Matt Blumberg, the CEO of Return Path, has an outstanding post up this morning titled The Difference Between Culture and Values. Go read it, I’ll be here when you get back.
If you liked that, go get a copy of Matt’s book Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business. It’s one of the books on my list of books all CEOs should read.
Matt distinguishes between culture and values. His punch line, which he reveals early, is:
Values guide decision-making and a sense of what’s important and what’s right. Culture is the collection of business practices, processes, and interactions that make up the work environment.
At Foundry Group, we have a slight modification to how we think of values. Supporting our values are a set of “deeply held beliefs.” These deeply held beliefs tangibly define our values and give us a frame of reference to operate.
For example, one of our deeply held beliefs is that “we will never grow.” Each of our funds is $225 million, we have four partners and no other investment staff, and we work out of the same office we’ve worked out of since we started in 2007. We’ve had opportunities to raise much larger funds and have considered it in the past given a variety of factors. But, we kept coming back to this deeply held belief and realized that raising a larger fund would violate our brand promise of only raising $225 million funds.
Our deeply held beliefs are fundamental to our values, although we are comfortable challenging them regularly to make sure they are deeply held, and make modifications on occasion when we learn new things but only after a lot of thought and discussion, among ourselves and with several of our very close limited partners.
For example, when we started we said “we’ll make around 10 new investments a year.” This came from a belief around the importance of time diversity of investing – we have a three year time horizon for making the 30 or so initial investments in the companies we want in each fund.
Until 2013, we made between 8 and 14 a year, which is close enough to 10 (although the year we did 14 was a year where we all said “too much – slow down.”) But at the end of 2013, when the JOBS Act became official and AngelList created Syndicates, we decided to understand the phenomenon better by participating in it. So, rather than sit on the sidelines, observe, and prognosticate about angel / seed investing, we created the FG Angels Syndicate on AngelList and have done around 60 seed investments in the last 18 months.
Another example of a re-evaluation of a deeply held belief was our decision to create our Foundry Group Select Fund. Until we created this fund, we limited the amount that we could invest in a company to $15 million. We would occasionally go a little higher (the most we have invested in a company from one of our funds, other than Select, is $17 million) but, especially with successful companies, we were limited to what we could do in the later rounds. During a particularly challenging financing for Fitbit, which we believed deeply in at the time as an unambiguously successful company, we were frustrated that we couldn’t write a big check in the financing. We talked to our LPs about what we were thinking, quickly raised a late stage fund to invest on in our later rounds for our portfolio companies, and made our first investment from that fund in the last round Fitbit did in 2013. With Select, we are no longer limited to investing $15 million per company.
Matt states in his post:
“A company’s values should never really change. They are the bedrock underneath the surface that will be there 10 or 100 years from now. They are the uncompromising core principles that the company is willing to live and die by, the rules of the game.”
I strongly agree with this, although I have one nuance. It’s hard to be absolutely correct at the beginning of the journey. So, instead of being dogmatic about values you created when you were three founders in a cafe somewhere, make sure you have one layer of abstraction about how you implement them, that can be tuned over time. For us, these are our deeply held beliefs, which support our values, but can be tuned as we learn new things. But, because they are deeply held, they can only be slightly modified, rather than torn up and replaced.
You may recognize Scott’s name – I wrote about him in my post When VCs Don’t Bullshit You.
The next person on the list of supporters is Scott Maxwell at OpenView Venture Partners. Scott and I were both on the Microsoft VC Advisory Board that Dan’l Lewin organized and ran. While we had never invested together, I felt like Scott was a kindred spirit. We both spoke truth to Microsoft execs, even though they mostly ignored us. I remember a meeting with the Microsoft Mobile 6.0 team as they were pitching us their vision for Microsoft Mobile 6.5. Both Scott and I, on iPhone 1’s or 2’s at the time, told them they were completely and totally fucked. They ignored us. A year or two later they had less than 3% market share on mobile. We had a blast together and as we went out to raise our Foundry 2007 fund, Scott made several introductions which resulted in two wonderful, long term LP relationships.
That’s how a friendship develops, at least in my world. You do stuff together, learn from each other, and then do things for each other. Simple.
Scott’s post is a great history lesson about the evolution of “value-added VC” behavior, especially around organization building by VC firms to “add more value” to their portfolio companies.
