Archives For February 2011

Tired of Self-Hating VCs

February 22, 2011 — 15 Comments

This post was stimulated by a tweet i read over the weekend, by a VC I won’t name because I don’t know him, and he has a very good reputation for being a nice guy. His tweet read: “I’m really not sure I like VC’s”. My reaction to this missive went from, at first, a knowing smile, then to mild irritation and finally to downright anger. Anger, not at him, but at myself. Anger at the fact that this kind of radical and broad based self-deprecation (and by “self” I mean all of us) was amusing, old hat and totally unexceptional to me, and to all the rest of us who practice venture capital.

I have a clear sense of why this is. The origin story of the VC as black hat is based around the archetype of the entrepreneur as philosopher king, and the VC as necessary evil. It is a story that is perpetuated by every entrepreneur who was told “no” by a blue-shirt-and-khakis-wearing weenie like me, and by every angel investor looking to build a brand. It is a story that is fueled every time a VC checks his/her blackberry in a meeting, or says something inane or just fails to return an email. I get it, and I’m sure I share in the blame for the lasting power of this narrative by my lack of social skills or by the response time implications of my clogged inbox.

But the biggest way in which I contribute to the persistence of the “VC as evil” meme is by nodding knowingly when it is mentioned in my presence. There is a way in which, by agreeing that the phenomenon is real, I implicitly place myself outside of it … “yeah, VCs are jerks, but I’m obviously one of the good guys.” Just the other day, I was speaking with a successful angel who is considering raising a fund (I know, you’re *shocked* to hear that), who characterized that decision as “going over to the dark side”. I laughed. Here’s what I should have said: “Screw that.”

And that’s my take on this notion from here on out: Screw that. The worst VC in the world spends his or her entire working life providing jet fuel to the entrepreneurial economy. That’s what we do, even in our darkest hour … that is literally the only tool in our tool chest. Remind me what’s so bad about that? Of all the professions in the economy, what is so “dark” or “evil” about injecting cash into high growth companies? I’m clearly missing something. Every venture capitalists I know does three things all day long: figure out which entrepreneurs to back and wire money to those entrepreneurs; work like hell to help those companies; and pitch limited partners that they should give him/her more money to rinse and repeat that process. Again, personal foibles and the occasional jackass aside, I think we can agree that these are activities that are massively net positive to the world.

Now, like any insider in any field, I could talk at length about how far short of the ideal I and my compatriots fall. But how unusual is that? If you want to hear something chilling, you should go out for drinks with some medical residents, and hear them talk about the foibles and failings of overworked young doctors. Or discuss food hygiene with a chef in an honest mood. Or watch “Waiting For Superman” to learn about the delta between the perfect and the real in the teaching profession. Here’s a quick newsflash: human beings are deeply flawed. The bottom 20% of any field is depressingly pathetic. That fact does not make medicine, cuisine or teaching worthy of wholesale mudslinging, and the same should be true of venture capital.

The other day, my 2.5 year old daughter asked me what I did for work. I said that Daddy helps people start companies. I’m pretty sure she didn’t understand what I meant, but it felt good to say it. I’m proud of what I do, and I think she’ll be proud of me, too, someday (though I’m pretty sure she’ll always be willing to swap me for Dr Seuss.)

First, read this post.

A couple of my close friends, Mark Solon and Roger Ehrenberg, have tweeted this article with the endorsement MUST READ. I’m as much (or more) of a fanboy of Steve Blank as anyone, and I think the world needs more straight talk and demystification of the VC/entrepreneur relationship. Having said that, this seems like such an obvious point that to make it feels more like sloppy demonization than analysis. By these lights, customers are not your friends, partners are not your friends, employees are not your friends and your lawyer isn’t your friend (even if it’s Ed Zimmerman and he’s gotten you drunk on $350 bottles of wine.) If you are expecting someone, in a business context, to do something against their own fiduciary duty and self-interest, then you are in for a rough ride in this world, whether you raise venture capital or not.

Mark and Roger, you are both colleagues and friends. If I have a company in trouble (which I never do, of course), can I count on you to lead their next round at an uptick, based on our friendship? NO? Well, hot damn, I thought we were friends.

My wife and I were in Cairo about 8 months ago, serving on an Endeavor international selection panel. For those who don’t know about Endeavor, you should, it’s a fantastic organization. They work in developing economies to identify and provide services to high impact entrepreneurs. As a result of being there with Endeavor, we were surrounded by the most talented business people in Egypt, most particularly those who are breaking with convention to start high growth businesses. After nearly a week of this, I was very charged up about Egypt’s future and was basically ready to plant the Village Ventures flag and start doing deal right then and there.

My wife Jess, who is even more entrepreneurship-obsessed than I am (hence her NPR show From Scratch), was in this case far less sanguine, for an interesting reason. The photo at the top begins to capture some of her concern. Put simply, Cairo has the worst traffic in the world. You can look at various surveys that will disagree with that claim, and I’m sure there are cities with quantitatively more cars per square foot or whatever, but trust me, Cairo is qualitatively worse, for two reasons. The first is that the infrastructure is pathetic. Roads are pitted with potholes, bridges are rickety, lanes are routinely closed for repairs that never happen, etc. The second, and worse, factor is that the rule of law is entirely absent. Lanes are merely abstract concepts, accidents not involving fatalities are barely worth slowing down for and there are no policeman to be found anywhere. This kind of disregard for the traffic system shows how little organization and respect the government has for its people.

Jess’s take was that a country whose social contract was this broken would have a hard time ever getting its act together. And she was right. My own view is that this revolution, though it will be as messy as revolutions always are, will lay the groundwork for building a society where entrepreneurs can in fact do their thing. Let’s hope that this turmoil doesn’t drive away the talent and capital required for real growth.