Do You Regret Failed Investments?

This weekend I’m co-hosting the VC Bootcamp at my house in Boulder. It starts tonight and goes through mid-day Sunday. It’s an experiment with Jerry Colonna and about 15 other VCs to see if the bootcamp construct works with VCs, where the tag line for the experience is:

Practical Skills + Radical Self-Inquiry + Shared Experiences = Enhanced Leadership + Greater Resiliency

It’s either going to be valuable to this group or not. We’ll know more on Monday. The only way to learn is to try.

As part of the pre-work for the weekend, I went back and re-listened to several of the podcasts that Jerry recommended in advance (for you Soundcloud people I made a VC Program collection.)

So, my brain was already trending toward the headspace around radical self-inquiry in the context of venture capital. Yesterday, Fred Wilson wrote what is the best VC-related post of 2016 so far titled Losing Money. In addition to exemplifying the notion of radical self-inquiry, it is filled with gems about how to think about struggling companies and what to do with them in the context of a VC portfolio.

Go read Fred’s post Losing Money right now. I’ll be here when you get back.

When I woke up this morning, I noticed a tweet from Rand Fishkin aimed at me and Fred.

Fred answered “it is one of my weaknesses that I let a bad experience sour me on a market for life.” And, I’ve seen some of Fred’s own behavior around this, as he won’t touch anything hardware-related at all because of some miserable hardware-related failures during the Internet Bubble (or is it “internet bubble” now that the AP Style Guide says not to capitalize internet.)

But I had a different response to Rand’s question “Do you regret every investment that fails?” 

I’d like to think that I no longer regret any investment. As Fred discusses in his post, many VC investments fail. I’ve yet to meet a VC who says “This is a totally shitty company and a lousy opportunity so I’m going to invest in it anyway.” When a VC makes an investment, she is incredibly enthusiastic about the opportunity. If you know that failure is part of the process, then there is enormous emotional dissonance that gets generated if you regret the investment in hindsight, as you are going to have a lot of regret over the years as a VC, which I think creates a very negative feedback loop in terms of how you think about new investments.

Instead of “regret”, I think it’s much more important to embrace failure as part of the overall experience and focus on learning from every investment that fails. And, a failed investment often has many lessons – some new and some old. Some of these lessons are temporal and while others are foundational. In Fred’s post, he opens with:

“I remember back in the mid 90s, I used to say with some pride that I had not lost money on any of my VC investments. Then one day, someone told me “then you are not taking enough risk.” I ended that streak of not losing money on VC investments in the late 90s in a series of epic flameouts. I lost somewhere between $25mm and $30mm on one single investment. I am not proud of those mistakes. They were stupid. I am ashamed of them to be honest. But I learned a lot from them. Not only was my “winning streak” a case of not taking enough risk, it was also a case of not enough learning. The go-go Internet era of the late 90s fixed both of those things for me. I took more risk and learned a ton.

The bold section is what I’m trying to say. And, when I say “embrace failure”, I’m not suggesting that one be proud of failing, but I also don’t think there’s any shame in failing. There’s only shame in not learning.

The second part of Rand’s question “Or do you ever think ‘I’d place that same bet again'” is more complicated for me and my view diverges from Fred’s quick response of “it is one of my weaknesses that I let a bad experience sour me on a market for life.” For starters, I don’t think of my investments as bets, so I have an immediate knee-jerk reaction to characterizing investments as bets. That always creates fog for me in answering something, so I have to let the fog clear. Then, given that we invest in a set of themes over a very long period of time, a failed invested is a fundamental component of our ongoing learning in a theme. So I thought hard about what about a failed investment would cause me not to invest in some aspect of the investment again.

The answer appeared before me as “bad people.” My favorite entrepreneurs to back are ones who have had success and failure, so I’m very comfortable making multiple investments over time with people I trust and enjoy working with, even if we’ve had failures along the way. But if the people are fundamentally dishonest, immoral, unwilling to listen and learn, or behave in what I consider to be inappropriate ways, I don’t want to work with them again.

So the essence of regret for me comes from when I make a mistake around people. This is not only the founders but also co-investors. And, after 20+ years of doing this, I’m much better (but not perfect) in figuring out in advance who I shouldn’t work with.

I’ve accepted that in the end we all die. So, as part of my own radical self-inquiry, I’ve tried to isolate and limit my own regret to situations where I spent a lot of time and learn (or teach) nothing. Fortunately, this rarely has anything to do with the investments that I make.