I woke up to an article in Daily Camera today titled Small Business Administration trying to bring SBIC funds to Colorado.
There are so many things wrong in the article I felt compelled to write about it. This isn’t a knock on the writer (Alicia Wallace) – I like Alicia and think she does a good job. Rather, it’s an example of the difference between signal and noise in any kind of reporting around the VC industry.
I’m an investor in over 40 VC funds around the world (mostly in the US) and three of them are SBIC funds. Each of the SBIC funds were raised in the 2000 – 2002 time period. On paper, only one is in positive return territory as a fund, but the SBIC leverage is a substantial negative factor for the LP investors in that particular fund. And, in the other two, I don’t expect to ever see any of my capital back because of the SBIC leverage. Furthermore, I don’t believe any of the GPs in any SBIC-backed fund would ever take money from the SBIC again.
So I’m speaking from at least a little experience – albeit indirectly – with the SBIC, as I’ve never been a GP in a fund that had SBIC leverage.
The article starts off saying that “Matthew Varilek has traveled across the state, proselytizing the potential benefits of the Small Business Investment Company Program.” As a partner in one of the most visible VC firms in Colorado and an LP in many of the Colorado VC firms, I’ve never heard from Matthew or anyone from the SBIC. Matthew, if you really want to have a deep discussion about why the SBIC program isn’t effective for VC funds anymore, feel free to give me a shout. I’d be happy to meet with you.
Next, there is the wonderful PR quote about the SBIC that says “Since the program’s inception, SBIC “success stories” include the funding of companies such as Apple, Costco and FedEx when they were burgeoning small businesses.” The SBIC was instrumental in the creation of the venture capital business. The Small Business Investment Act of 1958 helped catalyze many of the VC firms created in the early 1960s. When I first heard about VC firms in the late 1980s, and my first company (Feld Technologies) started writing portfolio management software for some Boston-based VC firms, many of them had funds with SBIC leverage, although even by the late 1980s this was changing and many of them had shifted away from the SBIC. If you want to see a fun quote on it, read A History of Silicon Valley which quotes:
“ …many venture capital pioneers think the SBIC program did little to advance the art and practice of venture investing. The booming IPO market proved the model of investing in new companies, as some SBICs cash out at attractive levels. SBICs did give a boost to early venture firms, and some like Franklin “Pitch” Johnson, profiled below, thought the new law made the US “see that there was a problem and that [venture investing] was a way to do something… it formed the seed of the idea and a cadre of people like us.” Bill Draper, the first West Coast venture capitalist, has been more blunt: “[Without it] I never would have gotten into venture capital. . . it made the difference between not being able to do it, not having the money.” Many believe SBICs filled a void from 1958 to the early 1970s, by which point the partnership-based venture firms took off. The US government, however, lost most of the $2 billion it put into SBIC firms.”
So, while Apple, Costco, and FedEx benefited, the PR would be more credible if the SBIC was trumpeting iconic companies created after 1990 or even 2000, especially where the lead investors (rather than follow on investors) had SBIC capital.
Peter Adams, head of Rockies Venture Club, is quoted a few times. I like and respect Peter, so this isn’t aimed at him, but rather at the clear lack of understanding of the capital dynamics around VC funds.
“It looks really great on the surface,” said Peter Adams, executive director of the Rockies Venture Club, a nonprofit aimed at connecting investors and entrepreneurs. “Then when you dig into it, there were some problems.” Adams, who has been involved in many of the meetings with the SBA and members of the investment community, said the greatest concerns voiced by investors and venture capitalists involved management team qualifications, investment track records and the addition of debt to the equation. No. 1 for us is they want a management team with multiple people that have track records in venture capital and have worked together as a team before,” he said. “I can see where they’re going with it, but the VC industry in Colorado has been fairly decimated through the economic downturn.”
