This post was originally published on Open Source Fashion in 2013
“The game taught me the game. And it didn’t spare the rod while teaching.” – Jesse Livermore
There’s a new bully in town. And I guess that’s me at least according to a VC who emailed me last week to complain about my blog post. He wrote that it was unfair of me to write such an article. He even told me that I should delete it and all the tweets related to it. I can’t do that. There are just way too many tweets about it that aren’t even mine. The post trended on Hacker News, got over 50,000 uniques and blew away the peak of the domain. A few publications even asked if they could republish it or do a story on me. When I wrote it, I wasn’t worried about it creating polarity because the article wasn’t about VCs in an absolute context. Not all VCs engage in cronyism, invest in stupid startups or perform shallow assessments of start-ups. Moreover, I doubt that smart VCs with balls – the ones I want to partner with – would be even mildly bothered by my last blog post; they are smart enough to use this as an opportunity to really stand out during this Series A Crunch while most other VCs are running away from consumer investments.
At the risk of sounding like a bitchy girlfriend during a breakup, I’d like to tell you that the problem is you, not me. It really is you. In fact, I’d like to propose my issues and solutions for you VCs who are screwing up the start-up ecosystem. There are five primary issues:
VCs who rely on old school-hustle and instinct cannot deliver sufficient returns anymore. Today’s VCs need to grow a pair, gain vision, get domain expertise and adapt their methodologies.
Treatment of Non-Crony Founders
Often non-crony founders are treated like desperate street beggars. Not all non-crony founders are crazy for seeking a Seed or Series A investment from VCs. Founders with compelling business models and domain expertise should be treated with respect and viewed as potential partnership opportunities to build a business and make money. Often VCs pass on these founders without even seeing or hearing a pitch. Check to see if there is a link between the founder’s start-up and his or her background and education. Is the founder an industry superstar? Does the founder have domain expertise relevant to her start-up? If so, it is probably worthwhile to explore the opportunity. Even if you don’t end up investing in his or her start-up, you can connect with an industry superstar or someone with a lot of domain expertise.
Lack of Guidance
Start-up funding shouldn’t be a charitable donation for cronies. It should be about making an investment with returns. When I asked some of the VCs who invested in the start-ups mentioned in my last post, they immediately mentioned that the founders were friends of theirs – no other reason. When a business model isn’t compelling, should friendship be a safety net? Being a crony and having a compelling business model are not mutually exclusive. Can’t VCs find real charities to donate to? How can you let start-ups with flawed business models launch? It’s like letting a friend drive drunk. At least sober him up. At least VCs could help these crony founders come up with a proper business model or help them create a better team. If they are real friends with the founder, they should properly guide him or her and give honest, constructive feedback. At least that way they wouldn’t be wasting their LP’s money.
Isn’t the professional relationship between two co-founders important too? In my last post, one of the start-ups that I mentioned is suffering because the founders broke up after working together less than 6 months. I’m not surprised since they barely knew each other when their company launched.
The start-up ecosystem is like junior high. There are a few cool cliques that everyone wants to follow, trends are created by them, and the net effect is a herd mentality. A few VC funds are deemed cool and when they lead a first round of funding, they attract a herd of others. Meanwhile, some VCs will follow and fund any start-up that already that has a committed VC. Often it’s a case of the blind leading the blind, particularly when the leading VC doesn’t go over the business model. Regardless, other VCs follow like flies buzzing around curdled milk in a bowl of Series A Crunch Cereal. Except they are VCs, and there’s no upside to investing in a crappy start-up. If they want to give to a charity, try Charity Water.
A lot of VCs don’t have balls. Just as big balls are an absolute must for a successful entrepreneur, they are absolutely necessary for VCs. Having balls is more than aggression and risk taking, it is the ability to dare to “THINK DIFFERENT,” the desire to build something from scratch, not listen to the peanut gallery and develop independent thoughts. It takes effort and vision, let’s face it-– it’s hard. Maybe the reason why many VCs don’t bother is because they are lazy and blind.
Lack of Domain Expertise
VCs often act like bouncers. Their assessment time of whom to allow “in” is about the same (and as shallow) and lacks domain expertise. Domain expertise can take the form of some or all of the following: deep understanding of the industry, a track record of success in that industry, a history of building superstar products and creating innovations within the sector, and constant self-education. The acquisition of domain expertise is important for (business) survival and definitely for domination. It involves constant evolution and adaptation. Our greatest tool for survival is our ability to think, learn, connect dots and evolve – whether you’re a founder or VC, you have a responsibility to continue to do so. Domain expertise is what separates weak start-ups like Dollar Shave Club and True & Co. from great companies like Nasty Gal, Spanx, and Zappos.
Flawed Method of Assessment
I’ve noticed during my fundraising journey that I prefer VCs who were former bankers or former entrepreneurs. These VCs tend to have vision, balls and domain expertise. The VCs who were former entrepreneurs tend to be more sincere. What I like about bankers is that before making a move, they do research and perform comprehensive competitive analysis in addition to studying industry trends. If they are not experts in the industry, they source the most up-to-date data and research from analysts, pundits and expert networks. VC firms should take a cue from bankers. By contrast, VCs often barely skim a 15-page deck with the least amount of text and most pictures as possible. Heck, Cliff Notes summaries have more meat than the decks VCs like to look at. As a founder of a consumer start-up, I have 2 decks: one for people who understand my industry and one for the VCs who do not.
A new trend in the VC world is that firms are hiring PR firms. Instead of focusing on closing the best deals and making the most money, these VC funds are more preoccupied with their own image while most barely understand “brand” in the consumer world — even though some market themselves as VCs who invest in consumer. Ironic. Instead of worrying about creating their own brand, they should focus on what they are supposed to excel at. Or at least do both, and learn consumer better.
I don’t understand why many VCs hate bankers. Unlike bankers, too many VCs run around town with arrogance and attitude disproportionate to their success. Moreover, VCs often take credit for deals at their firm that they have nothing to do with. Many VCs are clowns, ahem… characters, in the Series A Crunch Clown Show that’s currently playing in Silicon Alley and Silicon Valley. Usually when bankers act arrogant, it’s backed up by a successful record since they are results driven. On the other hand, as Matt Oguz, a venture capitalist and Founding Partner of Palo Alto Venture Science, said, “Traditional VC takes way too much credit for successes, and doesn’t accept its failures.” It’s time for VCs to grow some balls and take a cue from bankers (several of whom are now launching their own VC funds). If VCs don’t evolve on their own, the game will teach them without sparing the rod. Life is about kicking ass, not kissing ass.