Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Hanging Up on Lousy Presentations

It’s not just entrepreneurs who make terrible presentations.  For the second time in as many months, I’ve listened to a terrible presentation by an angel or venture investment professional on an audio conference.  Today, I hung up at about 20 minutes.  I simply could not listen to her talk any more.

What dismayed me was her horrific monotone, her phrases strung together ad infinitum, and her total lack of sentence structure.  But, the worst part was that damn little girl upswing at the end of that infinitely long litany of “you know” and “like” and “so, ums.”  Pardon me while I turn and shriek!

Her slides were full – about 50 words per slide - which she proceeded to read.  Actually, that was a good thing because the font was too small to read, in addition to being yellow on white text color.  Arrrrghhhhh! 

Where are you, Guy Kawasaki, when we need you???

This is not the first time I’ve been absolutely turned off by a venture capitalist’s presentation.  VC and other investors think they have a hall pass to be terrible speakers because they “got the money.”  Not so!  We should expect them to provide leadership and show us what a top quality presentation could be. 

It's not just women presenters either, although they have a special set of challenges.  Men presenters run on and ramble just as poorly as women.  I've even seen men hyperventilate with the "f-word" in a feeble attempt to gain attention.

Maybe it’s about time we in the audience had the courage to hang up on, or walk out of the room on, lousy presentations even by so-called experts in this field.  I’m not sure how else they’ll get the message.. 

Those of you in the business of consulting and advising people how to do “a perfect pitch,” you’ve got your work cut out for you.  

Monday, June 3, 2013

Venture Capitalists at Work: A Review

Excerpts from the Introduction:

“Many successful companies arose out of non-consensus -- unconventional, and in fact contrarian ideas… In each of these cases, the entrepreneur had a very strong intuition and access to asymmetric information based on their predisposition toward, and early exposure to, a potentially untapped or emerging market opportunity.” [p. xvii]

“[Most successful start-ups] started with a desire to solve a meaningful “pain point” – a VC term for a problem that causes people a lot of frustration…. something that affects the entrepreneur personally and directly.” [p. xvii]

“… The best companies are created when great teams intersect with large market opportunities.”  [p. xvii]

“Venture investors tap into their tremendous networks of contacts and ‘pattern recognition’ – the art of leveraging lessons drawn from past successes and failures to identify a combination of factors and behaviors that might point to promising markets, entrepreneurs, products, business models, and so forth.” [p. xviii]

“…the characteristics of the successful founders … [include] extraordinary passion, intelligence, authenticity, intellectual honesty, dogged persistence, risk-taking, and integrity.” [p. xviii]

“Most of these successful founders also paired with one or more co-founders rather than going solo.  The co-founders they partnered with had not only complementary skills, but more importantly a long history of working together. They had built great chemistry with each other well before they became co-founders.” [p. xviii]

“The first 10 to 12 hires in the start-up team are extremely important, as they determine the DNA and culture of the company and, in turn, its success trajectory.” [p. xix]

“… successful start-ups are extremely adept at ‘rapid iteration and fast fail’ … quickly trying things out… Successful start-ups use it to figure out a product/market fit and optimize everything from product features to pricing.” [p.xix]

“Successful start-ups also end up making drastic changes to their original plans in what is called a ‘pivot.’ … market timing … [is] probably the most overlooked concept by the entrepreneurs … being too early or too late to the market.” [p.xix]

From Roelof Botha, Sequoia Capital:

“The key to start-up success is purity of motivation… a desire to solve an interesting problem – one that’s often driven by a personal frustration.” [p. 1]

“We listen intently to founders who can clearly articulate an ailment and artfully describe an elegant solution to relieve that pain.  If they can weave a believable story with a compelling value proposition, they’ll have us hooked.” [p. 2]

From Mike Maples, Floodgate Fund:

“I basically believe most start-ups are not meant to be successful and the high tech business is a business of ‘exceptionalism’ and winner-take-all… there are very disruptive technology shifts that occur from time to time and a small number of companies ride the wave created by these shifts. And through a combination of luck and skill and timing, produce huge outcomes that were just meant to be.” [p. 12]

Darwin had a term for it in evolution, ‘punctuated equilibrium’  -- where the world is evolving in a certain way and them bam, it changes completely and fundamentally.” [p.12]