Peter is right about the context, but has two fundamental things wrong here. First, the VC industry in Colorado wasn’t decimated through the economic downtown. It was decimated because of lack of performance between 2001 and 2009, just like much of the rest of the VC industry around the US. There’s nothing special about Colorado in this mix, and it has nothing to do with the economic downtown. This dynamic has been reported thousands of times so I don’t need to go through it again, but we don’t have to look back very far to hear the drum beat from the media, LPs, and everyone else about how “VC is dead.” And if you’re curious, it wasn’t too long ago that Silicon Valley was also dying.
The other problem here is the need of the SBIC to invest in “a management team with multiple people that have track records in venture capital and have worked together as a team before.” Any VC firm that fits this qualification is unlikely to have difficulty raising money in today’s environment, and subsequently has no need for the SBIC leverage. And, more importantly, the only firms that will look for SBIC leverage are one’s that don’t have this, which is a classic adverse selection problem.
Then there’s this:
The recession also then plays into requirements that the management team members have been involved in a meaningful number of successful exits during a four- to six-year period. “From 2008 to 2013, that was not a good time for exits,” Adams said.
Huh, what? At Foundry Group, our significant exits (at least 10x capital returned) since we raised our first fund in 2007 include AdMeld, Zynga, MakerBot, and Gnip. We’ve had plenty of other exits, but these are the big ones. One of those companies, Gnip, is Boulder-based and another from our older funds (Rally Software) also generated a greater than 10x return for us. Techstars (which we helped start) have also had a steady stream of significant exits, including local Boulder companies like Filtrbox, GoodApril, and SocialThing. And then you’ve got plenty of Boulder / Denver monsters on paper – some in our portfolio (like SendGrid and Sympoz) and others like Zayo, Ping, Logrhythm, and Datalogix. Finally, if you look across the country, the exits have been awesome the past three years.
It keeps going. There’s talk about the “angel cliff” (e.g. we need funds to invest between angels and VCs – nope, been there – remember “gap capital” – not so effective) and the SBA rules and regulations (which I believe are toxic and inhibiting to a successful VC fund.)
One of the other problem is SBA and SBIC’s behavior in governance of the fund. The paperwork is silly and the overhead is non-trivial. The control over distributions and negative incentives to hold or distribute capital often generates bad decisions when companies go public. And at least one close friend who is a partner in an SBIC fund has now found a new LP to buy out the SBIC so they could actually invest capital in their winners, rather than be limited by the SBIC’s constraints on the amount of capital you can invest in any particular company.
The SBIC could be a powerful force for good in the venture capital industry. But it has to approach things very different and based on my experience with the SBA over the past decade, I don’t see it happening unless there is real leadership somewhere in coordination with leaders in the VC industry. I’m certainly willing to help, if only someone bothered to reach out to me.
UPDATE: It turns out my partner Seth Levine had met with Matthew a while ago. Seth said “Your blog was right on and much of the type of thing I related to Matt and some senior guys he brought in. The gist of my conversation with them was pushing them to consider a different model – that the current one basically led to lowest common denominator GPs and sub-optimal returns. Plus the SBIC leverage could be crushing. I don’t think they have a ton of flexibility around this but they at least listened to the feedback. I’m going to see a bunch of them in a few weeks – I agreed to help judge a business plan competition they were hosting. Like you I’m not a huge fan of the program as it has existed but I give the new guys some credit for both reaching out and trying to be proactive about thinking through this.”
UPDATE 2: Matthew Varilek reached out to me and we are setting up a time to talk.
I was in the bathroom this morning catching up on all the blogs (via Feedly) that I hadn’t read this week since my head was in a bunch of other things. I came across one from Nic Brisbourne (Forward Partners) titled I’m a stock picker. I wish he had called it “This Unicorn Thing Is Bullshit For Early Stage Investing” but I think he’s a little more restrained than I am.
My original title for this post was “How Can This Be A Billion Dollar Company and other bullshit VCs ask early stage companies.” It was asked by VCs to several companies I’m involved in last week. While I get why a late stage investor would ask the question when the valuation is in the $250 million range, I really don’t understand why a seed investor would ask this question when the valuation is in the $5m range.
