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Tips for Entrepreneurs from a First Year VC

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A close friend of mine likes to joke about how entrepreneurs & operators who become venture capitalists are “trading in their blue light sabers for red ones” – it’s a funny analogy…naturally, comparing investors to Sith Lords seems to fit pretty well some days.

But the benefit of switching from one side to the other is that perspective can sometimes be illuminated. After nearly 20 years of operating at places like Mozilla, Reactivity, Trilogy & Apple, I still tend to think like an entrepreneur myself, so some of the assumptions of life inside a VC are maybe a little more obvious to me than folks who have been around longer.

So here are some observations about my first year of VC life, and then some of the ways that being on the “inside” has changed the way I think that entrepreneurs should think about approaching investors – things I wish I had understood myself when I was pitching.

A Year of Observations about VC Life 

Life as a VC is a sea of meetings. Really, it is a lot of meetings. Most of them are single meetings, with no follow-ups. Most don’t result in an investment in a company at all. In 2011 I had first meetings with just over 350 companies, plus another 100 more as parts of business plan judging and demo days. Those meetings resulted in just four investments for me (Tumblr, Dropbox, Clearslide and Citrus Lane) plus a handful of seed investments.

That’s a massive “bias-to-no” for any profession – 99% or so. It’s a tough negative bias, and every investor I know is affected by it in some way. But that one percent is like a lightning strike: those meetings can form the basis for some of the most interesting and meaningful work you’ll ever do.

High fidelity communication is impossible. Because so many meetings are one-offs like I described, it’s very hard to communicate effectively. As an operator, you get good at being direct with the people you work with – or you fail.

In the context of a startup, relationships are developed over a period of months or years, so that candor can be better understood and more nuanced, resulting in communications that are efficient and effective, without hurt feelings from misunderstandings.

Venture meetings aren’t like that. They’re incredibly overloaded: you’re trying to have a really good communication about who you are, what you’ve built, and how you want to grow. And you’re trying to do it in what is very often an extremely emotionally significant context of someone putting everything at risk to change the world. All with no existing relationship context to fall back on.

As an investor, I feel that a situation like that deserves my fullest possible attention, and my best questions about and suggestions for the business. But since we’ve never interacted before, there’s the danger of seeming too harsh in cases like that – we don’t have the shared context, vocabulary and trust frameworks in place that you do in longer term relationships. I think that’s why so many investors are often vague or non-responsive in their interactions afterwards – something I’ve tried very hard to avoid, although with imperfect success so far.

Timing is everything, and everyone is multi-tasking. This applies to both the startup and the investor I’ve found – because each has their own set of work going, and any number of competing projects and priorities. The right thing coming by at the wrong time can be as challenging as an investment that just isn’t a natural fit. Life as a VC has different patterns and rhythms than life for operators – the nature of VC work is that you’ve got multiple companies and entrepreneurs you’re working with all the time, plus a constant stream of new folks to meet, and often in wildly different domains.

This means constant context switching, and there are times when excellent entrepreneurs and startups come through when it’s just hard or impossible to take focus from existing or in process investments. That creates a severe asymmetry: as an entrepreneur, you’re thinking about one thing (broadly defined as your startup), deeply,all the time, while investors that you’re talking with are trying to juggle many at once.

Venture firms and partners are idiosyncratic and highly personal. When I raised money for my own startup, I didn’t know much about how to think about approaching VCs. I knew folks at various firms, and mostly went to talk with those who I knew and then went through their process over the subsequent several weeks. I figured that VCs were all mostly similar to each other.

I’ll say candidly that in my case, I was extremely lucky when that “strategy” worked – my investors were Mitch Kapor and Peter Fenton when they were both at Accel Partners – they were incredibly great for us, and I’ve had fantastically productive relationships with both for more than a decade now. But at some level it was really just dumb luck. I could easily have found a firm and partners who wouldn’t have worked.

Every firm has different culture: some are collaborative, others more solo practices; a small few (including Greylock) consist of former or current entrepreneurs, other firms consist of people who have been investors most of their careers; some are progressive, some are conservative. And even in partnerships, everyone there is different. Different in interests, skills, capabilities, stage in life, and temperament, at the very least.

But here’s the thing: meeting with an amazing entrepreneur can change your whole year. 

That’s why you do it. To find people to change the world with. I’ve been very lucky this year to work with some incredible entrepreneurs and teams, not just limited to the companies we were able to invest in. And that’s what we’re all looking for: not just the opportunity to make great investments, but the chance to work with people who are setting out to make the world the way they want it. There’s no more optimistic and hopeful endeavor, and it’s 100% addictive.

