A lot has been written about a formal “VC Pitch” meeting with advice about how to handle those interactions with venture capitalists. But not all conversations with venture capitalists are formal pitches, nor are they expected to be. And sometimes it’s unclear if it’s a pitch meeting or not.
Of course it’s productive to follow the mantra of “always be selling” in business interactions no matter what your business is, entrepreneur or not. But it’s helpful to understand (with perhaps a bit of a cynical perspective) how a VC views your discussion with him so that you can match the tenor/tone/formality of the dialog appropriately.
The majority of meetings a VC attends are in his/her conference room. After all, his day is often packed full of meeting after meeting so the location is dictated by optimizing his convenience – despite it not always being the case VCs like to think of themselves as especially busy (as if entrepreneurs are not?), so they’d often prefer not to venture out of their own offices unless it isn’t perceived to be essential. Almost all formal pitches are in this context. If you’re meeting in a VC’s office conference room, and you’re an entrepreneur, then the default assumption is you’re pitching your startup. Especially if the administrative assistant asks if you’d like to project a presentation… you’re definitely in a pitch meeting.
Yet VC’s also seem to have this habit of inviting to people (entrepreneurs and others in their network) to their office for “coffee.” But the “coffee” designation is code that the conversation isn’t expected to be a pitch conversation, but rather a general networking one to connect more broadly. Very often there isn’t any coffee to be seen! Also, there are some days when a VC has so many numerous “coffees” on his schedule that he’d be well overly caffeinated if he actually literally drank that much. If you’re meeting a VC for “coffee” at her suggestion (regardless if there’s coffee or not), no formal pitch deck is expected.
Or Starbucks is sometimes an option. In some cases, VCs do actually want coffee (see above), abhor the coffee machine in their office, and suggest meeting at a proximate coffee shop instead. (Note that I’ve seen this issue solved by VCs purchasing a couple-thousand dollar coffee machine for their own office personal use – everything just shy of platinum plating.) As per above, the actual physical presence of coffee is irrelevant; it’s the tone of the context.
And then there’s breakfast. Since VCs perceive themselves to be busy and take meetings all day, they don’t like to run around outside of the office for meals like lunch especially. But breakfast is well-positioned at the beginning of the day so that the location can be mutually-convenient along the way to work for both parties. The signal here is that this breakfast meeting is not a pitch meeting, but likely more important that a pseudo-coffee conversation in the VCs office. VCs love to eat breakfast with other VCs, with some partners at some firms having the reputation of actually eating breakfast twice in a morning to network.
You wouldn’t expect it, but the rarest of locations for a VC meeting are in a startup’s offices. Who knew startup investors would be so averse to actually visiting startups? There are only two reasons VCs typically visit a startup’s office. Either he’s in from out of town (e.g. the hoards of Boston VCs taking the Acela to Manhattan looking for investments) –or– he’s pitching the entrepreneur and not vice-versa. One of the best signals that a VC really wants to invest in a company is that he visits that startup’s office. And the earlier in the “process,” the better. Whereas if a VC is visiting a startup at the end of his diligence process, he’s really just checking boxes that he visited the site. But if he’s visiting on the first or second meeting, then he perceives the company to be “hot,” and wants to show his enthusiasm for selling his firm to the entrepreneur by coming to them. This situation rarely happens on a first meeting, but it certainly does happen.
So in the end, location matters for setting context to a VC discussion. And that location shares a lot about the expectations for the discussion before a single word is said. But that doesn’t mean that context cannot be changed…