Now, I’ve invested in a few unicorns in my investing career, including at least one unicorn that went bankrupt a few years later (I guess that’s a dead unicorn.) But I’ve also invested in a number of companies that have had exits between $100m and $1b that resulted in much larger returns for me, both on an absolute basis as well as a relative basis, than unicorns have for their later stage investors.
I’ve never, ever felt like the “billion dollar” aspiration, which we are now all calling “unicorn”, made any sense as the financial goal of the company. Nor have I felt it made sense as a VC investing strategy, especially for early stage investors. We never use the phrase “unicorn” in our language at Foundry Group and while we aspire to have extraordinarily valuable companies, we never approach it from the perspective of “could this be a billion dollar company” when we first invest.
Instead, we focus on whether or not we think we can make at least 10 times our money on our investment. Our view of a strong success in an investment in a 10x return. Our view is simple – we don’t really view anything below 3x return a success. Sure – it’s nice, but that wasn’t a real success. 5x – now that’s nice. 10x – ok – now we are in the success zone. 25x – superb. 50x or more – awesomeness.
We also know that when we invest in three people and an MVP, we have absolutely no idea whether this can be a billion dollar company. Nor do we care – we are much more focused on the product and the founders. Do we think they are amazing and deeply obsessed with their product? Do we understand their vision? Do we have affinity for the product? Do we believe that a real business can be created and we can get at least a 10x return on our investment at this entry point?
I recognize other VCs have different strategies than us, especially when they are investing at a later stage. Applying our model, if the entry point valuation is $100m or more, then you do have to believe that the company is going to be able to be worth over $1 billion if you use a 10x filter. But in my experience, most later stage investors are focused on a smaller absolute return as a threshold – usually in the 3x to 5x range. And, very late stage / pre-IPO investors already investing in companies worth over $1 billion are interested in an even smaller absolute return, often being delighted with 2x in a relatively short period of time.
So, let’s zone this in on an early stage discussion. Should the question “how can this be a $1 billion company” be a useful to question at the seed stage? I don’t think so. If it’s simply being used to elicit a response and understand what the entrepreneurs’ aspiration is, that’s fine. But if I asked this question and an entrepreneur responded with “I have no fucking idea – but I’m going to do everything I know how to do to figure it out” I’d be delighted with that response.
Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a post Your Words Should Match Your Actions. It was a generic rant that resulted from me watching a couple of VCs blow up their reputations with entrepreneurs I know because of how they treated them.
This morning I ended up on an email thread about this. I’m going to anonymize it, but you’ll get the point. The two people (who I’ll call “Entrepreneur” and “VC”) are both very successful, extremely smart, and very visible.
Entrepreneur: Thread below is 2+ years old, but resulted from VC asking me similar questions. Interestingly, when I (a year later) pinged VC about my new company, not even the courtesy of reply from him. Bad mojo. 🙂
Me: Welcome to the “assholeness-VC-factor.” Hey – I’m important – give me info. Oh – you are now raising money – fuck off.
Entrepreneur: I’m amazingly appreciative to short, polite “no thank you’s”. I don’t know whether VCs think that’s too much work, or whether they want to leave open the possibility of the “must have been caught in my spam filter” excuse when the startup becomes a rocket in 2 years?
I then went on a more serious rant explaining what I think is going on.
It’s worse that that.
In my book Startup Life (that I wrote with my wife Amy) I said that one of the key things that has made our relationship work is that I realized “my words had to match my actions.” After about decade of telling her she was the most important person in my life, and then being late to dinner, canceling things at the last minute because something else came up, or taking a phone call without even looking at who was calling when we were in the middle of a conversation, she’d had enough and our relationship almost ended.
My biggest behavior change 14 years ago was to focus hard on having my words match my actions, and my actions match my words. Simple to say, really hard to do.