Suggestions on Interacting with VCs

Given that context on what it’s like to be on the inside of a VC firm, here are some things I wish I had understood when I pitched myself.

  1. Be human; be yourself. Be prepared and have a pitch, but be willing to go off script. Talk about the parts of what you’re doing that are the most exciting to you! And in general, it’s probably best not to just jump into a PowerPoint deck. Take a few minutes to introduce yourself, and hear a bit from who you’re seeing. Don’t get too informal, of course – you’re still in a business context – but try to interact in as authentic a working style as you can.
  2. Seek out investors who lean forward, who engage, who ask you tough questions. Tough questions aren’t always fun, but they’re ultimately what makes your company better.
  3. You should ask questions, too, particularly to understand how the investor thinks about businesses like yours. I personally love getting questions and like a spirited debate. Helps us get to know each other.
  4. Be resilient. A “no” from a few partners or firms doesn’t mean you won’t get funded. As mentioned above, a lot of times it’s context.
  5. Be persistent. A “no” on this round doesn’t mean that an investor won’t be better, or more able to work on your company in the next round.
  6. Remember that relationships are progressions. Don’t read too much into any particular interaction. Some investors ask a bunch of questions in first meetings. Some listen more and engage more as the process goes on. Everyone is different. When in doubt about what they’re thinking, ask!
  7. Above all, don’t think of fundraising as a transaction to get finished and move onto the next thing. It is important to get the funding you need, but you’ll live with your investor for the life of your startup (and really beyond, relationship-wise). Think about it like the balancing act when you’re trying both to attract and evaluate an all-star member of your team.

Your mileage may vary, of course. But hopefully this bit of context will make the difference for you between just a pitch meeting and the start of a world-changing new relationship.

This article was written by John Lilly, a partner at Greylock Partners. Prior to Greylock, John was CEO of Mozilla, makers of Firefox. In addition to leading Greylock’s investments in Tumblr, Dropbox, Clearslide and Citrus Lane, he’s also on the boards of directors of Mozilla and Code for America. He has written articles for Pandodaily, as well as maintains his own blog.

Callum Connects

Benedict Heng, Founder of Mr. Farmer

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Benedict Heng is bringing back the ‘kampong’ days of having the Ho Liao (good ingredients) for Ho Jiak (good tasting) food.

What’s your story?
I’m Ben from Mr. Farmer. Mr. Farmer is an online grocer dedicated to supplying the freshest produce to our customers. We believe in sustainable and ethical farming. Since a young age, I have always been an avid food lover (especially meats), developing a strong interest in all things delicious. That is why I ventured into the F&B industry, working as a junior cook for 3 years.

Midway through my career, I made a move to the finance industry to pursue monetary rewards. I dove into high-risk investments and I made lots of money from these investments. However, the good fortune did not last long and all these came crashing down when I suffered a tremendous loss. This coincided with the time that I had just started my own family and it was a huge blow to me both materially and mentally. It was this crash that made me realize that this life wasn’t for me. I went on a hiatus and eventually, it was only through the strong support from my family that I managed to tide over this tough episode.

I went back to help the family business and this was how Mr Farmer came about. My family has been in the food industry for many decades and one thing they noticed from years of experience is that sustainable farming practices are not as developed as in Europe. This is why through Mr Farmer, we hope that we can provide the best quality products to families out there who want the best ingredients for their loved ones.

What excites you most about your industry?
Delicious and wholesome food excites me. I believe food is a critical component of life and it brings people together. The opportunity to serve the community with fresh produce for a healthy life, that brings me joy.

I feel that there is still so much more we can do to improve the quality of food and bring it to the masses. One of the key components of ensuring greater quality of food is to support ethical and sustainable farming. Due to commercialization and urbanization, most farming practices these days are no longer the way they were in the old “kampong” times. Shortcuts are taken, standards are compromised, all in the name of profit. At Mr. Farmer, profit is important too but we want to focus on the concept of One Welfare – sustainable farming directly impacts our health. Our vision is to bring back the ‘kampong’ days of having the Ho Liao (good ingredients) for Ho Jiak (good tasting) food.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born and raised in Singapore. I call Singapore my home as it’s where my family and close friends are. I also travel frequently to Malaysia and APAC for work.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
It’s definitely Singapore. There is just so much this tiny city can offer! Singapore has been globally recognized for its top-notch business environment providing its residents with developed infrastructure, political stability and excellent connectivity. These factors have given us an outstanding support system for businesses to strive.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Surround yourself with people that inspire you, challenge you to rise higher, make you better and, keep them in your life.

