A Venture Partner Apprenticeship

I wrote elsewhere that my successes taught me more although my failures caused me to learn more. Coming off a year of a short-lived attempt at building a data-curated commerce engine, the need to learn more has never been more clear. I am not the kind of person who locks himself up in a room and emerges after a period of learning and/or contemplation. My best thinking is done by engaging with people, not just content.

For me, the best content are people and their insights.

My search for the right place to learn was quickly ended by the remarkably insightful folks at True Ventures. Since their founding in 2006, they have been focused at creating a unique and strong trust-fabric between founders and the firm. In fact, the word ‘firm’ is a bit of a misnomer, True is an intensely collaborative environment where egos haven’t formed silos of operation and partner founder relationships are not transactions.I am honored and excited to have a chance to learn in True’s supportive environment.

In the next one year I will be focusing on engaging with and learning from people. The fastest learners and consequently the best teachers (for me) are founders. The good ones have this uncanny ability to freeze everything and advance the world along a singular axis of their vision of a product, a technology, or a need that has not been found yet by others.

At True Founder Camp I had an opportunity to meet and talk to many True founders. I’d love to engage further and be of service wherever I can. My time is yours.

There are three parts to this apprenticeship: a) working for current founders in the early stage of startup formation,  b) working for founders scaling teams and operations towards a profitable company, and c) finding/developing new founders-to-be.

My areas of interest are anchored by innovations in infrastructure or novel applications of such infrastructure especially mobility, network/cloud computing including hardware systems, and data intelligence. Startup teams applying novel data manipulation and machine learning to new industry verticals, building sentient hardware that is responsive to its environment and peers, and delivering software infrastructure services to developers are of high degree of interest. If you are building software, hardware, or protocols that you intend to sell to data centers, service providers, or enterprise to solve meaningful problems for these customers, I would love to figure out a way to be helpful. A particular focus of mine with early stage teams is assessing if you are taking sufficient risk or are taking the right risks as early as possible in order to solve the right problems for your users/customers.

In this period of learning, I need to revisit what I knew, fertilize it with what I learnt, and gear up for the next decade.

I serve as an apprentice in order to learn the craft of venture beyond a journeyman level – from founders and investors alike. And I welcome your suggestions and advice – @rohit_x_ or rohit@trueventures.com


Startup culture and org charts

For startups in their first phase of building product to find the market fit, organization design is a unique challenge. Typically between two and ten employees, the organization in this phase is evolving fast and often (mostly) there isn’t a structure stable enough to be expressed in an org chart. For the founders, it is important to understand that in this early phase your org is a form to embody and express your culture. Saying “we have a flat org” is a cultural statement but may not convey much useful information to your early employees trying to find the boundaries of their work and decision making flow.

Culture in this early phase is an expression of founder DNA melded together with the DNA of early employees and undergoing evolution as a response to its environment. In fact, evolution is a very useful analogy to understand startup orgs. Startups are not products of creationism by a single supremely gifted founder or investor.  They evolve continuously influenced by the source DNA but are not limited by it if they build the right culture and communications as they add employee DNA to the mix. Added to this starter set of conditions is the DNA of all other key employees. This organism responds to market conditions, competition, technology, and is trying to find a way to survive and thrive and grow.
Culture = Founder DNA + Employee DNA + Environment + Adaptation
A critical factor in early org design is the requirement that the founder(s) understand their own skillset – in a brutally honest way and then recruit + surround themselves with people skilled in everything the founder(s) are not. Doing so also ensures that hierarchical structure and thinking does not set in early. The right hierarchy in organization is required at some point but likely not when a startup has less than ten employees. As I have written elsewhere, there are four canonical horsemen of successful startups:

The eternal optimists (usually the founders) – these folks have an uncanny ability to freeze everything except their vision of the product in a future time.
Grumpy ass kickers (usually the early employees) – bound  to create reality, they crave reality and making things vs. dreaming them up, and
Intuitive humanists (sometimes the founders, usually later employees) – they care about the human emotional needs of employees and the collective org. They will build links where none exist and are a much needed part of care and feeding of startup employees.
Chameleons (sometimes tech-founders) – these are the folks that can play whichever roles are required (dev, production, design, …) for a short duration to get-stuff-done. Finding a stable, long-term role for them in a large startup on its way to becoming a company is typically quite hard. Chameleons love startups and will hop to another one vs. scaling/changing with a single startup.

Org charts are also a proxy for communications in a startup. Silos of information appear when the charts are not heavily interconnected. An early sign of such dysfunction is the onset of process in a startup. Process != communications and when used as an excuse for not communicating usually leads to an early demise for the startup. In addition to communicating product, technology, mission, and their vision for a startup, the founders must also ensure that everyone understands the ephemeral nature of their organization and org-charts. They need to have everyone understand that:

  • The org is going to change.
  • The org is going to be flat with identified decision flows. Information must flow everywhere.
  • If you cannot look back and say what you did last week, something is not right.
  • Responsibilities assigned to everyone enables them to operate out of their comfort zone – you, the founder is likely already out of your comfort zone.
  • The org chart helps delineate responsibilities – especially for decisions.

