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Rajat Bhargava and I have been working together since 1994. We’ve been involved in creating seven companies together (the most recent ones are MobileDay and Yesware) and, while most have been successful, we’ve had a huge number of positive and negative experiences along the way. We’ve mostly had a lot of fun and, when we haven’t, we always made sure we figured out what went wrong.
Minda Zetlin just put up an interview with us on the Inc. Magazine site titled 4 Signs You Should Say ‘No’ to a VC which I thought was excellent. She explores the entrepreneur – VC relationship and suggests four warning signs for an entrepreneur when interacting with a VC.
- The VC isn’t fascinated with your product
- He (or she)’s just not that into you
- You can’t be completely honest
- The VC doesn’t treat you like an equal
The paragraph on “you can’t be completely honest” is a seminal moment in my relationship with Raj. It also was a key point in my work career where, upon reflection, I completely and totally grokked the importance of being honest in the moment, clear about my reasoning, and willing to change my perspective based on new information, rather than feeling stuck in simply delivering a message. The section from the article follows:
“The important thing is to be completely transparent,” Bhargava says. “It’s very, very difficult to be transparent about your business, but it goes a long way toward building that relationship. ‘Here’s what I’m going through; here’s what I’m struggling with; here’s what I need help with.’ You have to know if that will spook the investor or if they’ll want to dig in and help you.”
That ability to be honest was a great asset in Feld and Bhargava’s relationship when they worked together on Interliant, the only one of their ventures that did not survive. After some politicking by a different executive, Feld removed a part of the company’s operations from Bhargava’s oversight. Bhargava took a few days to calm down, but then he explained forthrightly how disappointed he was and why he believed Feld had made the wrong decision. “Being open and directly confronting the issues, you get through it,” Bhargava says now. “I felt hurt, but I think our relationship is that much stronger.”
As for Feld, he recalls returning to his hotel after discussing the matter over dinner and feeling physically ill. “I knew I had completely screwed up,” he says.
I count Raj as one of my closest friends and trust him with my life. He’s had an enormous influence on how I behave as an investor and how I interact with entrepreneurs. Raj – thanks man – I look forward to many more years working together.
I spent most of the day yesterday at TechStars Boulder. Demo Day is a week away and I did my annual “talk about how to finance your company” thing which included meeting with each company and giving them advice on where they were in the process. As I walked to dinner, I felt incredibly energized – once again there is a great set of companies coming out of the program and it’s awesome to reflect on the progress that they’ve made in 90 days.
My “near the end of the program” talk has become a ritual for a few of the programs – I just sit around and answer questions about the financing process for an hour. This lets me tune the discussion specifically to what’s going on and what is top of mind of everyone at this stage in TechStars. Since everyone in the program is in the room, they get to hear specifically what their peers are going through and how things are being addressed. This is obviously not a steady state phenomenon from year to year as while some of the issues and dynamics around fundraising stay constant, the environment is continually changing.
I woke up to an email this morning from Isaac Squires of Ubooly which said “Best Analogy Ever: I think it went something like – “VCs are like D&D players – I’m the psi mage, and Jason is the barbarian…” It was part of my rant about VC archetypes.
One of the biggest mistakes entrepreneurs make is to assume “all VCs are the same.” Over and over again I hear questions like “how do I raise venture capital” or “how do I approach a VC”, or “what does a VC want to see in the first meeting”, or “now that I’m going to pitch a VC, what should I show them?” The answer – generically – is “I have no fucking idea – WHO are you meeting with?” This usually gets the person’s attention, at least a little.
The point I go on to make is that there are dozens are archetypes of VCs. Yesterday I listed half a dozen quickly off the top of my head using one line descriptions. I then paused and used an analogy that occurred to me in the moment and caused all the nerds in the room to smile. I said something like:
“Think about D&D, or Magic the Gathering, or any other game like that. The VCs are individual characters in D&D. Each character has a different set of skills, weapons, money, and experience points and over time develops more. A firm is a combination of different characters – at Foundry Group you might have a mage and a barbarian – and the combination is what you have to pay attention to.”
I played a lot more D&D than Magic (D&D was my junior high school game of choice) but the analogy holds exactly for Magic or even in simpler form Werewolf. One you realize you are dealing with many different archetypes with different skills and skill levels, and the configuration of these archetypes into a firm are similar to how characters combine and interact in a battle, you realize that there is no “generic VC.”
I moved off the analogy to make the point that you should do your research on the person and firm you are talking. It’s easy to do today via the web and the power of all the network connections between people. If you understand who you are talking to, what motivates them, and what they care about you can both target them better as well as have a much more effective conversation with them.
