an amazing post about what it is like to be a VC.
a bit long, and without some of the really hairy stuff, like closing a company and the circus that comes with it.
by Mark Suster of GRP (global retail partners) – a good VC out of LA and London
had a chance to work with them about a decade ago, they know their stuff.
i do not know Mark, but ‘he gets it’. wish i had some of his humility and experience. and perhaps i have lost some of that passion?
here it is again:
One of the questions I’m most often asked is, “what’s it like being a VC?” I’ve been a VC for nearly 3 years now. Since I answer this all the time anyway I thought it might make an interesting blog post. I always start my answer to this question with, “you’d have to be a pretty big baby to complain about being a VC.” That’s true. Here’s why:
1. I get paid (well) for interesting people to come in and tell me how they want to change the world – Being an entrepreneur is like having blinders on. At least for the best entrepreneurs. Some people do the conference circuit too much, get involved in lots of side projects and attend every entrepreneur dinner. For me that’s always a bad sign. When I was running startups I felt like a horse with blinders on because I was super focused on the content management market and ignored many other markets.
One of the things that I’m loving about this side of the people is that it really satisfies my intellectual curiosity. People come into my office several times per week and tell my about their plans for changing the world. They outline the problems that exist in markets, their approach to the solutions, they update me on competitors and they show me their economic models. We have debates about how the industries will change / evolve. It is the equivalent of going to a coffee shop every day and having intellectual debates. In fact, I often take meetings in coffee shops. I LOVE this part of my job.
2. If I’m interested I get to spend more time with them, if I’m not I don’t have to – A few companies per month come in that have fascinating business ideas that warrant my spending more time trying to understand their people, company, technology and market. I get to do a deep dive on their business model, product roadmap and competitive positioning. If I meet a company that I don’t find very interesting I don’t have to spend any more time with them. I’m not saying I don’t spend time trying to help entrepreneurs that I am not planning to invest it – anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I do. But let’s face it, as a VC you spend time with whichever companies you want. As a CEO I had to spend tons of time with clients who ran business operations that were uninteresting to me. It was my job to be interested. No more. You’d have to be a big baby to complain about being a VC.
3. I have no quarterly sales targets for the first time in a decade – For anybody who’s ever been in a company with sales targets you can attest to what a fire drill the ends of March, June, September and December can be. Not any more for me. It’s liberating. I will obviously be judged on my performance. But it’s measured in years and not quarters. Don’t get me wrong – I still feel the pressure to ensure that the companies I’ve invested in perform well. So I spend much time with them and trying to help. But there’s a big difference.
4. I get paid to network – I love meeting people. When I go to conferences I never sit in the meeting section – I always cruise the halls meeting people. That’s where I meet interesting people who tell me the truth. On stage you hear people giving you the marketing version of their company. I get to politely ask the questions you’d like to ask like, “what were your revenues, how much money have you raised, what are your plans going forward?” I only do this when I’m interested in the company and when they’re interested in me. But in these circumstances these are all fair (necessary) questions.
Also, my job doesn’t involve the daily grind of customer complaints, product outages, business partner / channel problems, hiring / firing, etc. I work hard, don’t get me wrong – more than you might think. No “golf Wednesdays” for me! And the VC job has plenty of admin and minutiae. But I’m a people person and I get paid to spend lots of time with people. I get to network with angels, VCs, entrepreneurs, lawyers, etc. I love it.
5. I go where I want, when I want – I can’t overstate the importance of this in my life. I worked nearly a decade as a consultant – first building large scale IT systems and then doing strategy consulting. Then I spent many years as a startup CEO. I was always in a “service” industry. That means you’re always operating on the client’s schedule. You get on a plane at a moment’s notice because a senior customer agreed to meet you. You call in from your vacation because you’ve had a service outage. I went to Ibiza in Spain with my wife and in-laws before we were married. They couldn’t believe how much I was on the phone. We were in the final phases of acquiring a business and I couldn’t just say, “I’ll call you in 7 days when I’m back on the grid.” There are still time pressures on VCs, so that hasn’t changed completely. But I do go where I want and when I want a lot more than I used to.
6. I have a T&E account – Enough said.
7. I love spending time with entrepreneurs in the “romantic phase” – I love the startup phase of a business where we’re still romantic about our dreams to change the world. The problems are much more manageable. Once my company got to more than 100 employees I felt like I became “chief psychologist.” That was fine but I prefer the earlier days. As a VC I spend tons of time with companies at an early stage in their business. And in stead of one set of issues to deal with I get the variety of discussing issues with many teams. That’s fun.
