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There has been a cliche going around the last decade or so that goes “hope is not a strategy.” It inspired a book titled Hope Is Not a Strategy: The 6 Keys to Winning the Complex Sale and is repeated often by VCs in boardrooms when they are confronted with companies that are flailing, especially when trying to reach their revenue goals. I’ve been guilty of saying it a few times although it always left a funny taste in my mouth and I didn’t know why until this morning when I read a great essay (unpublished at this point) by Dov Seidman, the the Founder and CEO of LRN. In it Dov has a great punch line.
“No doubt you’ve heard the old business cliché that hope is not a strategy. During the recent presidential election one candidate in fact said this very thing in an attack ad against the other. It’s an expression usually used to belittle someone and to exhort them to deliver a linear plan. And while they are right that hope is technically not a strategy, inspirational leaders understand one final thing: that without hope there is no strategy. “
He is so absolutely correct.
I’m an optimistic, hopeful person. I think things will turn out ok. I don’t deny reality and I live by the words of John Galt when he said “It’s not that I don’t suffer, it’s that I know the unimportance of suffering.” I suffer plenty, I have plenty of things fail, and I’m sure I disappoint a lot of people. But I never give up hope, never give up trying to do better, and never give up learning from my mistakes.
We are coming to the end of a calendar year that has had a lot of crazy, bizarre, hostile, and negative stuff in it, especially in the past two months. I measure my years by my birthday, so my new year started on 12/1 when I booted up v47 of me. I was in pretty rough shape physically and emotionally because of the preceding few months but I was on the mend and optimistic. Other than struggling through a nasty cold (which is clearly linked to a completely trashed immune system from a pile of antibiotics and the past few months of system stress) I’ve had a great few weeks with Amy, some friends, and very little travel.
As I look forward to the next year, I have a clear strategy – both for my work, my personal life, and my health. A bunch of friends have said mildly cynical things like “you say that every year” or “I just read the annual ‘Brad broke himself” blog post” – mostly in an effort to be supportive, but clearly with the view that no matter what I try differently each year, the outcome will be the same and I’ll melt down somewhere in October or November.
Part of the beauty of an annual cycle is the opportunity to try again. To revisit your existing strategy or to create a new strategy. To shift your mindset from “this is inevitable” to “having hope for a different outcome.” Now – if you only have hope, but no strategy, you won’t make any progress. But if you have a strategy, but no hope, you are dooming yourself to failure before you begin.
So take advantage of this time of year. Do whatever you need to do to hit reset. Purge your brain of all the angry, negative, cynical, defeatist crap. Accept that context in which we are living. Then, create a new strategy for yourself – for work, for yourself personally, for your relationship, for whatever, and inject a good dose of hope into the mix.
Do something new. And be extraordinary at it. Remember Yoda – do or do not, there is not try.
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.
My partners at Foundry Group and I decided not to do something after a month of thoughtful deliberation. The decision is fresh so I’m not going to talk about the specifics, but our conclusion was that while it would be relatively easy to do and potential financially lucrative, it wasn’t consistent with our strategy.
I used it as an example this morning during my run with @reecepacheco about fully engaging with your mentors. While we could have made this decision on our own, we talked to a number of people who we consider our mentors (including several peers, investors of ours, and folks that have been doing what we’ve been doing a lot longer than we have), got their direct feedback, synthesized it, and made a decision. Of course, we had plenty of conflicting data, but it was all additive to our decision. And it was ultimately our responsibility to make the call on what we wanted to do.
During my run this morning, Reece and I also talked about fully engaging in the thing you are currently involved in. Reece and his partners are about half way through the 90 day TechStars NY program. He had lots of great feedback for me on his experience to date, but also had lots of questions about what he was doing and how he was approaching things, especially as he looked forward beyond the end of the program. I reinforced that he’s in the program for another six weeks or so and, rather than worry about what to do post-program, he should stay fully engaged in the experience he’s having now.
These two concepts are linked back to the notion of “Deciding Not To Do Something.” In the case of the decision my partners and I made, by listening to our mentors and being fully engaged in the business we are currently in, we decided not to do something that would have been an unnecessary distraction. Part of being fully engaged is understanding clearly the strategy you are executing. In our case, it’s a long term strategy that we are playing out over 20 years from when we started in 2007.
Sure, we’ll adjust tactics on a continuous basis, but we always measure what we are doing against or core beliefs that are the underpinnings of our strategy. And, while tempted by new and interesting ideas, we use these core beliefs to help us decide when we shouldn’t do something, even if it looks attractive.
We also revisit our strategy on a regular basis. We talk about it quarterly and do a deep review – both looking backwards and forwards – once a year. While we evolve parts of it over time, our clear understanding of what we are trying to accomplish helps us have clarity when presented with a strategic option that we shouldn’t pursue.
I find deciding not to do something to be incredibly liberating intellectually and emotionally. And, when I leave a big new idea on the cutting room floor, I make sure I sweep it into the trash and move on, never questioning the decision.
Reece – thanks for the early morning run, the talk, and the opportunity to talk this stuff through in advance of writing this post. Stay in the moment and keep kicking ass.