I’m a huge believer in TAGFEE. But I also respect confidentiality. Every company approaches this differently and it’s important to recognize which context you are in. Following is an example from an email I got (on the all@ list) from a company I’m on the board of (and yes – I checked to make sure I could post this.)
You know what they say about flattery, right? That’s an idea worth keeping in mind when someone is talking to you about what we’re doing here at as friendly compliments and questions mask an effort to obtain confidential info.
We’ve talked as a group about this frequently, but it merits another mention because we’ve seen a marked increase in the number of people that have various approached members of the team with questions that quickly get to the heart of our core technology. They pay compliments, they smile, they flatter, etc., but they’re looking to understand details that should never be discussed with outsiders, even if there is a NDA in place. As is often the case with being at a hot tech company that’s pushing the envelope on various fronts, it’s a double-edged sword. We’re doing cool stuff and people love it, but some of the attention we can do without.
So, another reminder–be wary and keep what we’re doing in house. If you’re in doubt about how to answer sensitive questions, it’s easy–don’t answer. Instead, ask for their contacts and forward them on to me.
I’m seeing this more and more from all directions. The most challenging are from VCs who have a competitive investment – it never surprises me how shameless some are about milking entrepreneurs about what they are up to when the VC has zero intention of investing. It’s also pervasive with journalists and tech bloggers who are always looking for a scoop and an angle. It’s always been something big tech companies do with startups in the guise of “business development”, but I’ve seen a few situations recently which clearly crossed a line of “wow – that wasn’t appropriate.”
So – be careful out there. Respect the power of TAGFEE but also respect when things should be kept confidential. And remember that most people out there will be asymmetric with information if you let them, especially if they use this information in their line of work.
Following is something that happens to me on a regular basis, with a new and exciting twist. I’m telling this story both to vent (maybe I’m grumpy today – I don’t know) as well as for an object lesson on how not to interact with a VC, or at least with me.
First – the normal part. I’ve had an email exchange with an entrepreneur over the past week. We’ve never met, but he started the email thread by asking if I’d be interested in getting together about his company because he’s looking for financing and he’s sure I’ll be interested. I asked for a short description of what he’s doing. He sent me another email telling me all the friends we have in common who will vouch for him. I responded by asking what he was working on. He gave me a vague description and told me I’d love it. I didn’t really understand it, but it didn’t fit in any of our themes and I told him so. He said he’d looked at the themes and thought I’d be really excited about what his doing. I again asked him to be more specific in case I was missing something.
Now – the new and exciting part. I didn’t hear back from him for a few days and then got an email asking me to respond to his previous message. I looked through my email archive and didn’t have a previous message from him. He responded a little later with the following:
“Kindly, thoughts below…pls recognize that this is intellectual property and disclosure of this information in any manner is agreed to be upon mutual consent prohibited.”
I sent him a simple reply. “I haven’t read past the first sentence of this email and I’ve deleted the original from my email archive. I don’t sign NDAs and have no interest in having you unilaterally commit me to a confidentially agreement of any sort.”
Stuff like this just baffles me. I get some version of a strange interaction like this every few days. Last week it was the guy who had “flown to Denver just to meet me because I said that I’d meet with anyone.” After a dozen emails where I kept asking him to tell me what he was working on, he basically told me to go fuck off and I’d regret not meeting with him because he was going to create a great company and I was going to miss out.”
It’s weird. Advice to all of you out there – don’t be that guy. If I tell you I’m not interested, try to respect that. I’m trying to be respectful of you by passing quickly and not wasting your time. It has nothing to do with you – and I’m often wrong. But thrashing around with weirdness to try to get face to face isn’t helpful.
And yes – I’m having a much better day today now that I’m hiding in my room behind my computer.