Three things I’ve learned in three years
By Angela, September 06, 2016
It’s hard to believe that it has been three years since my first day at Version One. As I look back, I realize how much I’ve learned and grown in this short time. In this post, I’m going to share three important lessons that have not only made me a better investor, but a better person. These learnings aren’t necessarily specific to VC, so whether you’re an investor, founder, or employee, I’m hoping they have some relevance to you and your own journey.
Lesson 1: The importance of learning how to learn
The job of a VC is to learn… ALL the time. As a result, I’m constantly thinking about how I learn and whether I have the right processes in place to learn effectively and efficiently. I’ve become cognizant about two aspects:
Top-down vs. bottom-up learning
I tend to take a more academic approach and get down and dirty with the fundamentals before the applications. For example, when I set out to understand machine learning, I jumped into its first principles (read: math with letters, not numbers) before market mapping the use cases or what problems need to be addressed.
There’s no right or wrong approach, but it’s critical to understand the difference between the two approaches and how they impact your goals. Do you want to be effective or efficient first? Whether you learn top-down or bottom-up, I believe you’ll gain depth and breadth as the two ends converge.
Active vs. passive learning
We can read an endless number of articles to stay on top of the startup ecosystem, but how do we apply this information so we’re not just learning for the sake of learning? And, how do we evaluate our success as VCs when the VC cycle is 5 to 10 years out?
At Version One, we actively develop our thesis and then create internal frameworks that encourage a constant review of this thesis, our investment decisions, working relationships, and how we manage our time. Every quarter, we ask ourselves: what did we learn? What did we do well? What can we do better? What should we focus on? And then, we hold ourselves accountable.
We also actively look to improve through feedback we elicit from our LPs by regularly reporting fund performance (so they can benchmark us against our peers); and by surveying founders who pitch us (so we can get our NPS). And, we blog a lot so that we can learn from the community.
Lesson 2: The importance of paying it forward
The most beautiful thing about our industry is how generous people are with their time. Time is our most scarce resource (it’s why this business is hard to scale) and I’m constantly blown away by how willing everyone is to give feedback on a product, make introductions, or spend time helping in other ways. We all know these favours won’t be repaid directly, but the energy we put into the world does come back to us in some way.
I would not be where I am today without this pay-it-forward mentality. When I first started in VC and had zero network, I definitely took more than I could give. But if there’s one thing I could offer, it was to be as responsive and as respectful of others people’s time as possible.
At some point, the balance began to shift. Now I remind myself that others need help, advice, and feedback just like I did. At the same time, I try to get face time with people I admire who have better things to do than to meet with me. After all, if you’re not getting No’s on a regular basis, then you’re probably not being ambitious enough. And one day, who knows, some super high profile Silicon Valley founders and investors will make time for coffee with me 🙂
Lesson 3: The importance of team and developmental leadership
When I was in grad school and took a course on leadership taught by my then-professor and now-mentor David Colcleugh, I learned the theory of developmental leadership:
The developmental leader is a competent teacher who provides direction but who also provides space and opportunity and encouragement to the followers so that they can develop themselves to make positive changes in the organization.
I didn’t realize what those words meant in practice until I started working with Boris. From the moment I walked into our office, he immediately started sharing ownership of Version One by making reference to our fund, our portfolio, our LPs, our brand, our everything… despite the fact that he had started it all on his own and had made many decisions before my time. I felt a sense of “team” knowing that I could have a direct impact on achieving our vision together on Day 1.
Working as a team and talking as a team (using “we” and “our”) is tremendously important. We care and work harder when we believe there is something at stake for every member. So whether you are a founder, project manager, think about how you can be more inclusive and how you can develop people on your team to reach their highest potential.
Another lesson I learned about the importance of team: all the rumours about venture capital being a lonely business are true. It’s highly intellectual work and it’s important for you to be challenged with diversity of thought. Some of the best advice I have gotten is to surround myself with a tribe – some of my best sparring partners are friends at other funds. Also, work to build a community around you and think of ways in which you can elevate and develop others.
So thanks to each and every one of you in the ecosystem who have taken the time to teach me, support me, and develop me. And a special shout out to Boris who not only took a risk on someone without any prior VC experience, but also invested the time and effort to develop me personally and professionally. Three years later, I’m more excited than ever to build our future at Version One together.