

  • Interesting and helpful.  I wonder how widespread this is.  I hadn’t ever thought to check with the entrepreneurs I’ve backed to ask them if they prefer me to call their companies “my company”, “our company”, “my portfolio”, or “my investment”.  My guess is that it’ll vary by entrepreneur and audience but this motivated me to check around.

  • out of curiousity, would a VC have made this post 10 years ago?

  • I hope so, although as far as I know there weren’t any VC bloggers in 1999.  But I expect there were plenty of VCs that had this opinion.  I did a decade ago, even though I didn’t write publicly about much of anything.

  • While I would never use the label "my" company, I frequently use the term "we" and sometimes "our" when referring to a company while interacting with portfolio executives. Do you feel like "we" is a similar misnomer in that case? I think it really depends on the overall context, but per @MichaelSheeley's point, "we" can convey a camaraderie with a portfolio company.

  • “We” and “our” in the right context works just fine.

  • You're spot on – couldn't agree more. The VC is an enabler / facilitator / nurturer and part owner. "My" comes across as arrogant and stupid, especially if it's a minority stake. "Our" portrays the sense of collaboration and leaves the ego at the door. Good to see you, Fred Wilson and others putting this message out there.

  • Great post.

    A study of football fans found that when a team wins, the fan refers to the team using "we" as in "we kicked their butts." When a team loses, the fan refers to the team in the third person, as in "those dogs couldn't get a first down if their lives depended on it." Also testosterone levels decrease in losers, and increase in winners. The same phenomena probably apply to VCs…

    And agreed that no one, including the CEO or founder, should refer to a company as "my company" except when it is unavoidable. We never say "I."

  • "My" implies (at least to me) sole ownership and probable arrogance. It's accurate language for a sole proprietor, but a company is always an "our" effort. From an investor, I would find "my company is…" annoying and indicative of a certain mindset. However, I would find "we are trying to…" fine and healthy from an investor.

  • I've noticed another pronoun (mis)use that I don't think is proper.

    Seriel investors are very quikc to switch to we when first first learning about a company.

    "Where are we on unique visitors?"

    "What are we seeing with revenue?"

    and then they'll confirm back such as:

    "So we're doing X unqiues, on X revenue"

    Sometimes its flattering, but a lot of times it's insulting.

  • Jim

    couldn't agree more. I'm a VC and try hard never to say "my company" – especially since I have also never run a company. I also try hard never to refer to a portfolio company or an investment as a "DEAL". They are not deals, they are companies.

  • Kirk Sanders

    I find this very insightful on the your part (as aVC) and appreciate your perspective. As an entrepreneur who has led several startups and collaborated with VCs and Angel investors it can be very annoying to hear them refer to their investment as “their company”. While I sincerely appreciate their investment, involvement and their interest in advancing the business of the company, it’s still my company until it isn’t.

  • David

    Implying that the lawyers are feeding off the company and not part of the team.

  • Totally agree Brad. At Trinity Ventures, we try to do little things like have pictures of our portfolio company founders on the walls of our office as ways to reinforce the notion of venture investor as "partner/collaborator" instead of "owner". Our annual Trinity portfolio company CEO/founder dinner is another example.

  • Buzz

    I say "my country" and I actually own a lot less than 18% of it

  • Nice point of view. I like how you added a different angle to the perspective.

  • Depending on the VC their choice of "my company" could shed some insight into how they see themselves and the role they play. Using "my company" suggests an inflated sense of self and the role they play. A VC not using "my company" like Fred and yourself suggest a real understanding of the eco-system and the roles of all the players.

    VC's are enablers. The founders are just that the founders, the innovators. It is a symbiotic relationship. Both are needed. When a VC. an enabler, calls it "my company" he is insinuating more ownership around the founder, and innovator component that in most cases is not theirs to claim.

    One of the negative perceptions of VC's is their inflated sense of importance and value in the start-up eco-system. VC's can certainly NOT be understated in this system, but they can't be overstated either.

    Excellent post Brad!