Of course, it also works in a business context. I’ve learned, and deeply believe, that it’s the essence of being authentic. You can have any style you want – these two things just have to match up.
Sadly, many very successful people simply don’t understand or appreciate this. They put huge amounts of energy into developing a public persona. It could be PR, it could be speeches, or writing, or systematic campaigns over a period of time about themselves and their businesses.
But then their words and their actions don’t match up. Over and over again. It can be subtle or overt. It can be mild or jarring. It doesn’t matter – if they haven’t internalized the idea of their words and actions matching up, there is a long negative reputational effect.
And, as our email exchange demonstrates, it lingers. I have heard the same thing about that VC and I’ve experienced it personally. Yet his public persona is “entrepreneur friendly”, “very accessible”, “incredibly smart”, and “highly capable.” Yet, he completely blew you off, after asking you for something when you were a powerful and well-connected executive at a large company. Stupid behavior on his part.
Oh, and in addition, this VC missed a chance to invest in what is now a rocket ship. And the entrepreneur didn’t go back to him for the Series B because he got blown off the first time, so the VC missed two chances to invest.
Do your words match your actions? If you don’t know, ask yourself at the end of each day “did my words today match my actions.”
I woke up to a bunch of VC related things in my twitter stream this morning. I had a nice digital sabbath yesterday so I was a little surprised by how much there was. I tried cranking out a #tweetstorm of them using Little Pork Chop but I found the tweetstream experience to be very unsatisfying and very inauthentic feeling. The links are good, so here they are if you want to get in the headspace for what I really want to talk about.
1/11 Things I Read About VC This Morning I Think You Should Care About In A Compact Little Tweetstorm
2/11 Start with @fredwilson thinking about tweetstorms – https://avc.com/2014/06/tweetstorming/
3/11 Then @msuster on why VC is so much more compelling now – https://bit.ly/1mvIE5C
4/11 and @pmarca on why the IPO is not what it used to be – https://bit.ly/1ljhzlV
5/11 and congrats to @jeff on raising his new fund – https://bit.ly/1m0h6cD
6/11 thx @joshelman to the pointer to the @yoapp hackathon – https://bit.ly/1x0MhbQ
7/11 the #premoney conference recordings will be online soon – https://www.livestream.com/500startups/folder
8/11 the 2nd seed round trend @Mattermark by @DanielleMorrill – https://bit.ly/1iQTCI2
9/11 I end with Haiku
10/11 Tweetstorms perplex me a lot
11/11 Do you enjoy them
The response to 11/11 was generally “no” although a few people suggested that tweetstorming while a soccer game was going wasn’t a particularly useful test.
After I thought I was done I ran across a really interesting set of articles which didn’t make it into the tweetstorm. The first article, In Venture Capital, Birds of a Feather Lose Money Together, was a summary that let to the second article, The Cost of Friendship, which led to the actual article behind the annoying SSRN paywall. After reading the abstract, I decided to buy and read the article, especially since Paul Gompers, one of the great academic researchers on the VC industry, was the lead author.
I was once a Ph.D. student at MIT Sloan School studying innovation. Specifically, my doctoral advisor was Eric von Hippel. Eric was very kind to me, but I was a horrible Ph.D. student because I was also running a company at the time and had no interest in being an academic. Eventually I got kicked out well before I got my Ph.D.
Nonetheless, I learned how to more or less read an academic paper and some social science rubbed off on me. Actually, a lot rubbed off on me – enough for me to know that the headlines written about academic papers and studies rarely capture the essence of what is going on in the paper. Instead, reading the abstract and the carefully reading the non-analysis part of the paper, with a goal of putting yourself in the researchers’ shoes to understand what they are trying to figure out, will help you understand the punch line.
So when I read the first article, it was easy to conclude “VCs who are like each other do less well investing together.” Or, “VCs who like each other perform more poorly when investing together than those who don’t like each other.” This is consistent with the callout from the first article which says “The more affinity there is between two VCs investing in a firm, the less likely the firm will succeed, according to research by Paul Gompers, Yuhai Xuan and Vladimir Mukharlyamov.”
