What to consider before you put a ring on it.
Committing to a relationship with a VC is committing to the long-term. In romantic terms, it’s a marriage, not a casual drink or weekend getaway. In fact, venture capital/startup relationships last just as long as most marriages — around 7 or 8 years — and can be just as emotionally taxing.
Entrepreneurs often struggle to feel confident when they are presenting to VCs. Pitching your startup can be as nerve-wracking as waiting at the bar for a blind date, and what VCs want can seem as mysterious as members of the opposite sex. Entrepreneurs are reluctant to ask important questions because they are afraid of scaring the potential partner away, but the answers to those questions could seriously impact the happiness and fruitfulness of your “life” together. Startup life means there are a lot of ups and downs, but the downs don’t mean you should settle for a ‘safe’ VC choice. Everybody deserves somebody. As with significant others, you want someone who sees the unique positives in you, not the generic negatives.
What VCs care most about is how much their investment will be worth, or equity value. This leads to the question facing all entrepreneurs — how do you build equity value? Revenue is a metric (and an important one), but not the metric. Other factors include market leadership, unique IP/capabilities, disruption in a big market, and an A+ technology team. The right “fit” isn’t the same for everyone. What works for one person or startup may not work for another. Here are 5 things to consider before entering the bonds of venture capital funding.
1. Know your value as a partner
As the philosopher Beyonce says, “If you like it, then you should have put a ring on it.” A great start to a marriage or partnership of any kind is when both sides feel they lucked out and are excited about the commitment. Find someone who appreciates the potential of your business and what you have to offer. As a founder, you are giving away your most prized asset — your equity. The VCs are buying a piece of a company that they believe has value. It is important to remember your self-worth and your company’s value before you embark upon a relationship . This is a much more compelling approach than “I hope someone gives me money,” because desperation doesn’t look good on anybody.
It is also important not to have baggage walking into the partnership. Plenty of entrepreneurs play hard to get in the beginning, but as soon as you commit, the games should be over. You don’t want to spend years explaining or justifying yourself. A strong relationship means being honest and appreciative of each other. This also means it is important to be on the same page about terms, so everyone feels they got a fair deal. For example, Carbonite really loved working with us at Menlo Ventures because the investment was fair on both sides and we said ‘I do’ with a clean slate. In a strong VC-startup relationship, both parties want the other to succeed. Mutual respect and excitement should come before a ring.
2. With VCs as in marriage, communication with your partner is key
Most entrepreneurs think their job is to be perfect and only share positive information with their VCs. Once you’ve entered into a partnership, founders shouldn’t be afraid to talk about everything with their VC, because marriages are about sharing things in good times and bad. A great VC wants no surprises, and also knows that companies face rocky periods and things occasionally get messy. If you don’t communicate with your better half, bad things happen — like misunderstandings, fights and divorce papers. Your job as a founder is to be self-aware and share your problems, concerns, and challenges. It should never be you versus your partner — it should be you together vs. the problem, and your VC should be one of your biggest advocates. Make sure you expose problems as soon as you know about them, with a thoughtful and calm demeanor. This builds trust, which leads to good things. As the saying goes, “A happy wife (VC) is a happy life.”
3. Keep dating your VC even after you’re “married”
After the papers are signed, both sides should still make an effort to keep the flame alive. Just because the deal is done, it doesn’t mean you should take the other person for granted or stop making an effort. Founders should never be afraid to set up time to meet with their VC, and in fact, they should actively seek out “quality time.” This is a person you’ll be working with closely and who shares your goal of success. Get to know them personally too and develop a relationship beyond just your mutual business endeavors. Just like in romantic relationships, your partner (VC) should also be your friend. Over time, I’ve learned that sometimes the small gestures are the ones that matter the most. As the CEO of Kahuna, I go out of my way to do one-on-one coffee chats between board meetings so we can talk candidly and openly about whatever we want. I’ve found that many times the most important decisions happen in those small meetings, not the big ones.
4. Never go to bed angry
Every couple knows that you shouldn’t go to bed angry. Leaving issues unresolved only makes them worse and allows resentment to build up. Even the best marriages involve fights, and you will have disagreements with your VC, but both partners should be focused on resolution. It is a mistake to say that you agree with something, and then not do it. It is an even bigger mistake to disagree with something, and then do it anyway. The best approach is to have a debate in the boardroom, come to a collective decision, and then act. After the meeting? Walk out of the boardroom unified. You and your VC should always have each other’s back in public and never belittle each other. What happens in the boardroom, stays in the boardroom. Don’t gossip — it never leads to anything good.
5. Pick your battles
Fights may be inevitable, but you can still choose what to fight over. Spend your time and energy fighting over the important things. If a big discussion is happening in the boardroom, make sure it is a productive one that really matters. I heard from a friend at a successful startup that one hour of their board meeting was spent discussing which low-cost bank account they should use, and everyone had a strong opinion. That’s a battle not worth fighting for, and a waste of valuable quality (board meeting) time.
Entrepreneurs should focus on solving the billion-dollar problems, rather than the $10 ones. Getting too embroiled in minor disputes or disagreements saps time and energy, and leaves you feeling frustrated and discontent.
Many young entrepreneurs will strike up a long-term relationship with a VC before they get married. In a way, it is good practice. These are some of the most important relationships of your life. VCs have a serious impact on your career, as well as your personal happiness. Life is too short to waste it on someone who isn’t a good match or doesn’t treat you right. Before you put a ring on it, stop and make sure you are ready for the long-haul and excited about the partner you’re planning to spend it with.