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The Arrogant VC: Why VCs are disliked by entrepreneurs, Part 2

Thanks to Atlas Venture for supporting Venture Hacks this month. This post is by Fred Destin, one of Atlas’ general partners. If you like it, check out Fred’s blog and tweets @fdestin. – Nivi

In Part 1 of The Arrogant VC, I discussed 4 reasons why VCs are disliked by entrepreneurs:

  1. Poor first impressions
  2. Getting strung along or left at the altar
  3. Getting a raw deal
  4. Great (but misguided) Expectations

This post contains 4 more reasons why VCs are disliked by entrepreneurs. Both of these posts contain direct quotes from entrepreneurs with real, hands-on experience with (often prominent) VC’s, sometimes through multiple companies and fundraising.

5. Unwanted advice, poor communication, and lack of operational sense

“While VCs are always happy to dish out advice, this feels disingenuous from people who have never actually built a company or had a knockout success as an investor. Learning from mistakes is far less useful than emulating success.” One entrepreneur goes further in accusing VC’s of seeing everything through the lens of money: “Often times they have zero operational experience (how to launch a company/product or manage customers), don’t understand marketing beyond just building their own brand, and see money as their ticket for everything.”

VC’s are often ex-lawyers or bankers and some have a tendency to feel safe with “experienced suits” that sometimes do nothing but drive the burn rate up and compound cash-flows problems. Entrepreneurs are often “driven, creative types who want out of larger organizations,” whose traits map poorly to those of many VC’s. Ultimately, since many of them don’t understand the businesses deeply, they “try to make up [for] this particular information asymmetry with legal enforcement.”

Some VC’s are not that shy about it. One partner in a tier I fund described his role in this way: “Industry experience is not that important. I see my role on a board as to challenge every decision the management makes.” Here’s a variant on the same theme: “I don’t give a s**t about the company’s strategy, my job is to come here once a month and check what you are doing with my money.” QED.

6. Different objectives and time frames

“It takes patience and time to build a great business, and target returns and time frames (e.g. five times in five years) can get in the way. On the other side, entrepreneurs burn out and blow up all the time, so it’s tough to keep both sides aligned and together for a long time.”

Sigurd says “short investor time frames to meaningful exits means forcing businesses to scale too much and too fast (and offsetting this risk through a portfolio approach), whereas the entrepreneur must offset the market and product risk by slower movement and something akin to agile development.” David agrees on this natural misalignment of interests: “VCs need home runs, and entrepreneurs need singles at least on their first couple of companies.”

The going really gets tough when entrepreneurs lose their original sponsor. “The new guy is either too junior, does not know the business, or feels he has the right to wash his hands of the mess left by his departing partner.”

7. Arrogance and lack of empathy

At the end of the day, most entrepreneurs completely understand that objectives are not always aligned and that VC’s work for funds that need to return capital. What they have trouble with regardless, are “double standards“. One entrepreneur who has raised money multiple times says, “A lot of VCs do things no regular employee would dare to do but are largely unaccountable for those behaviors: forgetting about board meetings, showing up 20 minutes late, bullying the team or CEO, being generally unavailable, paying no attention in meetings because they are arranging a golf game on their BlackBerry, failing to read the board pack before the meeting, so the actual meeting is remedial in nature.” the message seems to be, “Don’t treat me the way I see fit to treat you.”

Net-net, VC’s are too often “out of touch with the reality of entrepreneurs.” “They are often times elitist, clashing with the very scrapiness of their entrepreneurs.” Arrogance is the word. “I was told forcefully ‘you will fail’ and that I should join another startup… funded by the very same VC.” “I spent 4 years in poverty ignoring my family and my friends to get the company to this point, and now they want me to vest my shares.” Yet another: “I have mortgaged my house, I have spent all my money, my family lives on pizza coupons and now you are telling me you want customers and a live product to boot? Why don’t I call you back when I have gone public, bozo. You call yourself a risk taker? You want 30% of my company when all the risk has been taken out?” (I added the pizza coupon piece for effect, but you get the idea).

Finally, entrepreneurs feel VC’s are “crap at sharing the wealth,” recognizing “how tough it is to create value” or “properly re-incentivising managers who gave up many years of their lives, effectively abusing a position of power and often manipulating entrepreneurs by threatening their reputation.”

