The only thing worse for an entrepreneur than venture capitalists declining to invest is having them give unsolicited, company-killing advice on their way out of the meeting.
That warning to entrepreneurs was posted last weekend on the networking site LinkedIn, although you may be surprised to learn the author wasn’t an entrepreneur embittered by his dealings with venture capitalists. In fact this sensible advice was written by one. He’s Patrick Meenan, a partner in Minneapolis with Arthur Ventures.
“Entrepreneurs in general, just like a lot of people, can be very impressionable,” Meenan said, explaining why he wrote his essay. “A lot of times [investors] throw out advice because they think they’re supposed to, and they don’t realize the impact it has.”
What Meenan is discussing is the chasm in power and status between founders starving for money and the venture capitalists awash in it.
The company founders are probably younger than the venture capitalist and may be dead broke. They might not have gone to a top-tier business school. The venture capitalists, on the other hand, are brilliant thinkers. Why else would anybody give them a checkbook with millions of dollars? It’s no wonder the greenest company founders treat an offhand comment from a venture capitalist like it came on a stone tablet directly from Moses.
Meenan would be the first to say venture capitalists are supposed to supply guidance, not just money. Good investors are generally the most skilled coaches, too.
What Meenan called the “best advice” comes from somebody who invested in the company or at least knows all about it.
What Meenan called “OK” advice lacks one of those attributes. This means advice from a venture capitalist with a lifetime of experience in an entrepreneur’s chosen market but they have only just met. Or it might be a case where an investor has really pitched in to help but is just as green as the entrepreneur.
Finally there’s what he called “the absolute worst advice.” This is unsolicited wisdom offered by a venture investor who doesn’t know the company or hasn’t showed much of an interest in it, and who doesn’t seem to even have much of a background in the entrepreneur’s industry.
Ignore those people, Meenan said. Unfortunately, there will be a lot of them.
Meenan isn’t the only person telling entrepreneurs to be skeptical about who to listen to. Jim Moar of the local software industry mentoring nonprofit Mesa tells the CEOs he’s helping much the same thing. After reading through Meenan’s essay, he explained this week, he added only that it’s important for an entrepreneur to also decipher how the unsolicited advice might be biased.
So why are ill-informed venture capitalists walking around tossing off advice at all? One big reason, Meenan said, is they hope they can talk the entrepreneur into a course of action that slightly improves the very long odds of one day having the company fit their investment strategy. That is, as Moar might put it, the venture capitalists are biased.
Here’s an example of the absolute worst advice Meenan recently learned about, although he declined to reveal names. It was the story of a young company that had just $25,000 in the checking account but had reached about $50,000 of monthly software subscription revenue, growing at about 5 percent per month.
The CEO clearly had made a good start but wasn’t showing nearly fast enough growth to excite a venture capitalist. Rather than quietly go away, however, the unnamed venture capitalist suggested giving away the product, adopting the so-called freemium model. Hopefully the free product attracts many more users right away.
There’s a chance, however slight, that choosing this approach one day turns the company into something the venture capitalist will find interesting. For Meenan, those odds seemed about the same as getting hit by lightning, and he called the give-it-away pricing strategy “an almost guaranteed death sentence.” It was irresponsible to even suggest it.
Another was the case of an entrepreneur who met with venture capitalists who usually invest in $15 million investment rounds. The entrepreneur was looking for only $1 million or $2 million. Sure enough, the founder was counseled to “go for it” and shoot for much more. Best-case outcome if choosing this route, Meenan said, was a lot of wasted time.
His last example is of an entrepreneur who was told by an investor to pick up and move to Silicon Valley, never mind that the Californian who suggested it had little interest in making an investment and moving across the country seemed to be a condition of getting a second meeting.
Meenan also gives advice, as he was reminded in a comment posted under his essay by Bryn Erickson, an entrepreneur who had pitched his company at Meenan a couple of years ago.
Erickson had co-founded a company called Realvision that produces technology that helps create virtual tours of real estate listings. He said in a brief conversation this week that Meenan had passed on his company.
“We were a profitable company; we’d already made more than $1 million on our own just bootstrapping,” Erickson explained. “He said, ‘You can walk into my office and say something that 95 percent of the people who walk in here can’t say, and that’s that you don’t need my money. You’re making money, keep building your product.’ ”
This doesn’t seem to fit into Meenan’s category of “best advice.” After all, they’d only just met. Then again, all Meenan really did was explain why he was turning Erickson down. Erickson said he and his co-founder found Meenan’s counsel “really useful” and they postponed raising the first outside capital until just a few months ago.
As to the value of what venture capitalists say, it seems telling that one of the people Erickson credits for help along the way didn’t invest a dime.