  • The “deal” word is particularly difficult for us.  We’ve tried (and continue to try) to banish it completely from our language at Foundry Group.  For some reason, especially in internal discussions, it keeps popping up.  We’ll keep trying!

  • How about saying "A company I am a minority partner in….." and in that same conversation you could say "My company".

    Since 1994 I have been starting-up internet companies and I make it a point to be clear with my investors that their role is to provide funding. My role (and other partners) is to operate the company. In my first few companies I would have investors waking me at 8am (after I worked all night until 5am) asking why I was not at the office, etc. This would make me very angry and frustrated but over time I learned how to set the boundaries.

    In short it seems the issue might stem from the founders. Of course it is a two way street but it is important to set boundaries as founding partners.

  • doug

    Interesting post… especially all the heated reactions it generated.

    The slightly snarky comment about the VC (who "had never run a company (investment banking post college, MBA, then VC)") raises another interesting issue. There are some quite good VCs with this background and very few who were founders and CEOs of startups. I suppose it's a different set of skills, but Brad captures perfectly the difference between the perspective of the VC (who has 10 or 15 portfolio investments) and the entrepreneur (who lives or dies with "my company").

  • I think that qualifier works just fine.  It’s the blanket “my company” that bothers me.

  • I intended no disrespect to the VC who has never run a company.  I just wanted to point out how inappropriate I think it is for him to say “my company” when he’s never actually had the experience of running a company.  For example, Fred Wilson will quickly acknowledge that he’s never run a company.  Yet, he’s very careful to be very respectful about the dynamics between the entrepreneur and the VC, especially with respect to talking about “the company”.

  • As company founders might understand, some company founders might be sensitive on this issue because of having been reminded of the 'Mother Goose' story "The Little Red Hen" where the hen found a grain of wheat and saw the potential, was denied help planting, milling, and making the bread, but, when the bread was out of the oven and warm and fragrant, had eager volunteers to eat it! Ah, it's an old story! Still, the hen, even after 'expansion stage' capital, hearing "my bakery" might have some ruffled feathers!

    Of course, she should just smile and think of what her 82% of the 100% all-natural, organic, artisanal, boutique bakery, uh, 'boulangerie', selling lifestyle dreams, status, prestige, approval, envy, and social status to the Chablis, Brie, BMW, Hamptons, Greenwich, and Upper East Side crowds, while they still have money enough for a loaf of bread, along with starch, gluten, yeast, CO2, and Malliard reactions, will be worth after the M&A with Hostess!

    Ah, the dough is about ready for the oven — back to work!

  • Brad, its very refreshing to read something like this but I am guessing this happens more often than not. In the entrepreneur/VC world, there is so much ego involved that I think most of us would be an are surprised when an investor didn't say 'my company' when referring to one of his portfolio companies. No, he's not putting in the 86 hours a week the founders are, but as @michaelsheeley said, it is nice to hear your investor attach himself to your sweat and tears. And most likely it is creating more awareness and credibility of the company. But three times in a conversation is pretty annoying.
    Good post.

  • Chart

    Gotta disagree. If he owns any % that makes him an owner and gives him the right to say "My Company". Granted he is not a controlling owner but so what? Employees might not own any stock and still refer to their employer as "My Company". Nothing wrong with that. It indicates a strong association/identity with the company. A bigger concern for the VC is that the choice of words "My Company" may mean he has too much attachment to the company to sell.

    • I’m actually completely fine with employees referring to a company as “my company” – and I encourage it.  It just feels very different to me when a VC says it.

      • Chart

        What's different about a VC saying it? Ownership is ownership even if it is only 1 share of a big entity.

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  • Phil Sugar

    I think its all in the delivery.

    Somebody posted a while back that it took them less than a minute to figure out what kind of VC they were talking to: One that viewed themselves as one part of the entrepreneurial community, and the other that viewed themselves as an emperor that because they had the money everybody needed to bow in their presence.

    So in one case its like saying: "we won" when your favorite team wins.