From George Zachary, Charles River Ventures:

“[Start-ups fail because of] a failure on the part of the founders to find the right product-market fit.  And there is usually missing a relentless, robust process to find it.” [p.23]

“I look for founders… who basically can quickly explain to me what it is that they are doing, why it is so important, and in a way that the passion comes from them authentically, not like somebody taught them how to make a presentation. It is their passion and enthusiasm about the specifics of what they are doing.” [p.27]

“… all successful companies… have a leader who gets the team excited by offering them focus and the clarity of what to do.” [p. 27]

From Sam Dalton: Highland Capital Partners:

“[To create a billion-dollar start-up takes] a great market opportunity that intersects with a great team. As a VC, I am certainly in the people-first category.  I choose to back the market that allows for an outstanding VC success.” [p.40]

“I look for a maniacal commitment to work hard and succeed.  What underlies that is a real authenticity and real passion to succeed and create a great company.” [ p. 40]

“… backing ‘PSD’ entrepreneurs [-- those who] grew up Poor, very Smart, and Driven… I bet on these passionate, committed, authentic and hardworking entrepreneurs.” [p. 40]

And, finally, from Ann Winblad, co-founder of Hummer, Winblad Venture Partners:

[On “some of the most common blind spots of entrepreneurs.]

“Usually your strengths are your weaknesses. This is true of entrepreneurs as well.  One of the strengths of an entrepreneur is a fresh lens on an opportunity. In many ways, it allows you to ignore many of the obstacles. It is a glass-half-full approach.  No one has looked at the market like this before, no one has looked at the technology pieces that could come together to provide a benefit to a customer or consumer of the product like this before.

Then the next step for an entrepreneur is really to build a company around that.  The biggest blind spot of an entrepreneur is the harsh realities of operating a compny around the opportunity – how do I keep my eye on the prize while having to meet milestones to deliver my solution to the customer? How do I now do two things at once, keep an eye on the prize and really have all the impediments around selling to the customer, supporting customers, and competing with competitors I did not know about?

Second is, how do I also deal with the psychodrama and a lot more people around me? Interpersonal skills versus the grand vision and great intellect come to play. You really have to know yourself well.  Should I be the CEO and really be managing people? Am I an individual contributor? How do I coach when I am a young turk? There is always a lot of psychodrama around a start-up.  Suddenly, it is like, oh, gee, I did not realize I had to lead people.

The third thing is really knowing and breaking dow vision into assumptions.  Not a thousand of them, but maybe five or six.  It is very much related to Michael Porter’s value chain.  [i.e., see:]  What assumptions allow me to accomplish this vision? What are my technical assumptions? What are some of my broad market assumptions?

… This is again back to how do you keep a strategy going while you are trying to roll up your sleeves and operate.  That is really the conundrum that most entrepreneurs get into. [p. 238]

It's Not JUST About Golf

Researchers seemed focused, almost to an extreme, on whether the chief explanatory reason behind men's success in business, compared to women, is or is not about GOLF.

It's NOT just golf! It's all the things it takes to "play" golf. Take a look.

Where do men spend their money in order to "play" golf? Men buy books and magazines that inform them how to have a better swing in order to perform better on the green. Women buy magazines in order to buy clothes that make them look good on the course. Men pay for coaches to improve their swing and correct their putt. Women may pay a coach, but only a few ambitious women focus on their putt as opposed to HIS putt. Men even wager among themselves in competition to incentivize themselves. How many women do you know who would actually put cold hard cash on herself to win?

Men develop wide and diverse networks of "partners" from among their professional colleagues. These are men with whom they enjoy spending large quantities of time talking about business, shared enthusiasms, and joking about various "games." Women talk about clothes, shoes, babies, children, and all the indignities of life.  When was the last time you heard a great joke from a woman? She may have "a friend" or two, but does she build a "network" of friends with similar business interests? Would she be able to call up a friend and invite her to play a round of nine this coming weekend or would she have to schedule an appointment four weeks out, with a high probability that the friend would cancel at the last minute because she had a family crisis that nobody else could possibly handle?

Men talk about business ideas and opportunities on the golf course. Have you ever overhead conversations among women? Are the topics opportunities? Ideas? Or are the topics negative kvetching about something or another? Misery-sharing?