Bottom line: “VC’s really don’t take any personal risk but expect everyone else to…”

Add to this some “dumb practices” such as demanding board remuneration and monitoring fees or “submitting ridiculous expenses” to complete a picture that betrays a complete lack of empathy.

8. Dark Side of the Force

Finally, some ugly business behaviour. A fairly common practice seems to be what you might call “slow strangulation”, whether by design or not. “An equity investor will knowingly under-capitalize your startup only to gain control of it once the opportunity manifests itself by use of a wash-out round; milestone financing and abusive board control are used for similar tactics. As a consequence, myself and others now prefer to bootstrap/self-fund rather than taking any amount of early-stage capital that will not *clearly* take the company to the next level.”

This is a common gripe with smaller funds, who have badly under-performing portfolios and little follow-on reserves, and who fall back on such slow strangulation of businesses they fund by trickling money, gradually washing every one else out, and hoping that 50% ownership for little money invested will somehow pay back for the rest of their portfolio. Smaller regional, government-backed funds get a particularly bad rep in this area. Lacking experience and confidence, they rely on punishing paperwork and self-anointed gurus to help them through the hard process of building successful companies.

Entrepreneurs have come forth with other dubious practices, including outright lying about the state of the business when refinancing, disclosing confidential information or personal confidences, negotiating on behalf of management and forcing deals through, making a mockery of governance rules. One systemic problem appears to be a failure to represent the interests of the company in board meetings, but rather short-term investor interests. “This is a plague on the industry and makes the board worse than useless to the company.”

Another entrepreneur identifies what he calls “classic VC tricks” such as “firing the team just before an acquisition, term sheet bombs, hiding or obscuring key information, manipulating the team to try to change ownership or board composition, changing deal terms just before closing.” He adds: “These destroy alignment and trust, and without some alignment and trust the necessary working relationship and motivation is destroyed.”

The worst I got related to VC’s pushing to recover shares from the heirs of a deceased co-founder under a reverse vesting provision. As the contributor put it, “it will take a lot of good karma from a lot of VC’s to make up for this one.” I was stunned.

Conclusion

Last words to entrepreneurs from Rory Bernard: “Choose your VC’s with care. Good ones transform your business, bad ones wreck it.”

And to VC’s: “tread softly, remember that in a position of power, you can do many sensible things but a few stupid ones and end up with a ‘George Bush’ problem, and as a result the approval rating of Dubya.”

If you like this post, check out Fred’s blog and his tweets @fdestin. If you want an intro to Atlas, send me an email. I’ll put you in touch if there’s a fit. Finally, contact me if you’re interested in supporting Venture Hacks. Thanks. – Nivi

arrow4 Responses

  1. 52 mos ago

    I’m so glad we chose a great VC to lead our Series A at my previous startup, Engine Yard.

    We worked with Peter Fenton and Mitch Lasky, who brought a great combination of experience.

    I will not forget Peter telling me that the term sheet they’d send would be simple and founder-friendly, or something like that. What matters is that they did indeed do as he said they would.

    We had already had many conversations by that time, with many folks at Benchmark, but that conversation and the term sheet that followed helped solidify our trust.

    We were getting married, after all, and both sides needed to trust and respect each other.

  2. Anonymous
    52 mos ago

    I heard a wise person once say that all VCs add value – the question is whether or not that value comes with a plus or a minus side in front of it. There are definitely some on both sides…

  3. 52 mos ago

    How about adding a point about a VC ‘being a control freak’ and/or a ‘micro-manager’ trying to micro-manage everything about the business?

  4. 51 mos, 3 wks ago

    One of the biggest turn-off’s to entrepreneurs (based on my own experience) is dealing with the VC’s who have knee-jerk perspectives on what is or is not viable in specific areas based on their own exposure to a flood of mediocre business plans.

    While I know it is hard for VC’s to keep in mind that they are far from experts in specific areas… and that they will not succeed unless they can dump the baggage they pick up along the way talking to so many companies…. and think about industries/problems differently… more often than not the herd mentality and most-often predictable interpretation of what can or cannot work prevails.

    On the upside…that is why so many of their investments go nowhere… they find it hard to look at problems completely differently and invest in those companies willing to attack those problems in completely new/innovative ways.