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As a VC who has been blogging for a long time I’ve been fascinated by the VC Blogger phenomenon. I’ve been subscribing to, reading, forwarding, occasionally commenting, and setting up networks of feeds for a while.
With the relaunch of AsktheVC we’ve resurrected something we used to do periodically which is highlight a great VC post. However, we are taking a different tact this time around with our new motto.
“We read all the VC Bloggers so you don’t have to.”
It’s not quite the gray lady, but hey, we are just VCs and bloggers, not real journalists. Jason and I already have some great posts up from guys like Jeff Bussgang (Flybridge), Mark Suster (GRP), Fred Wilson (Union Square Ventures), Roger Ehrenberg (IA Ventures), Charlie O’Donnell (First Round Capital) and 500 Startups. We’ll provide a little additional insight, or at least a pithy comment.
We’ve also got a full list of known VC bloggers (at least to us) on the sidebar of AsktheVC. If we are missing anyone (I’m sure we are), please email me and I’ll add them.
On my run today I was thinking about GP – LP interactions. This line of thought was prompted by a contrast between two interactions, or rather one interaction and one non-interaction, that I’ve had in the past few days.
The interaction was I had with one of my LPs over the last 24 hours. They emailed asking for a reference on someone who indicated they knew me and had invested with me. I didn’t know the person, but knew a few people who did, and quickly sent emails getting addition info for my LP. With a small amount of effort I was able to generate some useful feedback, including triangulating on the deal he was suggesting we were investors in together (it was a true statement prospectively as it’s something I’m working on.) I was also able to get some specific one degree of separation feedback for my LP.
I contrasted that with the non-interaction that I’d recently had. I’m an investor in about 30 VC funds (so, in addition to being a GP in my funds, I’m an LP in a bunch of other funds.) I’m a very easy LP – I basically try to be available for the GP whenever they want, be supportive, make my capital calls on time, and be low maintenance. I invest in VC funds for several reasons, including my belief that long term it’s a good investment (and my overall performance across this category of investment bears this out.)
In the case of the non-interaction, I made an intro between an entrepreneur and the GP. I do this sparingly (per my Don’t Ask For A Referral If I Say No policy) – I’ll only do this if I think the fit is a good one. I think most of the people I’ve invested in and work with know this, but who knows. Anyway, in this case I haven’t heard anything back from the GP. When I thought about this, I realized there were several GPs I’ve invested in that are terrible at responding to me. Now, this might just be me, and not their LPs in general, but my guess is that the dynamic is a typical one given my knowledge of their individual tempo and work patterns.
I realized as I was thinking about this that I have very little respect for this type of behavior. I think you should treat your investors with the upmost respect, be extremely responsive to them, and to go out of your way to try to be helpful when they interact with you. When I reflect on the interactions I’ve had with my investors over the last 25 years, I always tried hard to be responsive, even if we had a disagreement, difficult conversation, or difference of opinion.
I tried to come up with a rationale for blowing off an LP. None of the obvious ones – I’m too busy, it’s not a priority, it’s not what I’m paid to do, I’m not interested – made any sense. And I couldn’t come up with any non-obvious ones that did either.
In every GP / LP relationship I’ve ever been involved in, there comes a moment in time when the GP needs something from the LP. This is true at the beginning of the relationship when the GP is asking the LP for an investment. It seems incredibly short sided to me for GPs to forget that they will once again need something from the LP and, instead of being responsive through the life of the relationship, only pay attention when the GP needs something.
Over the past 24 months, a deplorable activity in the money management business came to light. It got the name “pay to play” but was just another form of bribery. The common description of pay to play is “the practice of making campaign contributions and related payments to elected officials in order to influence the awarding of lucrative contracts for the management of public pension plan assets and similar government investment accounts.” Yup – sounds like bribery to me.
However, for some reason, the definition of this expanded to include any campaign contributions to any state or local officials, regardless of the size. So, if I contribute $1,000 to the campaign of the Colorado state treasurer, I violate this SEC rule and become someone who is “paying to play.” Now, as someone who gets multiple calls and emails most days to contribute to campaigns as an election approaches, I can assure you that it has never occurred to me to support the campaign for a state treasurer. However, I do know that a candidate for state treasurer has called me asking for campaign contributions. And I’ve politely declined.
After studying the implications of this ruling, I’ve decided it prohibits me and my spouse (Amy) from making any campaign contributions to state or local races anywhere in the country. The NVCA has also studied the new SEC rule and has come to the same conclusion:
“This ruling is consistent with guidance the NVCA has been providing members. It is now even more important to have a firm-wide policy against political contributions to these officials / candidates. This restriction does NOT include political contributions to candidates running for federal office (U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate, U.S. President) nor does it include contributions to the NVCA PAC, which only gives to federal candidates.”
