Truth, Love, and Growth: the strange, strange values at the core of Sunstone Capital

Values are not what you say they are; they are what you live. - JLM*

I tried to codify our values at Sunstone a while back. And then I ground away at them. And distilled them. And discarded some. And whittled away further. And then I stopped with the metaphors because jeez.

What I came away with is: the core values of how we operate are Truth, Love, and Growth. 

Some of my colleagues, especially our awesome associate Deepka, have some resistance to the concept of "Love" in a business context. So the way I usually frame these values is honesty, kindness, and the pursuit of excellence. But to dig a bit deeper, here's what I mean:

1/ Truth

Truth comes in many guises. It is the pursuit of what's real, not what we wish reality were. It is the willingness to shed bias, ideology, entitlement, assumptions, interpretations. About ourselves, about others, and about the world. It is the willingness to question, without fear and without hope. 

Sounds like a cliché, but the "without hope" part is really important.

Truth is in the honesty of what we say. The refusal to hide behind industry phrases ("fiduciary duty", anyone?). To not obscure what it is that we want (= a big outcome). But also to not let fear or greed cloud our judgement, or muddy the conversation. To let what's real or discovering what's real together serve as a basis for the partnership we have with our founders.

Only truth can be a foundation for trust. If you lie, spin, coddle, manipulate, coerce, direct - your company (and your life) is built on sand. Transparency, integrity, clarity, accountability - these are all facets of truth. 

Truth is not for the faint of heart. It goes deep. Deeper than 99% of people are willing to go in their lives. Because the first step is to see yourself, clearly and without compromise.

In its ultimate consequence, perhaps, truth is only accessible through the heart: "...it is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible for the eyes." - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in The Little Prince 

And hence it is intricately linked with Love.

2/ Love

Let me stop you right there because I can see you getting queasy. 

We have been sold a version of Love by the liberal media**  Hollywood  the music industry  generations of sentimentalists that is conceptually so far from the Truth (see above), it takes real commitment to uncover its meaning.

Love is not infatuation. It is not co-dependency. It is not attachment. It is not desire. It is without jealousy, without envy. It is the result of truly seeing others and the world. "If the heart is unobstructed, the result is love." - Anthony de Mello SJ 

Love is more than empathy; it is compassion. It is kindness. It is magnanimity and generosity and the desire to improve the human condition. It is respect, for others and for creation (both the making of things and the making of the world). And as such it is also humility. 

Love defines relationships. Relationships without love are just transactions. And so, like truth, love is at the heart of trust. 

When you walk to the end of this journey, you get to what the Buddhists call the illusion of separation. This is a worthwhile path.

Love is not an idea; it is a Truth. And hence I briefly considered collapsing the two, but it seems to me like the Truth of the World and the Truth of Love are necessarily symbiotic; and to know one without the other is to handicap both. To see reality without love, or love without reality, makes both poorer. 

Love is the original miracle (for a given meaning of miracle - not the water/wine kind).  

When I explain the value of Love to founders, I always say things like "honesty tempered by kindness". But it is really more than that. It is that with every fiber of our being, our existence as a company is to serve them and their journey. This is full commitment. No backsies.

3/ Growth

This value was originally called progress, and then excellence. And it still is excellence, at its core. What else would you possibly want to grow towards except perfection?

But growth encapsulates more of what we're going for. No one is born excellent. There is talent, disposition, often experience. But excellence is a pursuit, a path of being that realizes there are step changes and plateaus on this journey. 

To continue to progress upon the journey implies an innate desire for Growth.

When we look around our companies, we see the ones with this desire to pursue excellence clearly and early. It is the speed with which they pick up the phone to their customers (not to us***). The tone with which they answer the call. The state of their office. The quality of their reporting. The people they hire. It is everywhere. 

As I said in my post on the psychology of venture capital, most VC partnerships are somewhat dysfunctional, mildly chaotic organizations. At Sunstone we battle with the entropy of a partnership organization doing very manual work. And we take things, and we fix them, and we leave them better than they were before. Every day. 

Our belief is that by compounding these decisions, companies evolve an execution ability that is simply better than the rest of the industry. If not perhaps in quantity, then in quality.

Growth of our portfolio companies is an organizational imperative for us. Without it, we don't have a business. But at the heart of this growth is not top line, metrics, increasing rounds of funding. It is first and foremost about the growth of the founders of our companies into world-class leaders. And that's a very personal journey.

To encourage this growth requires care (see above: Love), and encouragement, and resources. Over the last few years, we're seeing more founders take up our offer to introduce them to executive coaches, to take time to develop a personal management philosophy, but also to just get the basics of their organization right. 

I think it may have been Booking.com who had this as a corporate value: "tend the fields." Ain't that the truth. Foundations are key.

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So there you have it: the somewhat strange, or at least unusual, values at the core of Sunstone Capital. The beauty of them is that they take zero effort: they have emerged naturally from who we are. Codifying them is only helpful as a reminder when we face difficult situations in which we might be tempted to stray from the path (fear and greed). 

And, of course, as marketing :) 

Footnotes:

*JLM is a fount of wisdom. Go read his blog "The Musings of the Big Red Car" and see what I mean. Start with CEO Shoptalk

** This was a joke. Jeez.

*** The speed with which founders answer us on email is often a negative. Why are you hanging out in front of your keyboard emailing in real-time with your investors. Go run the company!