I read the summary, which is kind of the “PR piece” for the article, but I didn’t find it satisfying. It generalized too quickly and I kept wondering how affinity was defined. The hint was that it had to do with ethnicity, educational background, and employment history, which wasn’t how I was defining affinity when reacting to the title “In Venture Capital, Birds of a Feather Lose Money Together.”
Next, I read the executive summary of the paper. This was clear and felt fine to me. It separated affinity and ability. The punch line of the paper is:
“Collaborating for ability-based characteristics enhances investment performance. But collaborating due to shared affinities dramatically reduces the probability of investment success.”
Much different than the marketing piece about the paper that I read first. Basically, if you choose your co-investor because you think she is a great investor, that’s good, but if you choose your co-investor because you like him, that’s bad. But that felt too simple to me – no way that’s the basis for a HBS academic study. So I bought and read the paper, which was pretty easy until I got stuck in analysis stew on p.22. I hung in there and got through it, but once again was reminded of another reason I was a shitty Ph.D. student – I dislike reading academic papers.
I learned that affinity was narrowly and precisely defined, but not in the way I thought it was. Affinity to me meant that the two VCs liked each other, or had an “affinity” for one another, but instead affinity was based on biographic data, specifically gender, ethnicity, educational background, and employment history.
“The education dummy variables Top College, Top Business School, Top Graduate School, and Top School equal one if a venture capitalist holds, respectively, an undergraduate, business, graduate, or any degree from a top university and zero otherwise. Ethnic Minority takes the value of one if a venture capitalist is East Asian, Indian, Jewish or Middle Eastern. Dummy variables East Asian, Indian, Jewish and Middle Eastern pin down a venture capitalist’s ethnicity; the dummy variable Female identifies an individual’s gender.”
Also, success was defined as a company having an IPO (the data range for the study was 1975 – 2003). Now, I’m not going to argue the performance variable, but as someone who has had a lot of financial success with exits that were not IPOs, I’d be curious what happens when the analysis is done where success is defined by “at least 10x return on capital for the VC.”
The big reveal is buried in the middle of p.18.
“On one hand, people display greater inclination to work with similar others. Similarities may be in terms of ability (e.g., whether individuals hold degrees from top academic institutions) or affinity (e.g., whether individuals share the same ethnic background). On the other hand, these two sets of pairwise characteristics affect performance in opposite ways. Teams with more able participants are more likely to result in a successful investment outcome. On the contrary, investments are more likely to fail when groups are formed based upon similarities between members along characteristics having nothing to do with ability.”
Go read that again. If you pair up two people based on ability, they have better results than if you pair them up on affinity, where affinity is defined by “each went to the same school, each are the same ethnic minority (including Jewish), or each worked together in a previous company.”
Unless I missed something (and it’s entirely possible that I did), the message is “choose to work with people who have ability.”
I kind of feel like this applies to life in general!
It’ll be interesting to see how this paper gets interpreted, or misinterpreted over the next few weeks, assuming anyone else goes beyond the summary and reads the paper, no thanks to SSRN.
Just another reminder to look beyond the headlines. And don’t co-invest with someone who has no ability just because you went to the same school, are the same ethnicity, or once worked together.
I’m an investor in a bunch of VC funds. Some of them recycle their management fees; others don’t. I’ve never really understood why funds don’t recycle their management fees.
Understanding what “recycling management fees” means is a fundamental part of understanding the economics of a venture firm. Here’s how it works.
Let’s assume a $100 million VC fund that charges a 2% management fee and a 20% carry. In the typical case, a fund will get an annual management fee of 2% of “committed capital” (the $100 million) for the “investment period” (usually the first five years, or until a new fund is raised) and then an annual management fee of 2% of “invested capital” (whatever the fund has invested in companies that are still active) over the remaining life of the fund, which is usually 10 years.