8. We have very small teams – When you’re in your twenties you aspire to manage teams. I think it’s seen as a sign of making progress in your career. The idea that people “report to you” must validate some primal need. In your thirties you realize that managing people means you have less time to work on the things that you want to do. You have hours sucked up in one-on-one feedback sessions, annual or semi-annual performance reviews and you end up spending a lot of time resolving conflicts across your team members. I still like spending time with our teams – at GRP Partners we have a great team – but I don’t have large numbers of people to be responsible for. If I decide to take a last-minute trip to spend 2 days on a company due diligence session nobody is wondering where I am. You’d have to be a pretty big baby to complain about being a VC.
Still, the truth is that I miss being an entrepreneur all the time. Here’s what VCs don’t get fulfilled now:
1. We sit on the sidelines – The down side of VC is that exact same as I remember in consulting. Too many VCs see their entrepreneurs almost like pawns. They speak of “my CEO’s.” They talk about how this company failed because the management team didn’t listen to my advice and that one succeeded because we helped point them in the right direction. I think realistic VCs know that we only have an impact at the margin. Maybe 10-15%. That’s why picking great teams is so important. And I think that too many VC’s don’t realize that the entrepreneurs are our customers – but that’s a separate topic. I hate not getting to own results. We have a great board chat and talk about our strategic direction but then you go out and execute. You get the good and the bad. Those high highs and low lows are your own. You live them, breathe them. We live vicariously through you. It’s like the manager of a basketball team. We secretly wish it were us that got to take that 3-pointer with the clock running out. And we’d love the rush of the teammates holding us in the air if we sank it.
2. There is less team camaraderie – I really get along with my partners well. I knew them for 8 years before I joined GRP. We end up out a lot at events: dinners, cocktail parties, conferences. We travel together. We spend the entire day together on Mondays in our partners’ meetings and seeing companies present. Still, it’s different in a startup. When you’re preparing to launch your company at TechCrunch50 and everyone pulls all nighters for the days leading into it you’re building much deeper camaraderie than exists inside of VCs. When your site crashes and you get slammed by customers and in the press – you’re all in the sh*tter together. There is something about the relationships you build in those times. About 1 year in I asked many VCs about this and the feeling was nearly universal. They said, “yeah, but we get that through our board interactions. We build camaraderie there through the shared experience. That’s true. But it’s not the same.
3. I have to say “no” all the time – As an entrepreneur you’re used to hearing that what you’re doing won’t work and you turn up in the office every day to prove them wrong. My first company was a SaaS business in 1999. Everybody said that companies would never put their documents “in the cloud.” I was sure they were wrong and had the debate weekly. As an entrepreneur you’re always focused on the “how can we find a way to make the impossible happen?” People said that Google was going to dominate this market – we know we can do a better job. You know, the Apollo 13 moment. As a VC I’m required to say “no” ALL THE TIME. I don’t enjoy it. We get thousands of business plans per year. I meet hundreds of companies. We can only do a few deals per year. Definitionally we say “no” many times per week. I was with a very prominent VC on Sand Hill Road this week. I always ask other VCs there thoughts. He said the biggest disappointment since he moved over to VC was Tuesday mornings. That’s when the calls go out every week to say, “I’m sorry but we’ve decided to pass.” It’s much nicer to say “yes.” [thank you to Tereza for reminding me I left section this out]
4. We are in a “get rich slowly” business – OK, I’m not complaining. But I think many entrepreneurs have a misconception about this. True, we’re paid better than many startup executives on an annual basis. But I know many young partners in this business who have never gotten a “carry” check. The upside for entrepreneurs is the equity in their business. The upside for VCs is this carry. If you have a $100 million fund you don’t get paid your carry until you return the initial money to your investors and then you typically get 20% of the profits above this threshold. Well, since the industry hasn’t performed well in the past 10 years you have many younger partners who are still waiting for those checks. That is in stark contrast to the late 90’s goldrush where VC partners made millions overnight as their companies IPO’d for crazy valuations. On the positive side, we have a portfolio and therefore more diverse chances of success. But there is no “sell early” option for VCs where a $20 million exit could change our lives. But we obviously choose this side of the table. You’d have to be a pretty big baby to complain about being a VC.
Overall, I’m very happy on this side of the table. I try to get my entrepreneurial fix in other ways:
1. Running a local community / mentorship program – I run a group called LaunchPad LA. We’re gearing up to make big announcements about our second year program. I’ll write about that in a couple of weeks. I get to help control direction, make decisions and own results.
2. Writing this bl0g – This blog is a huge creative outlet for me. I get to choose what I write about. I might be controversial some times and get flack. Other times I might get great results and approbation. I can publish daily for weeks or not publish at all for a month. I own the results. I’m enjoying the chaotic creativity that comes with blogging.