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Over the past few months I’ve watched several powerful and successful VCs and entrepreneurs damage their reputations by having their words not match up with their actions. I think this is especially true in the context of a long term relationship.
This is a deeply held value of mine and of my partners at Foundry Group. I occasionally screw up and when I do I own it, apologize, and learn from it. But it stuns and amazes me when others assert strong style / values / culture and then consistently have their actions not line up with their words.
Here are a few VC examples:
VC asserts he’s “founder friendly”: This is currently in vogue across many VC firms. Very experienced VCs are talking about how they are focused entirely on supporting the entrepreneur. But then, when something goes wrong, they act randomly and capriciously. Or they simply disengage without warning. Or they try to retrade an earlier deal just because they think they can. Or they threaten to veto a deal unless they get something more than they are entitled to.
VC asserts certain followup behavior with every entrepreneur they meet with: In the vein of “we are holding ourselves to a high level of interaction”, the VC suggests a certain behavior pattern in their deal evaluation process or interaction with entrepreneurs. They do this sometimes, but are inconsistent.
VC suggests that the deal is firm and will happen: Then, two weeks into “due diligence” which, based on the previous evaluation, should be a proforma exercise, abruptly pull out of the deal because “some of my partners aren’t supportive.”
This, of course, isn’t limited to VC behavior. I see it all the time with entrepreneurs. For example:
Entrepreneur suggests he’s “radically transparent”: Nice, and popular, but do you tell your employees exactly how many months of cash you have left? Or do you keep the fact that you and your partner are having a major conflict from your investors? Or how about that your business isn’t doing very well and you are working every backchannel you know to try to have an acquihire happen for you that will have a negative impact on your investors.
Entrepreneur asserts he isn’t shopping the deal: And then he does. It’s ok to shop a deal, just don’t assert you aren’t!
Entrepreneur inflates his relationship with another entrepreneur or VC: It’s fine to be connected on LinkedIn or say you worked at the same company in the past, but don’t say you are best friends if you haven’t interacted with the other person in over a year.
I could keep going. It’s similar to what Amy and I wrote about in Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur when we talk about your words having to match your actions. When I tell Amy that she is the most important thing in my life, and then am 30 minutes late to dinner because “I’ve just got to get something done” my words aren’t matching up with my actions. Or, when we are together, the phone rings, and I automatically answer it rather than asking if it’s ok for me to take the call. Or, when she gets hurt if I don’t drop everything I’m doing and go help her out.
Words matter. And having them match your actions matters matters even more.
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.
I discovered Josh Breinlinger’s blog this morning via a tweet from @stefanobernardi. I added it to the Ask the VC blogroll, read carefully through his post VCs are liars. And so am I, and declared it the VC post of the day.
And – Josh is right – it’s super hard to say “you suck” or “your team sucks” as a reason for passing. Most VCs aren’t willing to do this as they either don’t want to deal with it, don’t have the emotional constitution for it (it’s hard to say no constantly throughout the day, every day), or don’t recognize that’s the actual reason they are passing.
At Foundry Group, our most common reason for passing is that what you are working on doesn’t fit within our themes. We try to pass on these companies in less than 60 seconds. If you assume that you are one of the 1,000 or so companies a year we see that fit within our themes, we quickly narrow it down to about 100 companies that we spend real time on based on one of three reasons.
- We don’t like the team
- We aren’t excited about the business
- You are too late stage for us
We usually figure this out in the first meeting. You’ll rarely get past interacting with one of the four of us if one of these three is the case. I’ll come back to this, especially point #1, in a minute.
If you end up in one of the remaining 100 companies a year we look at, recognize that we’d probably like to invest in your company. So by this point we like the team – that’s the not the reason we end up passing. Nor is it the business. Our challenge is that we can only invest in a dozen companies a year. We’ve purposefully constrained the number of companies we invest in a year to 12 +/- 2 (our fund is $225m, we have four partners, and have no interest in ever growing bigger.)
100 companies a year we love? 10 – 14 potential investments a year. How do we choose? At this point it’s completely qualitative. We just spend time going deep, individually and together, on every company in this set. We dig into the people and the product. It’s usually pretty obvious when all four of us are off the charts excited about investing. If we aren’t, then we don’t.
The toughest cases are the ones where we are excited, but something qualitative is holding us back. This is always either people or product. But it’s not because we think the people (or the product) suck – we are way past that point. Rather it’s something that just doesn’t catapult it into our “we are out of our mind with enthusiasm about investing.”
So – in our case, the equivalent of “the people suck” happens early – as we narrow from 1,000 to 100. In those 900 that we pass early in the process on, often people issues are the drivers. It’s not necessarily that the people suck, but it’s often the team doesn’t inspire us, we don’t click with them, we think there are weaknesses somewhere that are significant, or we just don’t get the right vibe. We are often wrong on this, but if asked will be blunt about it. It’s hard, so it’s more “reactive” when someone asks rather than “hey – we’ve decided to pass because you suck”, but we try to never hide behind something else when someone asks for feedback.
Having now done this for 18 years (eek) and said no to people about investing somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 times, it’s really hard to tell someone the reason is them. But, when asked, I try. And I’ll keep trying.
At the HBS VC Alumni event I was at last week (no – I didn’t go to HBS – I was a panelist) I heard a great line from a wise old VC who has been a VC about as long as I’ve existed on this planet.
“VCs only need three rights: Up, Down, and Know What The Fuck Is Going On”
If you’ve read Venture Deals: How To Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist, you already know that Jason and I agree with this statement. And even though a term sheet might be four to eight pages long and the definitive documents might be 100 pages or more, other than economics, there are really only three things a VC needs in a deal.
Up: Pro-rata rights. When things are going well (up) a VC wants the ability to continue to invest money to maintain their ownership.
Down: Liquidation preference. When things don’t go well (down), a VC wants to get their money out first.
Know What The Fuck Is Going On: Board seat. Beyond demonstrating that older VCs also swear in public, many people believe that with a board seat comes great power and responsibility. In reality it mainly gives one the ability to know what’s actually going on, to the extent that anyone knows what’s actually going on in a fast moving startup.
As I was writing this up, I remembered that Fred Wilson had a post about this a while ago. I searched his blog (using Lijit and the term pro-rata) and quickly found a great post titled The Three Terms You Must Have In A Venture Investment. He attributes this to his first VC mentor, Milt Pappas, and the three terms are the same ones referenced above. It’s a great post – go read it.
Entrepreneurs – don’t get confused by the endless mumbo-jumbo. If you haven’t read Venture Deals: How To Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist grab a copy. Or read blogs. Or do both. And VCs – don’t forget what terms you really care about – focus on making it simple.