Whenever I am navigating through the notorious Boston traffic, I am often reminded of the cognitive bias of illusory superiority. That is, the “above average effect,” which “causes people to overestimate their positive qualities and to underestimate their negative qualities, relative to others.” The Wikipedia article on the subject cites the classic study where a full 93% of U.S. drivers put themselves in the top half of the driving population. I can assure you that that percentage of drivers here in Boston I wouldn’t even consider “good,” let alone impossibly above the median.
The one other group which seems to exude this type of thinking is venture capitalists. I can’t tell you many times I’ve been at breakfast/lunch/cocktails with another one or a couple VCs and someone talks about all of the other “bad” VCs who don’t know what they’re doing. That they’re bad for the business and should get out. (It’s funny, but it’s always remarked that the present company is undoubtedly excluded.)
Yet the reasons discussed in these conversations are always different. Some VCs are aggressive in their willingness to “pay up” for a deal in a segment which is hot; some are biased not to follow the latest fad and invest for the long term. Some VCs are thesis driven and deliberate in their investments; some prefer to be flexible in their approach because, after all, real opportunities are just that – opportunistic. Some VCs prefer very early stage; some VCs prefer to see more traction and invest later. Some are at large funds with the ability to put significant amounts of capital to work; some are at small funds which can benefit from smaller exits. Some are “entrepreneur friendly”; others push “tough love” which works. Some VCs are at new firms which are nimble; some are at firms with heritage and a track record which matters. Some are VCs young and hungry; some are wise with experience. Some are former operators and entrepreneurs, so they’ve experienced both sides of the table; some are career VCs who benefit from the pattern recognition of having been involved in so many startups.
At the end of the day, all venture capitalists will tell you that they’re above average. Go ahead – ask one. Of course, they have to be… we’re eternally optimistic or we would be doing something else.
Naturally, not all venture capital returns can be above average (…or even good, but that’s the subject of another post.) But for the entrepreneur, I’d argue that you can and SHOULD have an above-average VC. And that situation is made possible because different VCs are right for different entrepreneurs. Of all the dimensions listed above (and a myriad of others which are important), many are qualitative and a reflection of the individual’s personal style. That approach should synch well with how an entrepreneur operates and what’s going to help him best achieve the goals for his business in maximizing shareholder value. Different entrepreneurs have disparate needs and qualities which a VC can compliment and partner with, and those aspects can even change for the same entrepreneur depending on where he is in the company life-cycle.
“What do you want from your VC?” I am often surprised how many entrepreneurs who are embarking on a fundraising process who can’t answer this question well. Because while not all venture capitalists can be above average, VC-entrepreneur relationships should be. And it makes sense to know what you’re looking for when you seeking it.
And yes, of course, I do consider myself to be an above average driver.