We’ve instituted this rule at Foundry Group, although it’s upsetting and offensive to me because I think it fundamentally violates my First Amendment rights. To err on the side of caution, we’ve determined that spouses cannot make state or local political contributions either. This infuriates Amy, as it should.
It’s even more upsetting when you consider that there is no cap on political contributions that corporations can make. The Supreme Court ruled on this in January stating that the government has no business regulating political speech. So, on one hand we have corporations who can give any amount to any candidate running for office while on the other hand my wife can’t contribute $1,000 to someone running for governor of Colorado.
Now, don’t misunderstand me – I think pay to play is grotesque. And Amy and I are huge advocates of campaign finance reform. However, the core problem of pay to play is bribery, not the active support of state and local candidates for office by individual citizens. They are totally different things and should be able to be easily and cleanly differentiated, without the government regulating my political speech.
I’ve been in several board meetings over the past month where the companies are having a killer Q2. A year ago everyone was still pretty rattled from the financial crisis and there was plenty of belt tightening, consternation, and general anxiety. By Q409 we’d had a number of companies we are investors in end the year strongly and their growth has continued into Q1 and Q2.
Over the past 15 years, I’ve sat through plenty of good meetings and plenty of bad board meetings. I always try to acknowledge the efforts of individual executives when they’ve exceeded expectations and the full team when they’ve crushed it. I’m not afraid to be direct and critical and I always speak my mind, but I try never to forget to praise people for their efforts.
When I reflect on my peers, some of the best VCs I’ve worked with are amazing at acknowledging the efforts of the entrepreneurs and management teams, especially when they are dealing with complex situations. This praise isn’t gratuitous – it’s targeted, focused, and appropriate. And over the years I’ve occasionally seen it offered up at exactly the right moment.
Unfortunately, the opposite is more common. I often sit through a board meeting and watch in amazement as the VC investors socratically pick away at the management team, asking question after question but offering no substantive suggestions. If the business is having an issue, or the CEO is specifically looking to try to work through a problem, this can be helpful. But in the cases where the company has performed well, this is at best a tedious exercise in wasting everyone’s time. At worst, it’s insensitive and offensive to a management team that has performed well, especially in a tough situation. And often, it’s incredibly deflating and demotivating.
So, fellow VCs and board members, take a moment and remember that when people do a great job, it’s worth spending a moment acknowledging them. Most of the folks I’m working with are busting their asses to create real companies. They are making many sacrifices and tradeoffs to do what they do. A little pat on the back will go a long way, especially after three hours of questions.
Over the weekend, Mark Suster wrote a great post titled How To Communicate with your Investors between Board Meetings. Mark continues to just tear it up with great advice for entrepreneurs. However, he left out one thing from the post – which is one of my favorite pieces of advice for entrepreneurs.
Give your venture capitalists (and board members) assignments
Mark alludes to this in many of his suggestions but he never comes out and says it. And, amazingly to me, many entrepreneurs either don’t ever think of this or don’t feel comfortable doing it. They should.
Most VCs will quickly say that they want to help the companies they invest in to success. Some will go further and say things like “I’ll do anything I can to help my companies.” Rarely have I heard a VC say something like “My plan is to just hang around, go to board meetings, ask a few nonsensical, low insight, rhetorical questions, eat the crummy food, and then disappear until the next board meeting.” However, as any entrepreneur who has ever worked with multiple VCs knows, the statements a VC makes (or doesn’t make) doesn’t necessarily correspond to his behavior.
I think you can break this cycle early in the life of your relationship with your VCs by giving them assignments. At the end of the first board meeting, spend some time talking about your expectations for your board members (including your VCs), ask if they are reasonable, and then go around the table and ask each board member what they’d like to specifically help with between now and the next board meeting. Explain that you want to develop a cycle of accountability for each board member to the company and use this to (a) develop deep engagement from each board member between meetings, (b) benefit from the experience and wisdom of each board member on a continual basis, and (c) set a strong tone for the leadership team (and the company) that everyone has functional responsibilities that they are held accountable to. Acknowledge that it will take a few board meetings to get into a good rhythm with this, but be clear that you’ll spend a little time at the next board meeting going through individual assignments, what was done, and what the new assignments are until the next board meeting.
The assignments should be specific – if they are general (such as “help with strategy” or “help with the financing”) they will be useless. Make sure the assignments play to the individual board members strengths and interests. They should provide leverage for the leadership team; not create make work. They should be impactful, but not mission critical.
In companies where the CEO hands out regular assignments, I’ve experienced an awesome tempo after about six months. The board members begin holding themselves accountable and the management team is much more comfortable working directly with the individual board members. Over time assignments become less “stiff” and the regimen of passing them out and reviewing them at the board meeting will fade away over time as everyone gets used to being held responsible for what they sign up for.