Now, there are lots of minor variations on this, but the average “fee load” on a fund over its life is 15%, or $15m paid out over 10 years on the $100m fund.
So – if $15m gets paid out in fees, that only leaves $85m to invest in companies.
That’s where recycling comes in. When a fund has an exit, it can either distribute the money to its investors (the LPs) or it can “recycle it” and invest it in new and existing companies in the fund.
Now, assume that by year three the $100m fund has invested $50m. During this year, it sells a company and gets a realization of $20m. At this point, it would have taken $6m of management fees (2% * 3 years) so it could recycle the $6m (hence, reinvesting it) while distributing $14m to the LPs.
By managing recycling this way, the fund could end up investing the full $100m, instead of just the $85m. The advantage, for all the investors (the VCs and their LPs), is that $100m gets put to work as invested capital, rather than just $85m.
Our view as a firm is that a successful VC fund has a net return of at least 3x to the LPs. That means that if an LP invests $1 in the fund, they get back $3 over time.
Now we get to do the fun math, including the impact of carry on return.
If I’ve only put $85m to work, I have to generate $100m to get to a point where I’ve returned capital, which puts me in a position to get carry. Then for every $100m of additional returns, $20m goes to the VCs and $80m goes to the LPs. To generate an incremental $200m to the LPs, I have to return a total of $250m. So – my $85m needs to generate $350m to get a net 3x return. On a gross basis, my $85m has to generate a 4.1x return to accomplish my “net 3x return to LPs.”
On the other hand, if I recycle my management fee, then I put $100m to work. I’ve reinvested $15m over the life of the fund, so I’ve had to generate this $15m plus the $100m to get to carry and the $250m to get to a net 3x return. In this case, I have to generate a total of $365m (instead of $350m), but I now have $100m at work to do that. In this case, my $100m has to generate a 3.65x return to accomplish my “net 3x return to LPs.”
That’s an 11% difference just by recycling my $15m fee. It’s better for the LPs and better for the VCs.
My partner Jason and our dear friend Professor Brad Bernthal are attempting to teach everything there is to know about the venture ecosystem in 90 minutes on January 28th. The link to the event is here.
Now realistically, you won’t learn everything, but they have been teaching a class on the subject for the past five years and it is not only excellent, but was one of the reason Jason and I wrote our book Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist.
This should be a great event.
Phin Barnes at First Round Capital just nails it today with his post To get the most out of your investors, turn them into rubber ducks.
Go read it – I’ll wait and will be here when you get back.
I love Rubber Duck Debugging. I use this approach when writing, which I call “Writing with Yoda.” I have a little Yoda figurine staring at me at all times and when I stall out I just talk to him for a little while and then get started again. He always looks serene and wise and I almost always get going after talking to him for a little while.
Phin describes five steps to turn your investors into rubber ducks:
- Frame the problem you are facing: describe the challenge in enough detail that I can understand it without being an expert (because I am probably not an expert)
- Create context for an answer: Explain why this problem is a priority for you and the business and why you need to solve it now (because I am not involved in the day to day operation of your company)
- Propose a few solutions: Describe a few paths you might take and talk through how you would choose between them (this helps me understand the outcome you want to achieve)
- Be patient: Be open and engage deeply in the questions that I have and explain your answers with specific detail (even if it seems obvious)
- Be active: The goal is to debug the system and the builder is most likely to find the bugs we seek (and to see others along the way)
These are similar to how to engage a great mentor, which we teach over and over again in Techstars – both to the entrepreneurs and the mentors. If you’ve ever done a Top of Mind Drill with me, you’ll recognize the Rubber Duck approach with one twist – storytelling.
I’m a storyteller. I learned this from my dad. It’s part of why I love to write – it’s a way for me to think out loud and figure stuff out while telling stories. So – my favorite Rubber Ducks are the ones who can also tell stories, at the right time.
