I think some venture investors might overstep our bounds when discussing our personal involvement with our firms’ portfolio companies. If so I’m occasionally guilty as well, but I do at least try very hard to be vigilant about avoiding the trap.
I’m specifically referring to venture investors using phrases like “we did a deal with [large company XYZ]” or “when we built [product ABC],” where “we” refers to the investor’s portfolio company. Or — and this grates on my ears like fingernails on a chalkboard — “she’s one of my entrepreneurs,” or “one of my founders did [X].”
Many well-known VCs who I otherwise admire and respect, regularly use this lingo, which I find marginally problematic and personally try to avoid.
Is it accurate or fair for us to take such participatory credit for the company’s activities, or claim “possession” of the company’s founders? For starters, while “we” (venture investors) are technically “part” of the company, by virtue of holding shares, we typically do not build the products or form part of their active teams. Yes, we are often very involved in advising our portfolio companies, making introductions, or giving (hopefully) very salient guidance and advice. We may have seen the product even before it was released in beta, and provided insights and feedback down to the UI/UX level. We may even spend one whole afternoon a week at the company’s office. We may sit on the company’s Board and thus carry the title of “Director” of the company, implying formal/legal activity or agency. But — except for rare situations — “we” are not in the trenches, day after day, building the products and doing the deals as part of the active staff of the company. It’s my personal belief that we need to strike a more delicate balance in our claims of involvement, between ourselves and our portfolio companies. “They,” not us, are building the company and the product, doing the deals, sweating it out day in and day out (and night in and night out). “We” are privileged to have hitched our carts to the founders’ wagon. Of course we feel great kinship with our companies’ founders. We are their backers, their supporters, their cheerleaders, their partners, their friends (hopefully). We certainly provide as much guidance, assistance, input, insight, intro’s etc. as possible — but I don’t think we earn the right to say “we”; it’s “their” company.
The same goes for the “my entrepreneur” phrase. I recognize that substituting “my portfolio company’s founder” or “one of my portfolio company entrepreneurs” is a mouthful compared to the shorter “my founder,” particularly when speaking quickly, but I try to be very careful and use the longer phrase even if it sounds clumsy. Speaking possessively, making it sound like a fellow human being is “mine” or “belongs” to me by virtue of my investment in their company, rubs me a very wrong way. I recognize that some — many? — founders may not care, or have this sensitivity, but it could offend some others. I think as investors we should err on the side of sensitivity.
I believe that at best these common VC speech mannerisms are just further manifestations of our (venture capitalists’) occasionally false and relatively unchecked sense of self-importance. At worst, they are disrespectful of the startup founders we back, and their tireless efforts to try to change the world, and generate returns for us, their investors.
My purpose here is not to call anyone out, rather to raise awareness and sensitivity. Am I off base, hyper-sensitive, or over-thinking this? Open to critique.