Who inspires you?
I draw inspiration from my uncle, who is the head of both the family and business. He takes care of our family matters at home and manages hundreds of employees at work. Handling both the family and business side of things can be tricky, but he has shown me that success can be sustainable and done with a conscience. His guiding philosophy of handling business and family is simply, to have a big heart.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Even just one day of separation from the day the meat is slaughtered, makes a world of difference to its flavour.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
I have come to learn that awareness is the beginning of everything. If I had my time again, I would have probably spent more time figuring out who I truly am and with that self-awareness, begun to lead my life with more purpose and meaning.

How do you unwind?
I like to spend my free time sipping white coffee at my favourite coffee place. I enjoy taking in the surrounding sights and letting my mind wander freely. It allows me to unwind and gain clarity at the same time. It also helps me organize my thoughts to prepare for the week ahead.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
It would be Bangkok as the people there are genuinely friendly and hospitable. They say people are what defines the city and I couldn’t agree more with this. I also enjoy the ‘laid back’ vibe of Bangkok. Not to mention Bangkok has all the good food and awesome shopping choices too!

Everyone in business should read this book:
“Spin selling” by Neil Reckham. It’s an amazing book that teaches you a process designed to help you successfully sell your products and services to business buyers.

Shameless plug for your business:
We at Mr. Farmer have the best tasting meats in Singapore, do a blind test and you will know why it’s Michelin chefs’ preferred choice. Not only are we very confident about the taste, we are also proud to say that all our products are chemical, hormone and antibiotic free. We also focus a lot on supporting ethical and sustainable farming practices believing in the ‘One Welfare’ concept. Do check us out if you enjoy good quality food like us!

How can people connect with you?
[email protected]

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Zac Chua, Founder & CEO of The Kettle Gourmet

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Zac Chua’s popcorn business validated itself straight away and fast tracked him to the startup world. Zac now employs 11 people and shifts 500 bags of popcorn daily.

What’s your story?
It’s a crazy one. It was an accidental startup. If you think about it, no university graduate would ever dream of becoming a popcorn seller. We crashed our first tech event to validate our idea and it took off from there. I bought a logo for $7 from a designers marketplace, printed some cheap name cards, and built a 1 page landing page. Sales started pouring in and eventually, we were serving B2B clients (corporate pantries) and we have never looked back. Today we move about 500 bags daily, we have 11 employees and we are growing. Talk about a validation that worked in our favour.

What excites you most about your industry?
It’s food! Everybody loves food! In Singapore the F&B scene is brutally competitive and it spurs me on to fight and compete for market share and to prove to myself that I can do it. It keeps me going and I won’t stop until we become the market leader.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I was born in Singapore, and have traveled to most of Southeast Asia.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore! Even though Singapore has a high cost of living, the Government is actually very supportive of startups. They provide grants for us to tap into, and the technological infrastructure makes it possible for us to compete on a global scale. I believe if you can succeed in your business in Singapore, you can succeed in most of Southeast Asia.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
You only need to be right once, and the rest is history.

Who inspires you?
My father, who was a VC. In fact he was the one who gave me the best piece of advice which I shared above. Having one successful exit, he showed me that it’s okay to fail a million times – all it takes is just one time for you to win in business and in life.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
The power of compounding.

  • Mary and John are the same age.
  • Mary saves $2k annually from the age of 19-25 – so she puts $14k into her portfolio
  • John saves $2k annually from the age of 26-65 – so he puts $80k into his portfolio, but 7 years after Mary.
  • If both are able to generate 10% per annum, who would have more at age 65?
  • John of course! But how much more?
  • Mary will have $944,641 whilst John will have $973,704
  • Think about it! Mary puts in only $14k but John delays for 7 years and puts in $80k.

CRAZY RIGHT!?!?

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Nothing, my mistakes taught me how to become a better me. But if I really must choose, I’d say take more time to find the right business partner.

How do you unwind?
Poker, Mahjong and Dota 2.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Vietnam! Things are cheap, people are warm and friendly, and their coffee fills up my life. I would love to retire there if possible.

Everyone in business should read this book:
The richest man in Babylon

Shameless plug for your business:
We don’t need a plug. Just try our competitors and you’ll understand why!

How can people connect with you?
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/chuazongyou
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/zacchua

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started,
built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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