The risk of a Rubber Duck only approach as a VC is that you become overly socratic. We all know the VC who just asks question after question after question. The questions are often good, and they drive you deeper into the problem, but at some point you need to take a break. You need a breath from answering more questions. You need an analogy to relate to.
This is when the Rubber Duck should tell a story.
At a board meeting recently, the CEO looked at me and said “just tell me the fucking answer.” So I did. And that works also. But not until the CEO wants that. Until then, be a Rubber Duck.
Remember – the CEO makes the decision, not the VC. Unless the CEO explicitly asks. And – if as a VC you don’t trust the CEO to make the decision, you have that discussion with the CEO right now. And if you are a CEO who’s VCs aren’t letting you make the decisions, buy them some Rubber Ducks.
VCs love to say things like “we are entrepreneur friendly.” It’s trendy, catchy, and looks good on a blog post. But, as I’ve said in my post Your Words Should Match Your Actions, one can “damage their reputations by having their words not match up with their actions.”
Now – this post isn’t about responding to emails. Nor am I trying to be preachy. I’m not trying to explain a new behavior. Rather, I’m making an observation about something I’ve experienced – both as an entrepreneur and investor – since my first angel investment in 1994.
Here’s the situation, as reported this morning by an experienced CEO of a company we are investors in.
“We’re raising money. I have a good intro session. Prospective investor wants to meet in person, see a demo. We have a good 2nd meeting. We agree on action items. I go away and follow up.
Follow up again.
Radio silence still.
The first time it happened I was inclined to think it was the investor and that they just couldn’t find the time to send an email response saying, “sorry – no longer interested”. Then, it happened again this month.”
Now – initial non-responsiveness – whatever. Lots of people don’t respond to emails, intros, or requests for meetings. But after two in-person meetings, to be non-responsive is just plain rude.
How hard would be it be to say “Hey – great spending time with you – but this isn’t something I want to pursue.” Or maybe “Sorry for being slow – I’ve been swamped – I don’t have time for doing this right now.” Or – well – anything.
I’ve had this situation come up so many times that I’m immune to it. I assume that the VC isn’t interested. But I’m amazed at how the reputational damage follows the person around. And then – at some point in the future – that VC is looking for a response for something. Hmmm …
I’ve had this happen with LPs. When we went and raised our first fund in 2007, plenty of people wouldn’t meet with us. That’s fine. Lots said they weren’t interested after a first meeting. Totally cool. But some met with us but then were completely non-responsive after the meeting. Ok – whatever. But when those non-responsive LPs call me today asking for something – whether it’s to get together to “get to know me better”, or to get a reference on someone else they are looking at, or to learn more about what I think about the market for hardware investments, it’s really hard to get on the phone and spend time with them. I do – because that’s my nature – but I always remember their non-responsiveness.
I hear – and say – “No thank you” all the time. Every day. 50 times a day. That’s just part of the role I play in business. But I always try to say “No thank you.” It’s just not that hard. Especially when I know someone, or have engaged with them in some way.
Are you the guy the experienced CEO just encountered? How would you feel if your name – and your firm’s name – just went out via email to 60 CEOs attached to this story? Maybe you don’t care, but if your message is “we are entrepreneur-friendly VCs” you just undermined the reputation of your firm in a major way.
Over the past few months I’ve watched several powerful and successful VCs and entrepreneurs damage their reputations by having their words not match up with their actions. I think this is especially true in the context of a long term relationship.
This is a deeply held value of mine and of my partners at Foundry Group. I occasionally screw up and when I do I own it, apologize, and learn from it. But it stuns and amazes me when others assert strong style / values / culture and then consistently have their actions not line up with their words.
Here are a few VC examples:
VC asserts he’s “founder friendly”: This is currently in vogue across many VC firms. Very experienced VCs are talking about how they are focused entirely on supporting the entrepreneur. But then, when something goes wrong, they act randomly and capriciously. Or they simply disengage without warning. Or they try to retrade an earlier deal just because they think they can. Or they threaten to veto a deal unless they get something more than they are entitled to.
