VC Offsites – Our Approach
I regularly get asked by other VCs about how we do our offsites.
When we started Foundry Group in 2006, we had a very deliberate quarterly process in an effort to learn all about each other and become highly effective at working together. For the first three years, we were disciplined about the timing and process, used an outside facilitator, and always spent one night away together as a group. This was intense and rocky for the first few years, as we had to work through a lot of stuff as individuals and as a team, even though we had all been working together since the early 2000s at our prior firm.
Around 2010, as we started to feel like we had hit our stride working together as a team, we shifted from a facilitator driven model but maintained our quarterly rhythm. Recently, after adding Lindel, Moody, and Jamey to the team, we’ve shifted back to a facilitator driven model in an acknowledgment of the value of really learning each other and now becoming a highly effective team of seven, instead of four.
I think a regular offsite rhythm is critical for every VC firm of any size (including solo GPs, where the offsite can include either the whole team or a few of your key LPs and advisors.) While I’m sure there are different approaches that can work, when I reflect on almost a dozen years of our offsites, I think the approach, combined with the simplicity, has served us extremely well.
So, in case it’s useful, following is our approach to offsites.
Facilitator: For stretches of time, especially early on in our working relationships, or during any rough patches, we’ve used an outside facilitator. If you want a referral to anyone, just email me.
Close to Home: We try to avoid the offsite becoming a boondoggle. We keep it close to home and relatively modest. Many of them are either at Jason’s house, my house, or a hotel in Denver. Occasionally we’ll go to a resort in Colorado Springs (a two hour drive). Once every few years we’ll combine it with a trip somewhere (New York, Chicago) just to change the atmosphere a little, but even then, other than a fancy dinner somewhere, it’s on the modest side. But we never do offsites at the office (I mean, it’s an offsite after all.)
At least a full day: We start first thing in the morning and finish with dinner. We often spend the night together (for many years Seth, Ryan, and I had assigned bedrooms in Jason’s house.) We schedule a second day – if we end early, we have time to catch up on things, including stuff that came out of our discussion.
Rotating leadership: When there were four of us, each of us led the offsite once a year. During the stretch we are in through the end of 2018, which is using a facilitator to help us wire up the next level team of the seven of us, I’ve been the leader so there is some consistency of approach. The leader is a lightweight leader, just making sure the offsite happens with an agenda, as you’ll see in a second.
Crowdsourced agenda around two topics: Like many things in our world, we develop the agenda collaboratively and continuously. A month before the offsite, the leader shares a Google Doc with logistics and a skeleton agenda. We then fill it out, rarely exceeding a page. There are two primary segments: (1) our portfolio and (2) our relationship. By using these as the driver, we can go deep on a number of different issues, including our overall strategy. We try to keep the agenda high level and have a section called “Other Things to Discuss” which allows us to put up anything tactical on anyone’s mind. The leader curates the agenda and we finalize it the week before the offsite.
Portfolio: We have lots of different approaches to this, but it’s essentially a deep dive on a portion of the portfolio. The leader chooses the approach, which is often a brand new one, so we don’t get into stale rhythms. My historical favorite is the use of index cards with company logos on them. The leader shuffles the cards (our entire active portfolio, which is now a lot of cards) and turns them over one at a time. Whoever is on the board is not allowed to speak – they have to listen as the other partners reviews the portfolio company. Once the non-board member partners have talked about what they think is going on at the company and what we need to focus on, the board member gets to weigh in. Since our model is that everyone works on everything together, this is an incredibly insightful approach at two levels: (1) the company info and (2) our level of internal communication about the company. It also reinforces the value of being vulnerable to your partners – it’s often really hard to sit quietly and listen to the details without jumping in and trying to steer the conversation or inject your point of view into the mix. A more recent approach that I loved (that Seth came up with) is to start with a portfolio value assessment by company. We put an X-Y graph up on the wall with the Y-axis being amount of work (high to low) and the X-axis being the value to the fund of our ownership in the particular company ranging from $0 to $225m (where a company returned the fund.) We each put the index card for the company we were responsible for up on the wall in the place we think it belongs. We then discussed the entire portfolio for each fund, which generates a lot of discussion and calibration (including moving a lot of index cards around, since if we did the exercise blind, we’d all have different views.)
Ourselves: We either address the question “How Are You Doing?” (which is personal and professional, internal or with regard to others in the partnership) or do a set of facilitated exercises. We often start with a Red/Yellow/Green check-in. We orient the discussion around each person and take our time, rather than rush through updates. If there are conflicts between people, they surface quickly since we are all tuned to talk about struggles we are having, rather than focus on the awesomeness of how great our universe is. Each of us approaches this with our soul wide open – the starting point is trust, vulnerability, authenticity, and other words like that. While “How Are You Doing?” is a simple question, it opens the door wide for a variety of things, and the conversations that have ensued around one person have often generated a richness of discussion that lasts hours and often involves tears and other surprising emotions.
Obvious but important meeting rules: No phone. No email. If you have to go to the bathroom, go. We always make sure there are snacks in the room. Don’t interrupt. Listen with both ears; talk with one mouth. We build 30-minute breaks into the agenda so we can catch up, and, more importantly, breathe and stretch during the day. There’s usually a chance to exercise before dinner.
Dinner is a critical part of things: On some occasions, we have a meaty topic to discuss that we save for dinner. On others, we use it to heal our relationships and remind ourselves that even though we have plenty of conflicts and struggles, we are best friends. We usually do this in a private room somewhere so we can take the conversation wherever we want to go.
We try not to rush. We are gentle with each other, reminding ourselves that a key value of Foundry Group is brutal honesty delivered kindly. And we always remember that one’s individual truth may not be “the truth” and it’s important to be willing and able to explore what happened, or is happening, in a particular situation, instead of simply what you think happened.
Finally, we are always trying new things, so if you have stuff you do in offsites that are different, or additive, to our approach, toss them up in the comments.