I expect I’ll use this analogy again and again – it’s better than saying “there are lots of different VC archetypes.” I need to think a little harder about the specific archetypes at Foundry Group since right now we all appear to be 3-D printed bobble-heads when you look at our website. At least there’s the consistent theme of beer in the background.
We describe Foundry Group‘s behavior as “syndication agnostic.” When we make an investment, we are completely agnostic as to whether or not we have a co-investor. This is true at early stages but also true at later stages. We make our own decisions to invest, or not to invest, independent of what other investors are thinking. As part of this philosophy, we’ll lead follow-on rounds for companies we’ve already invested in, including those making great progress where we will lead an up round that we price. We aren’t looking for outside validation from other investors of any sort – either positive or negative. Because we are syndication agnostic, we are delighted to work with great co-investors and welcome and encourage the interaction and partnership. But we don’t have any dependency on it for our decision making.
I saw two important posts this morning – one by Fred Wilson titled Social Proof Is Dangerous and one by Hunter Walk titled The Death of Social Proof. Both are worth reading along with the comments. Naval Ravikant, the co-founder of AngelList, also has a thoughtful comment on Hunter’s post, although I disagree with some of it.
For me, the essence of the conversation comes back to making your own decision as an investor. As an angel investor, I invested in many things and passed on many things. As a VC investor, I invest in a few things and pass on many things. When I look at what drives my decision to invest, it’s the entrepreneurs and the product. It’s never the existing investors, even if I like working with them. When I look at what drives my decision to pass, it’s the entrepreneurs and the product and occasionally the existing investors if I simply don’t want to work with them.
Within Foundry Group, we use a qualitative process to determine whether we are going to invest in something. Once we are actively engaged exploring an investment, all four of us independently interact with the company (although this may happen in groups of us.) To get to this point, it’s going to be a company we likely would invest in. However, we can only invest in about 5% to 10% of the company’s we see that reach this point based on the size of our funds, our tempo, and our deal flow. So we pass on 90% – 95% of companies that “we’d like to invest in, but for some reason don’t get there.”
The reason is almost always qualitative. If the sentiment from one of us trends down during the evaluation process, we immediately pass. This sentiment is driven by our individual interactions with the entrepreneurs and their product. But we each make our own decision, and a single qualitative negative trend causes us to pass. We make mistakes often – there are plenty of companies we pass on that in hindsight we would have liked to be investors in, and in some cases we get a second change and invest in the next round (Fitbit and SEOMoz are two that immediately come to mind.) We always offer to be helpful to the entrepreneurs if they get to this point – some take us up on this. But regardless, we aren’t looking to other investors, or “social proof”, to drive, or even influence our decision making.
This is especially powerful for follow-on rounds. We leave it up to the entrepreneurs whether they want to go find a new investor or not. We express our opinion early in the process and are supportive with whatever the entrepreneur wants to do. If we are going to invest regardless, we’ll make a commitment before the fundraising starts so the entrepreneur knows it is there, even if he isn’t able to attract an outside investor. And, if for some reason we aren’t going to invest, we are clear about it upfront.
I’ve found this interaction to be fascinating with other VCs who are our co-investors. Some are very comfortable with this approach and, as a result, we are attracted to working with them over and over again. Others aren’t, but aren’t offended by our approach, and, since we don’t need them to commit to co-invest along side of us for us to follow through on our commitment, tend to be thoughtful about what they want to do. And some don’t like this approach, although we rarely find this out until we’ve worked with them at least once. When we encounter this kind of situation, we tend not to seek them out as co-investors in the future.
All along the way, we try to be painfully clear with the entrepreneurs that we are making our own decision, independent of the behavior of other investors. This has come from many years of seeing “the investor syndicate” make bad decisions either in the case of a successful company (where they don’t lean in) or an unsuccessful company (where everyone keeps dragging each other forward to “one more round.”) We’ve evolved a deeply held belief that we need to make our own decisions, independent of everyone else, communicate them clearly, and move quickly one way or another.
I’ve tried to scale this personally to my whole life. I don’t really care what other people think – I just try to do my best all the time and learn from everything I do. I describe that as being intrinsically motivated by learning. Sure – I listen to all the feedback I get, but am mostly looking for content, especially content that I can use to improve what I do (and learn from). Praise and validation go in the same bucket as social proof for me – I appreciate it but ignore it.
Are you making your own decisions?
Yesterday I sent emails out passing on participating in two seed rounds for companies I really like. They had lots of investors trying to invest and each company was competitive with two other seed stage companies we’ve seen in the past 30 days. All are exciting, all are working on something that we like, and all of them are at the starting line with different strengths and weaknesses.