Does your startup have an org-chart? Do you think you need one? Help me think more about this topic – @rohit_x_


On Staying Relevant

Over the years I have put away thousands (approx 12,000) of business cards from people I met since I impulsively moved here in 1996. Among the many engineers, marketeers, investors, and press, only a few have stood out. Not for the CxO or MD or GP designations noted on the cards, but for the quality of the individuals that has held over time.

A few days ago in a conversation with a few founders, the discussion turned to AngelList and Naval and how it was changing the landscape of innovation, financing, and startups. To the amusement of others, I recounted the very first time I met Naval.Naval Ravikant & Elad Gil business cards

The top business card you see here is from a meeting with Naval and Milo, both of @home, in 1998 (I think) at KPCB. We had just been funded by Kleiner and MDV and this was one of the meeting our VCs arranged with a portfolio company of theirs. Milo did most of the talking I remember – about their grand plans for taking over the world through high bandwidth cable broadband. A few years later, Naval was in a meeting again with us – this time as a co-founder of Genoa making and selling semiconductor optical amplifiers. His business card had changed but he was passionate about how that device would change the network despite our concerns about Gain/Noise-figure vs. optical fiber amplifiers. Then a few years later, I heard of him again – this time in a Sand Hill boardroom regarding epinions and the legal wrangling.

In 2011-2012, I joined AngelList and yes, Naval is still relevant – perhaps with more impact than ever. As I meet founders enamored with the latest valley exit still fresh in their mind, I encourage them to ask themselves a simple question – Are you relevant in ten years? How do you plan to stay relevant to yourself and to the community around you? If you haven’t thought about that yet, please consider asking yourselves the question.

The other business card in the scan belongs to Elad Gil. I first met him in 2000 when he was a graduate student who had organized (w/ Pavel) the MIT $50K competition and I was honored to be the opening keynote there. Later that night, he spoke of his research, and his interests in multiple areas including devices and networks. The year after, I met him again – this time along with Gokul Rajaram – as representatives of Onetta – a smarter optical amplifier for networks.  And then in 2004, at Google cafeteria where he talked of Google Mobile and how mobility is the eventual frontier for information. Now, after founding Mixer Labs and a few years at Twitter, he is planning on reinventing himself again while continuously giving back to silicon valley.

Yes, a lot of people in the valley and elsewhere have stayed relevant, learnt constantly but very few have also given constantly – Naval and Elad have openly and continuously shared their learning with others around them and made everyone else a little smarter.  Their impact on our valley is not just measured in dollars or exits, it is compounded through their contributions to amplifying the potential of others.

This is my definition of ‘relevance’. It is not just something you do when you’re successful, it is who you are – for others – constantly. I guarantee that whatever technology or market you happen to be working on will change multiple times in your career.  If you learn and help others learn, you will change too – for the better and you will still be relevant in 10, 15, 20 years – to yourself and to those around you.


my values as an investor: an open letter to founders

dear founders,

over the past few years, i have invested small amounts of money where the founders have given me an opportunity to do so. for each such opportunity to share in their quest, i have learnt something – and i am thankful.

as i talk to the founder(s) and the team, i find that some teams are naturally curious and want to know why i’d invest and what my relationship to that startup would be. one word that rarely gets used in these conversations and questions is ‘values’. i have written previously about startup values and as an investor, want to make sure that founders talking to me about angel/seed investments understand my values.
my values are expressions of some simple viewpoints and actions i strive to live by and bring to the table as an investor. these are:

  • are you taking enough risk?
  • optimize for the long term – always.
  • do I identify with, understand, and agree with your mission, not just your idea, technology, products, and startups.
  • the small amount of money ($5K to $50K) i invest carries with it the ability to turn to zero or be padded with zeroes. if it enabled you to make an effort you couldn’t otherwise make, it will be well spent.
  • while i will make an effort to help whichever way I can, you should understand that:
    • i am not your product manager
    • i am not your rolodex. access without context means nothing.
    • i am not a visionary. i am investing in your vision which is tuned constantly, by every day interaction with your users, technologies, products, and your peers. chase what you see, not what i or others ask you to chase.
  • i have failed many times at many things. i have learnt from failures. successes taught me more, but failures caused me to learn more.
  • while you focus on user growth and customer associated metrics, don’t lose sight of personal growth metrics.  i pay particular attention to personal and inter-personal growth within your startup.

and finally, the most important metric for me – your success as a founder isn’t measured in dollars raised or valuation or money earned for investors, it is measured in how many other people did you make successful. this is my yardstick for a founder.