In my post recently titled Does VC Fund Differentiation Matter? several people commented on some variation of “people” as the key to everything.
I don’t view people as differentiation. I view them as the price of admission. Amy just walked by, read this over my shoulder, and said: “I don’t know what that means.” Hopefully, by the end of this post, it’ll be clearer …
Yesterday I talked to several VCs or entrepreneurs considering becoming a VC. I didn’t know any of them – these were random intros from different people that I knew. I didn’t have an agenda for each call. I was just curious and felt like meeting a few new people yesterday.
In each call, the person gave me their background and what they were exploring. Then they asked me a few questions. These questions were different versions of “what is your investment strategy” and “how do you decide what to fund?”
I went through my usual riff on this, which I should probably just put up on Youtube so I can point people at it rather than spend five minutes saying it over and over again. While I was doing this, a background process in my mind linked me back to the post I wrote on VC Fund Differentiation (or lack thereof). If you’ve heard this riff before, the next bit will be redundant to you.
We have a set of filters. For an early stage investment, we only invest in our themes. We only invest in the US. We don’t have to be the first money in a company, but if the company has raised more than $5m, it’s too late for us. Our goal with this filter is to say no to almost everything within 60 seconds.
Assuming something passes through this filter, we then focus on three things.
- Do we have an affinity for the product? We don’t have to be daily users of the product, but we have to care about it in some way.
- Are the founders obsessed (not passionate, but obsessed) about what they are building? Passion is easy to fake. Obsession is not.
- Do the founders want us to be investors in their company as much as we want to be investors in their company? If it’s not bi-directional, that’s fine, but it’s not for us.
</riff>Ok – riff over.
Underlying item two and three is obviously the people. But it’s a characteristic of the people. It’s a characteristic that, at least for us, that has worked over a long period of investing.
When I was a kid, my dad used to say to me “people are the price of admission.” He meant that if I was interested in getting involved in something, I should evaluate the people first.
If we did this before applying our filter, we’d never get anything done because we’d spend too little time looking at too many things. But, by applying the filter first, we can put most of our energy into evaluating the people involved and whether they want us to be involved.
A decade ago I didn’t pay much attention to the VP of HR position. Today, I view it as a key role if you are growing headcount at least 50% year over year and have more than 20 people in the company. And, title inflation notwithstanding, I prefer to call it “VP of People” since we are people after all, not “human resources” or “HRs”.
Over the past five years, I’ve had the privilege to work with a handful of amazing VPs of People. And, as several of our portfolio companies continue their incredible growth rates, I’ve been involved in recruiting a few new ones to these companies. I have three basic principles for each of them.
1. The VP of People must be part of the executive team and report to the CEO. Many companies that I’ve been involved in have viewed the VP of HR as “key recruiter and HR administrator.” This is not very useful and – in a startup that is growing quickly – dramatically under positions the VP of People as you’ll see in my next principle. If the CEO isn’t willing to have the VP of People on his executive team, I think it’s worth asking the question “why not – aren’t people the most important resource you are adding to your company?”
2. The VP of People is the go to person on the executive team for other executive team members. Every CEO I’ve ever worked with either pays too little attention or too much attention to the dynamics of the people on the executive team. This isn’t just the CEO to VP interactions – it’s the VP to VP interaction dynamics. When VP issues blow up, CEOs often lose huge chunks of time to trying to figure out how to manage through or mitigate the issues. The CEO often becomes camp counselor, parent, therapist, or bitching post. While this is a time sink, it’s also a huge emotional energy drain. The solution – the VP of People is responsible for this. The first stop of any VP – whether it is to talk about issues with another VP or the CEO – should be the VP of People. It’s the VP of People’s job to (a) help everyone work through the issues and (b) summarize what’s going on to the CEO. There will be cases where the CEO needs to get involved, but by having another executive in the mix, it focuses energy on solving the problems, rather than stacking up, or avoiding, issues.
3. The VP of People is responsible for helping everyone on the executive team, including the CEO, level up. Since I believe that life is one big video game, leveling up in your job should be the goal of everyone, especially executives in a company. This used to be called “professional development” but, like “HR”, I think it misses the broader point as I’m not just talking about professional development, but emotional, intellectual, and personal development. There is no possible way a CEO can focus on this effectively across his team. The VP of People can do this assuming he is on the executive team and is a peer with the other executives.
If you are a CEO of a fast growing company with more than 20 people, do you have a VP of People?