At least we are beginning to see a substantive increase in the number of young women playing golf under the auspices of the Ladies' Professional Golf Association (LPGA). Thanks to the groundbreaking work of a handful of women - just over six decades ago - women around the globe can now learn to compete and enjoy the game.

But, then -- when there was a surge in the number of international players from Korea in the late 2000's - did LPGA women open their arms to communicate and collaborate with the global players for the benefit of the sport? Or did women golfers demand that Korean women "learn the language" before they would play nice with them? Rather than help them get the training they needed, the first reaction of the LPGA leadership was to keep them "out of the network." Fortunately, somebody wised up.

There are many other "sports networks" where women can "learn the game" of competition, today - golf, tennis, soccer, softball, to name a few. Women don't just have to wait to be included in men's networks.  What they do need to do, however, is build better, more collaborative and supportive networks among women whether in sport, in organizations, or in business.

It's not just about golf. It IS all about how women work together to build great teams that in turn make up effective and powerful networks.

Moving On, Moving Up

Victoria Pynchon wrote a strong-worded thought piece, recently, on why she believed that men did not advance more women into leadership.  I know Victoria means well in addition to being a strong advocate for women learning how to negotiate effectively.

Her article was a response to another thought piece written by Alyse Nelson, founder and CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership, a non-profit organization focused on women in leadership around the world.  Alyse just published a book, Vital Voices (Jossey-Bass: 2012), highlighting biographies about women in leadership around the world.  Alyse's stated that she thought it was "time women have a candid conversation about power." And, so it appears we have started that great debate.

For Victoria's part, her approach was to take the "traditional white Anglo Saxon male  viewpoint" (full of redundancies, as it is - how many non-white Anglo Saxons are there?) and tell us all the reasons men, being the center of power, refuse to "let women lead," the bastards!

For Alyse's part, her approach concentrated on trying to build a women's groundswell around a host of "we need to do this and that" statements. (We are reminded of that famous scene from old-time TV, when the Lone Ranger and Tonto faced a host of angry warriors. The Lone Ranger says, "Well, Tonto, it looks like we're surrounded." To which Tonto replies, "What do you mean 'We,' white man?")

Victoria' article is negative, sarcastic, and not just a little bitter.  Alyse's is an overly wishful-thinking piece of idealism even though extracted from the real lives and works of genuine women in leadership. After reading both of these articles, one is left with a sinking feeling of helplessness and futility.

The real tragedy is that the candid conversation about women and power has been lost in the midst of magazines' penchant for screed and vitriol rather than substance. Magazines sell more pulp when they can market these "food fights" and "wet tee-shirt beach brawls" among women.  They believe that when women feel helpless, they will go out and shop, won't they?

First and foremost, I would wish, for these two women and others who feel like them, that they would have the opportunity of meeting many of the men whom I have come to know. Good men who want us to succeed at our greatest personal potential. Good men who, like me, cringe when they read the negative self-bashing that dominates the feminista media airwaves. Good men who are proud of their mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, and the many women in leadership in their offices and in the headlines (say, in Fortune, Forbes, or Barron's) as many women advance to leadership on the merits of their achievements.  I would wish that we would get out of the mentality of persistently blaming others (usually men) for our personal realities. Do successful women attribute their achievements to men?

I would wish that we would stop this war-mongering among ourselves - stop trying to find the lowest common denominator - and that we would refocus our efforts instead on finding the most relevant, useful, and positive explanations for even that 16 to 20% of women who do succeed and lead. I would wish that we would take personal responsibility for our individual situations, just as they are. And then, take one simple step forward, as we choose. Let us use our own unique and personal capabilities as individuals to achieve the most meaningful goals that we can identify. Let us stop counting on that amorphous "they" or "them" or "others" to do the work that only I can do for myself.

If my ambitions are greater than or different from my sister's, that should not take away from her unique value nor should it dismiss the contributions she might choose to make in her life. May she enjoy the fruits of her endeavors as she would choose for herself.  Let us each move on and upward and not look back for one more moment.

Let us celebrate the 16% to 20% of women, with all their ambitions, who do get it today.  And let us try to learn from them how we might succeed in our ambitions.