So far this year the number of high quality seed investments we are seeing in themes that are relevant to us is overwhelming. This is an awesome situation – for us and for entrepreneurs – and something I’m extremely excited about. But it forces us to think about our strategy, especially at the seed stage, and make sure we are comfortable with it. We are, but it occurred to me that it’d be worth putting it out there both so it’s known how we are thinking about seed investing and to get feedback on how we are approaching it.
First, some background. We’ve made a conscious decision as a firm never to grow – either number of partners or size of fund – so we are limited to the number of new investments we can make a year based on our approach. This translates into about a dozen new investments a year plus or minus a few.
Our strategy is “early stage” – so we are comfortable with seed investments, first round investments, and what might in the past have been called Series B investments if the company hasn’t raised much money to date (less than $3m). We summarize this as saying to entrepreneurs that if you’ve raised less than $3m so far, we are a target for you; if not, we aren’t. We are willing to invest as little as $375k as our first investment (e.g. Next Big Sound) or $15m as our first investment (e.g. SEOMoz).
We only invest in companies in our themes and only invest in US-based companies so we can say no in 60 seconds to 99% of the companies we see. Our goal isn’t to invest in all of the great companies; it’s to invest in around a dozen great companies a year. We are geographically agnostic – anywhere in the US – about 33% of our investments are in Colorado, about 33% are in California, and the rest are spread around the US. We are syndication agnostic – happy to invest alone and equally happy to invest with firms we like to work with. And we are very patient – we’ll lead our own follow-on rounds (at markups if warranted), are willing to invest up to $10m in a company before we declare “the moment of truth” as we’ve seen many companies break out in year three or year four of their life, and play for many years with the goal of building meaningful companies.
Finally, we believe strongly in active engagement as a seed investor. It’s not natural to us to make a bunch of passive seed investments or to toss $100k directly into a company without engaging with the company at the seed stage. We don’t have a seed program, nor do we expect to – if we invest, we are in for the long term.
So – what do we do?
1. Pass on the cluster: Per the intro to this post, if we see a cluster of seed investments in an area that we like, we are passing on all of them and trying to engage with them with the goal of leading the next round for one of them. Our belief is that we have to earn the right to invest and we want the entrepreneurs to choose us. At the same time, we want to invest in entrepreneurs who want to work with us and view us as a unique resource for them rather than just another check. In almost all cases like this, the seed round is easy to raise right now, which is awesome for the entrepreneur and gives her more choices downstream. We hope to earn our way in as one of these choices, while at the same time getting to know the entrepreneur better over a reasonable period of time. Of course, part of this is keeping the individual entrepreneurs plans confidential so we are very careful not to share any information between companies, although we’ve found several clusters where all of the entrepreneurs know each other and are already friends.
2. Support accelerators – especially TechStars – to create more seed opportunities: We co-founded TechStars and are investors in the program. Last year we helped put together (and invested in) Star Power Partners, which invests $100k in a convertible note in every TechStars company. As a result, we are tiny indirect investors in all of the companies that go through TechStars. Many of these companies raise less than $3m coming out of TechStars – all of them are subsequently in our zone for the next round financing.
3. Support other seed stage VCs: We’ve actively supported (as investors in their funds – individually, not through Foundry Group) many seed stage VCs including Jeff Clavier (SoftTech), David Cohen (Bullet Time), Manu Kumar (K9), Chris Sacca (Lowercase), Dave McClure (500 Startups), Eric Norlin (SK), and David Beisel (NextView). We don’t expect anything for this other than a role as a typical LP, but we view it as increasing the seed ecosystem.
4. Stay firmly focused on our strategy: We’ve seen strategy drift destroy VC returns, create chaos within VC firms, and make a mess of many VC / entrepreneur relationships. We know what we do well and are intent on continuing to do it for a long time.
As I mentioned at the beginning, we’re always thinking hard about how we do things and would love any feedback.
When Jason and I started AsktheVC, one of our goals was to have a place where entrepreneurs could ask us questions and get direct answers. We did this for a while, getting to most of the questions which has created a very nice corpus of answers to several hundred questions easily searchable by Lijit.
- How Did We Get Our Idea For Our Startup?
- How Much Equity Should an Early Stage COO/CFO Get?
- How Do You Negotiate a Carve Out With Investors?
Of course, these are our answers and opinions, and many of the questions are subjective, but they form a starting point for any entrepreneur looking for answers to a bunch of random questions from a VC.
Now that we have relaunched AsktheVC with the publication of Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist, we’ve started answering questions again at AsktheVC. You’ll notice a “Have A Question” link just above the Do More Faster image on the right sidebar. We’ll try to answer them within a few days of them coming in. And, if you have a different opinion to any of our answers, please weigh in on the comments.