Get Your Answers Straight
You've just ushered your last board member out of your office after a long and confusing board meeting. You get in the car with your CFO and drive over to your favorite bar to get a beer and talk about what just happened. You say, "Did we just hear three completely different things from each of our investors?" Your CFO responds, "Nope, we heard five different things, and none of them was clear, direct or definitive."
This happens all the time, especially if you are facing an important event such as a financing, major strategic change, or sale of the company. There are a variety of VCs: the one with all the answers, the Socratic one who just asks questions until your head is about to explode, the quiet one who sits in the corner and takes notes, and the dude who can't seem to put his BlackBerry away--even when he's the one talking. Building consensus among this group of people, especially in stressful situations where everyone's interests are not necessarily aligned, is difficult at best.
Although I'm not a fan of having extensive one-off conversations with each investor, in this case it's important. The best way to approach this is to send out an e-mail after the board meeting saying something like "After reflecting on our discussion at the board meeting about (topic X), I don't feel I clearly understand each of your positions. As a result, I'd like to set up separate conversations with each of you. After that, I'll schedule a board call, review what I heard from each of you, have an open discussion and then I'll make a recommendation about what the management team thinks we should do."
While this approach may be perceived as pedantic or tedious, it efficiently solves a few issues. First, it enables you to have a frank and open conversation with each VC. This is especially important in situations where the individual investors' goals may not be congruent. During these conversations, you should not default into asking "What do you want to do?" Rather, you should guide the conversation: "During the meeting, I thought I heard you say, 'Blah'; did I interpret that correctly?"
Next, it allows you to get a clear view of the options from the perspective of the various VCs. By being direct about the approach, you are telling the VCs that you are systematically collecting data from them all. This promotes an environment of clarity and transparency, as the VCs know you are going to synthesize their feedback and play it back to them. Finally, and most important, it drives to a shared answer for which everyone has had input.
Often one of the VCs will have a much stronger (or louder) perspective than the others. If this is consistent with your point of view and recommendation, your job of getting to an answer isn't necessarily easier. You need to make sure the the other VCs don't defer to the the dominant VC while subtly not agreeing with him. If you don't address this now, it simply sets you (and the company) up for more conflict down the road when someone says, "Well, that wasn't my opinion, but you felt really strongly about doing it."
Remember, you are the CEO, and it's your responsibility to lead the company. Often this means figuring out what your investors mean and helping them clarify their thoughts, perspectives and opinions when they are ambiguous.
Brad Feld has been an early-stage investor and entrepreneur for more than 20 years. He is a co-founder of Foundry Group, an early-stage VC firm. Brad blogs at feld.com and askthevc.com, runs marathons and lives with his wife and two golden retrievers in Boulder, Colo., and Homer, Alaska.
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