Friday, November 9, 2012

How To Choose The Right VC Partner For You

Many people confuse the value of a VC firm (e.g. Sequoia) with the actual partner who joins their board.  If your co-founder is your spouse, your board member is like your mother or father-in-law.  Unhappy, inept, or troublesome in-laws can be a disaster.

Here are some of the criteria to consider for the VC partner joining your board.

1. Network and Access
What network can the specific partner bring to bear?  Brand name partners typically have more weight and can get more important people on the phone.  More junior partners have less pull on average, but might have a stronger network of potential non-executive hires if they just left a company with lots of talent (e.g. Google, FB etc.).

2. Understand Standard "Startup Problems"
All startups are messy.  You want someone on board who has either (a) started something themselves or (b) seen a lot of early companies as an investor or employee.   Newer partners who have not started or worked at early companies (e.g. ex-bankers or ex-consultants) have a higher likelihood of inappropriately freaking out if something standard goes wrong, and things *always* go wrong at young companies.

3 . Seniority in Firm
Having a senior partner join your board is usually better then having a junior[1] partner, although trade offs exist in both directions.

The drawbacks of a junior[1] partner largely center around their knowledge, network, and incentives.    A junior partner is trying to climb the partnership ladder at their firm and may put their career before your startup.  This can lead to split incentives (and finger pointing) if your startup runs into trouble.  A junior partner may not know what they don't know and give bad advice ("You should make it look more like Pinterest") or over-react to a simple issue.  A senior partner has nothing to prove to the partnership, and has seen a lot of twists in the entrepreneurial road before, so they can just focus on fixing the problems.

The senior partner's weight in the firm and in the industry can go a long way.  Do you need to raise another $10 million as an inside round?  A senior partner may cajole the rest of the firm into approving the investment while a junior partner might not.

The downsides of a senior partner is that they may be checked out, too busy, or out of touch.  Senior partners may overly pattern match or focus too much on what worked 15 years ago.  Alternatively they may aggressively push the latest blind fad ("You really need to hire a lean startup mobile growth hacker") without knowing what it means.  In general, a senior partner will have less time for you than a junior one.

4. Personal Chemistry
Would you actually enjoy seeing the VC partner regularly?  Do they have insights you will benefit from and comments you will respect?  Do they respect you and your abilities?  Can you ask them dumb questions without repercussions?

5. Past Experience, Smarts and Insights
Does the person have unique insights or creative thinking that can really help you?  Can they be a good sounding board to help you quickly identify what to focus on?

Do they have relevant past experience in the industry?  Can their knowledge help you get where you are going faster?  Do they have operating experience you can benefit from in building your company?

6. Hunger/Drive/GSD
How hard does the VC partner work for the company?  How hungry are they to make the company succeed?  Are they available on the weekends and late at night?  What will they tangibly do to help the company?

7. Board Seat Number
How many boards does the VC partner sit on?  Will they have time to help your company?  Alternatively, do they have enough board seats to prevent them from focusing too much on you (and showing up unannounced during the work week)?

8. Firm
The venture firm's brand the partner comes from can help with hiring or deals.  Institutional knowledge can help with industry trends / pattern matching and relationships in to potential customers, partners, etc.

Reference checks.
You should reference check anyone associated with the company.  This includes the specific VC partner you are considering for your board.  Some questions to ask:
  • How has the VC been most helpful?   What is the single thing they have done best for your company?
  • What are the specific areas they have helped with? (hiring?  company building?  introductions?  strategy?  product?  something else?)
  • What resources has he or she brought to bare?  How has the rest of the VC firm been of help?  How does the VC partner interact with the rest of the VC firm?
  • How do they react to bad news?  Provide an example of when something went terribly wrong.  What did the VC partner do?
  • What is the partner weakest at?  How does it manifest itself?
  • How much do you have to manage the VC partner?   Do they e.g. ask you for meaningless data all the time?
  • How would you improve the VCs involvement with your company?
  • Describe a situation where the investor has gone above and beyond to help the company.
  • How would you compare them to the other board members?  How do they interact with other board members?  Do they create a constructive environment?
  • How do they interact with the entrepreneur?  How do they interact with the company's executive team?
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[1] Don't confuse "new to the firm" with "junior".  There are a handful of newer VCs who have had a great operating career so far and made lots of money - so they have less pressure and incentive to push their career at the venture firm at your company's expense.  They often have a pre-existing relationship with the venture firm they joined - either as an entrepreneur the firm backed or an operating executive.  This means they have more pull and respect from the senior partners then a junior partner does.  They are new to venture and to the firm, so are still learning e.g. what makes for a good investment (unless they have been an active angel).

These people are usually a better choice for your board then a true junior partner and will have more pull with the partnership, as well as stronger operating insights.  They will also have a clean slate and have the time to do more investments.