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Phin Barnes at First Round Capital just nails it today with his post To get the most out of your investors, turn them into rubber ducks.
Go read it – I’ll wait and will be here when you get back.
I love Rubber Duck Debugging. I use this approach when writing, which I call “Writing with Yoda.” I have a little Yoda figurine staring at me at all times and when I stall out I just talk to him for a little while and then get started again. He always looks serene and wise and I almost always get going after talking to him for a little while.
Phin describes five steps to turn your investors into rubber ducks:
- Frame the problem you are facing: describe the challenge in enough detail that I can understand it without being an expert (because I am probably not an expert)
- Create context for an answer: Explain why this problem is a priority for you and the business and why you need to solve it now (because I am not involved in the day to day operation of your company)
- Propose a few solutions: Describe a few paths you might take and talk through how you would choose between them (this helps me understand the outcome you want to achieve)
- Be patient: Be open and engage deeply in the questions that I have and explain your answers with specific detail (even if it seems obvious)
- Be active: The goal is to debug the system and the builder is most likely to find the bugs we seek (and to see others along the way)
These are similar to how to engage a great mentor, which we teach over and over again in Techstars – both to the entrepreneurs and the mentors. If you’ve ever done a Top of Mind Drill with me, you’ll recognize the Rubber Duck approach with one twist – storytelling.
I’m a storyteller. I learned this from my dad. It’s part of why I love to write – it’s a way for me to think out loud and figure stuff out while telling stories. So – my favorite Rubber Ducks are the ones who can also tell stories, at the right time.
The risk of a Rubber Duck only approach as a VC is that you become overly socratic. We all know the VC who just asks question after question after question. The questions are often good, and they drive you deeper into the problem, but at some point you need to take a break. You need a breath from answering more questions. You need an analogy to relate to.
This is when the Rubber Duck should tell a story.
At a board meeting recently, the CEO looked at me and said “just tell me the fucking answer.” So I did. And that works also. But not until the CEO wants that. Until then, be a Rubber Duck.
Remember – the CEO makes the decision, not the VC. Unless the CEO explicitly asks. And – if as a VC you don’t trust the CEO to make the decision, you have that discussion with the CEO right now. And if you are a CEO who’s VCs aren’t letting you make the decisions, buy them some Rubber Ducks.
VCs love to say things like “we are entrepreneur friendly.” It’s trendy, catchy, and looks good on a blog post. But, as I’ve said in my post Your Words Should Match Your Actions, one can “damage their reputations by having their words not match up with their actions.”
Now – this post isn’t about responding to emails. Nor am I trying to be preachy. I’m not trying to explain a new behavior. Rather, I’m making an observation about something I’ve experienced – both as an entrepreneur and investor – since my first angel investment in 1994.
Here’s the situation, as reported this morning by an experienced CEO of a company we are investors in.
“We’re raising money. I have a good intro session. Prospective investor wants to meet in person, see a demo. We have a good 2nd meeting. We agree on action items. I go away and follow up.
Follow up again.
Radio silence still.
The first time it happened I was inclined to think it was the investor and that they just couldn’t find the time to send an email response saying, “sorry – no longer interested”. Then, it happened again this month.”
Now – initial non-responsiveness – whatever. Lots of people don’t respond to emails, intros, or requests for meetings. But after two in-person meetings, to be non-responsive is just plain rude.
How hard would be it be to say “Hey – great spending time with you – but this isn’t something I want to pursue.” Or maybe “Sorry for being slow – I’ve been swamped – I don’t have time for doing this right now.” Or – well – anything.
I’ve had this situation come up so many times that I’m immune to it. I assume that the VC isn’t interested. But I’m amazed at how the reputational damage follows the person around. And then – at some point in the future – that VC is looking for a response for something. Hmmm …
I’ve had this happen with LPs. When we went and raised our first fund in 2007, plenty of people wouldn’t meet with us. That’s fine. Lots said they weren’t interested after a first meeting. Totally cool. But some met with us but then were completely non-responsive after the meeting. Ok – whatever. But when those non-responsive LPs call me today asking for something – whether it’s to get together to “get to know me better”, or to get a reference on someone else they are looking at, or to learn more about what I think about the market for hardware investments, it’s really hard to get on the phone and spend time with them. I do – because that’s my nature – but I always remember their non-responsiveness.
I hear – and say – “No thank you” all the time. Every day. 50 times a day. That’s just part of the role I play in business. But I always try to say “No thank you.” It’s just not that hard. Especially when I know someone, or have engaged with them in some way.
Are you the guy the experienced CEO just encountered? How would you feel if your name – and your firm’s name – just went out via email to 60 CEOs attached to this story? Maybe you don’t care, but if your message is “we are entrepreneur-friendly VCs” you just undermined the reputation of your firm in a major way.
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.