Before I dig in, I need to express two biases. First, whenever someone says “I’m a (adjective) (noun)” I immediately think they are full of shit. When someone says “I’m a great tennis player”, I immediately wonder why they needed to tell me they are great and it makes me suspicious. “I’m a deep thinker” makes me wonder the last time the person opened a book. “I’m a value-added VC” makes me think “Isn’t that price of admission?”
Second, I went through the scale up of the organizational VC firm in the late 1990s at Mobius Venture Capital. When we started Mobius, we were four founders and two EAs. At one point we were a 70 person organization, with 10 partners, 20 associates, two business development people, three recruiters, a marketing person, two incubators (anyone remember Hotbank?), a staff to run the Hotbanks, a big back office for accounting, EIRs, and some others folks.
It was a disaster. Now, you can argue that we were terrible at it. Or that we completely fucked it up. Or that our basic premises about what we were doing was wrong. Or that how we managed it was ineffective. Or that it would have worked great if only the Internet bubble hadn’t collapsed. Or probably 83 other arguments.
Regardless, it created a very deeply held belief that I share with my partners at Foundry Group that we wanted to run a VC firm that had none of this. We didn’t want associates. We didn’t want to grow. We didn’t want to build an organization. Instead, we wanted to be extremely close to the entrepreneurs and do all the work ourselves. It just occurred to me that we are bare metal VCs. That kind of fits with the word Foundry in our name.
So, my fundamental biases are (a) I don’t like the phrase “value-added investor” and (b) I have no interest in building a VC firm that looks like one that is configured the way many of the current larger VC firms are organizing themselves.
However, while it’s a bias, I have no opinion on whether it’s a better or worse approach. It’s a different approach. And that’s totally cool – there are lots of different ways to do things successfully. And there are lots of different ways to fuck things up.
In my opinion, Scott is one of the guys that is doing this effectively. I’m an investor in Scott’s funds and a very happy one. Scott’s also been thinking about this and working on it for over 15 years, now at two different firms, so he has a lot of run time with what works and what doesn’t. Many folks that are trying to incorporate “value-add infrastructure” into their firms would be wise to read his post carefully.
Now, if you are paying attention to my biases, you’d logically ask “So why did you co-found Techstars and why are you and your Foundry Group partners so involved?” Remember that it’s a different approach. We deeply believe that the way companies are created and funded, especially at the seed stage, is radically changing on a permanent basis. Techstars, at the very beginning, was based on this premise. It’s scaling magnificently around this premise and the iteration loop on learning is incredibly tight. And, while we are very close to it, Techstars is not “our firm” so we can help with our opinions, lessons we’ve learned, and belief system without having to run it.
Remember, there are lots of different ways to do something. However, there’s a huge difference between “doing something” and “doing something successfully.” The distinction is always worth paying attention to.
I’m at Newark Airport waiting for my plane to take me to Quebec for the Quebec City Conference where I’m being interviewed at the end of the day by Rob Cox of Reuters Breakingviews. Yesterday Rob and I had a short call so he could get to know me a little better.
As he was probing me about Foundry Group and what makes us tick, we started talking about what we refer to as “deeply held beliefs.” In my first company (Feld Technologies) we referred to these as “precepts” As we were talking through them, I realized that they defined us, and how we work, extremely well.
We will never raise a fund larger than $225 million. We just raised our second fund. It was exactly the same size as our first fund. Assuming we are successful, our next fund, which we expect to raise in three or four years, will be $225 million.
We will never add anyone to the team. I have three partners (Seth Levine, Jason Mendelson, and Ryan McIntyre). We’ve worked together for a decade. We’ve committed to each other to work together as partners “until we are done investing as VCs.” We work extraordinarily well together and have no interest in ever introducing someone new into the mix.
Entrepreneurs want to work directly with us, not through junior people. The manifestation of this deeply held belief is that we don’t have principals, associates, or analysts.
We all work on the same things. While we each have different strengths and weaknesses, we only invest in areas and companies that all four of us have expertise and affinity for.
We have plenty of other deeply held beliefs but these should give you a feel for how we think about it. It’ll be interesting to see how the interview goes today at the conference and if these come up – if I end up on a long riff about it I imagine another blog post on this topic may be forthcoming.