VC asserts certain followup behavior with every entrepreneur they meet with: In the vein of “we are holding ourselves to a high level of interaction”, the VC suggests a certain behavior pattern in their deal evaluation process or interaction with entrepreneurs. They do this sometimes, but are inconsistent.
VC suggests that the deal is firm and will happen: Then, two weeks into “due diligence” which, based on the previous evaluation, should be a proforma exercise, abruptly pull out of the deal because “some of my partners aren’t supportive.”
This, of course, isn’t limited to VC behavior. I see it all the time with entrepreneurs. For example:
Entrepreneur suggests he’s “radically transparent”: Nice, and popular, but do you tell your employees exactly how many months of cash you have left? Or do you keep the fact that you and your partner are having a major conflict from your investors? Or how about that your business isn’t doing very well and you are working every backchannel you know to try to have an acquihire happen for you that will have a negative impact on your investors.
Entrepreneur asserts he isn’t shopping the deal: And then he does. It’s ok to shop a deal, just don’t assert you aren’t!
Entrepreneur inflates his relationship with another entrepreneur or VC: It’s fine to be connected on LinkedIn or say you worked at the same company in the past, but don’t say you are best friends if you haven’t interacted with the other person in over a year.
I could keep going. It’s similar to what Amy and I wrote about in Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur when we talk about your words having to match your actions. When I tell Amy that she is the most important thing in my life, and then am 30 minutes late to dinner because “I’ve just got to get something done” my words aren’t matching up with my actions. Or, when we are together, the phone rings, and I automatically answer it rather than asking if it’s ok for me to take the call. Or, when she gets hurt if I don’t drop everything I’m doing and go help her out.
Words matter. And having them match your actions matters matters even more.
Rajat Bhargava and I have been working together since 1994. We’ve been involved in creating seven companies together (the most recent ones are MobileDay and Yesware) and, while most have been successful, we’ve had a huge number of positive and negative experiences along the way. We’ve mostly had a lot of fun and, when we haven’t, we always made sure we figured out what went wrong.
Minda Zetlin just put up an interview with us on the Inc. Magazine site titled 4 Signs You Should Say ‘No’ to a VC which I thought was excellent. She explores the entrepreneur – VC relationship and suggests four warning signs for an entrepreneur when interacting with a VC.
- The VC isn’t fascinated with your product
- He (or she)’s just not that into you
- You can’t be completely honest
- The VC doesn’t treat you like an equal
The paragraph on “you can’t be completely honest” is a seminal moment in my relationship with Raj. It also was a key point in my work career where, upon reflection, I completely and totally grokked the importance of being honest in the moment, clear about my reasoning, and willing to change my perspective based on new information, rather than feeling stuck in simply delivering a message. The section from the article follows:
“The important thing is to be completely transparent,” Bhargava says. “It’s very, very difficult to be transparent about your business, but it goes a long way toward building that relationship. ‘Here’s what I’m going through; here’s what I’m struggling with; here’s what I need help with.’ You have to know if that will spook the investor or if they’ll want to dig in and help you.”
That ability to be honest was a great asset in Feld and Bhargava’s relationship when they worked together on Interliant, the only one of their ventures that did not survive. After some politicking by a different executive, Feld removed a part of the company’s operations from Bhargava’s oversight. Bhargava took a few days to calm down, but then he explained forthrightly how disappointed he was and why he believed Feld had made the wrong decision. “Being open and directly confronting the issues, you get through it,” Bhargava says now. “I felt hurt, but I think our relationship is that much stronger.”
As for Feld, he recalls returning to his hotel after discussing the matter over dinner and feeling physically ill. “I knew I had completely screwed up,” he says.
I count Raj as one of my closest friends and trust him with my life. He’s had an enormous influence on how I behave as an investor and how I interact with entrepreneurs. Raj – thanks man – I look forward to many more years working together.