    And in the other its as offensive as referring to a person as a piece of property.

    I have no doubt what kind of VC Brad was talking to.

  • Concerned LP

    VC's also need to remember that it is not "my company" because it's not "my money." Too often, VC's forget that the money you manage is not yours, but is students (endowments), charities (foundations), retirees (penioners), and individuals. So ownership of a company is further removed from a VC b/c it is 1) not your company and 2) not your money. We need a serious attitude check in the VC community. The arrogance (often, not always) is tiring, particularly when 98% of VC's have done nothing for 10 years, regarding returning some of that money to your investors.

  • JGB

    You're taking the phrase out of context. There is no implicit arrogance or overinflated sense of self importance when a VC says "my company". We know exactly how much we own and we know we are usually far from the most important player. Within a partnership, while we share in each other's successes and failures, we each take ownership and responsibility of our own portfolios. It's within this context that "my company" makes perfect sense. Outside of partner to partner discussions we're really saying "my [portfolio] company". It's really kind of silly to try and read into it beyond this.


    • What you know isn't necessarily what others see. If you're being constructive, "we" and "our" are very good words to use, and they do make a difference. Whether you read into it or not, others do–not least the people who work to build the company you're funding.

      • JGB

        Joseph, I certainly take your point but think about what you're suggesting. The issue isn't that VCs talk to a founder and describe his/her business as "my company". Even the most egotistical of the pack wouldn't be that offensive. The issue is when talking to someone not involved in the business that VCs often talk about "my company". In this context its nonsensical to use "we" or "our" unless the CEO or entrepreneur is standing next to you (which they hopefully are not most of the time).

        Someone may have used this analogy already; but if I was an entry level software engineer or bench scientist at a start-up and the company successfully raised a bunch of money, you would have no problem if I told a friend or a group of people that "my company" raised a $XXM. What's the difference here? Again, its really very silly to scrutinize this.

        • Take your points as well, JGB (isn't civility a wonderful thing?). The fact that there are 43 replies on this thread, though, and that Brad wrote about it in the first place tells me it might not be so silly to scrutinize it after all, though I think it would be silly to obsess about it. Perhaps it's the way "my company" is expressed.

          There are two reasons I think it isn't silly to scrutinize this:

          1. Employees in a company can be motivated and demotivated by the behavior of the funders. If I have invested months/years of my life and sweat equity into a company and a guy who bought 18% six weeks ago called it his company, I might not say a word, but I might take it as a subtle cue about who's running the show. Again, whether it's true or not, perceptions matter. This comes up in talks with the founders I work with.

          2. More to my own background, when I was the potential buyer for commercially-oriented start-ups, I listened closely for cues about who makes decisions and what the relationship with a company might be like. Were I to hear that those at the center had anything less than complete psychological ownership, I wouldn't take the chance on them (and I have been in that situation). If an established business takes a chance on a start-up, they need to know whose company it is and what that person's integrity is. They want to know that the company will be there, and that it will follow through. It's the founder and team that convey that. Again, it might not matter to some, but the language creates a perception that leads to an action. It's subtle but important.

  • I totally agree with MichaelSheeley. If an investor refers to a company I've founded as "my company", then I'm excited that they are married to the company and it's future. However, there are always those investors out there that when they say "my company" they mean it with conviction, so much so that they want to dominate.

    Being proud of an investment is plausible, being controlling is not.

    Great post Brad.

  • Good post Brad.

    I haven't heard this one too often, thank goodness, but of course it has to affect the people working 24/7 to make the business successful. Professional managers/leaders know that it is critically important to get their team to take ownership…. to be proud of their successes, and to take responsibility for their inevitable stumbles. Professional managers/leaders try to dish out all of the credit to the folks that work for them because this is what keeps people working 24/7 for less-than-market salaries. VCs are actually managing and leading folks as well, and that is why your post should be interesting to folks.

    We all need to remember that as leaders, our jobs are to inspire and teach. When we forget that, we can't manage or lead very effectively.

    Again, nice post Brad.

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