Are VCs with operating experience more successful?

Last week I had a meeting with a prospective limited partner (“Mr. X”) who is long time investor in venture capital funds. He’s extremely experienced, well respected, and has a phenomenal track record. He’s also very provocative, which always spices up a meeting like this.

As we were discussing the backgrounds of the various partners at Mobius Venture Capital, I made the statement that we all have had meaningful experience as entrepreneurs and technology executives (VP level or higher) prior to becoming venture capitalists.

X immediately asked me if I had any data to support my view that this was a good thing. He said “take the top 50 individual VCs (based on historical returns) and correlate their experience – what does it show?” I thought for a minute and ran through my head some of the great VCs I know. Before I reached a conclusion, X said “it’s random – totally random – there’s no correlation to performance.”

At first, this surprised me (I was about 50/50 in my quick mental sort when he answered for me). Then – as I thought more about it – I realized that operating experience is merely an attribute that someone has rather than an indicator of performance. Experience by itself (whether operating experience or venture capital experience) is not enough – I’ve certainly worked with some abysmal VCs who have a lot of “venture capital experience” (and I’ve also worked with some abysmal VCs who have plenty of operating experience).

I pushed on what he thought actually correlated with success. He responded that the great VCs he knew had a combination of incredible instincts honed by experience combined with the ability to quickly and accurately size up situations and draw effective conclusions. He labelled this “pattern matching” – which is a good phrase for this capability.

I think the combination is what is critical – neither operating experience or pattern matching alone is enough (e.g. “I’ve seen this before, but I don’t know what to do”).