Finding purpose

"The difficulties and necessities of work, like those of marriage, necessitate some larger perspective, some greater view than the irritations and obstacles of a given day." - David Whyte

To me, the path to entrepreneurship and, eventually, to venture capital has always felt like discovering not a profession, but my vocation. It has been an ongoing and at times difficult conversation about who I am, who I do or do not want to be, what the world deems useful in me, and what I need of the world. 

The overarching drive in me has always been the need to be at the edge, to be part of the conversation about the future horizon, to play a part in its creation. Like all humans, I yearn to strive. Over time, I am learning to let go of the ego of this to see myself as more of an enabler of the inevitable unfolding of the future than its seed. It has caused me to become hugely optimistic, at times giddily excited, about the opportunities of the world and humanity's evolution. 

We are, I now have faith to say, spirit-in-the-making. Our evolutionary history - from atom to molecule to cell to body to mind to soul - charts an inevitable path. As a founder, I'd encourage you to look for the part you and your company are playing in the symphony of cosmic evolution. To align yourself and your team with this greatest tide of our being is the single most integrative step you can take to instill even the hard times with meaning and purpose.

In opposition to NetzDG

Since Jan 1, Germany has a new law: NetzDG, the Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, actually called the Gesetz zur Verbesserung der Rechtsdurchsetzung in sozialen Netzwerken, i.e. the Law for the Improvement of the Enforcement of the Laws in Social Networks. As a people deeply enamored with compound nouns, the name is a good start. It also shows you that German legalese-fu is quite strong.

The legislation has many flaws, not least that it outsources the enforcement of laws limiting freedom of expression to private companies like Facebook and Twitter. What's worse is that given the massive fines that it threatens these companies with, the tendency of their service providers monitoring content is in dubio to delete. One of the first victims of this was a satirical tweet mocking a far-right politician.

Germany has some significant restrictions on speech, in particular a very broad interpretation of its incitement limitation. Incitement of the people (Volksverhetzung) has a relatively low bar and high minimum sentencing. For example, the slogan "migrants are parasites" is enough for three months in jail. In the US the incitement limitation on freedom of speech exists, but the threat of violence needs to be both immediate and likely. 

While Germany's genocidal history is good ethical grounds for specific legal restrictions such as holocaust denial and limitations on the assertion of wrongful facts, the current implementation leads to self-censorship, skews the market of ideas, selectively targets opinions that should be discussed, and in my view does little to curb threats and harassment overall.  

Now that the internet is the place where politics are negotiated, I think it's a good idea to leave the masks off. Let the crazies out themselves. By all means, call out and report harassment, threats, and incitement to violence where you find them - that's what existing legislation and the judicial system are for. 

But on a personal and local level, encourage empathy and inclusion. Avoid othering, even those whom you firmly disagree with.

People are scared and angry and reverting to a pre-modern tribalism encouraged by identity politics. I believe countering this both rationally and spiritually is a necessary and worthwhile evolutionary step in common future. 

The tyranny of NPS and data-centric leadership

All of my portfolio companies are using some form of net promoter score. And the centrality of the metric, especially at startup board level, has bugged me for a while. But I couldn't quite put my finger on why. So I was thankful that late last year, Jared Spool tackled the fairly obvious deficiencies of NPS that I had only intuited. 

Especially in the early stages of a startup, customer satisfaction and loyalty is an incredibly qualitative endeavour. It's another example of rampant reductionist materialism that we think we can condense this complexity into one metric. 

A startup is an organization in search of a scalable, repeatable business model. It's like an engine starting. In a modern engine, the ECU or ECM is where all of the sensor data comes together and actuators are controlled. Which is fine once the engine turns over, but dramatically less useful while building one. 

Ken Wilber, the founder of integral theory, calls this flatland - following the dissociation of science, art and morals (or nature, self, culture), science is morphing into scientism. Beware of data reductionism in building companies. Sometimes focusing on the good and the beautiful will turn out truth on its own. 

Startup leadership and self

Culture is a direct reflection of leadership. This is one of the reasons ego-centric leadership - fear, greed, self-importance - is so incredibly self-defeating in any organization, but especially in startups. It's the main reason my own companies went on to do OK, but not great. I was scared - that we'd fail completely, that the opportunity cost was too high, that we should secure the small win rather than risk it all again and again. 

It took me about a decade to truly understand that leadership is about people, not things. What a platitude, but what truth! The abstractions take care of themselves if you just take care of the people. I came late to this realization, later perhaps than necessary given loving parents and a decent education. I think this is just one of those growth journeys that we're all on (seeing my daughter develop ego is very gratifying, though I know she'll have to get over it eventually!). For some this realization comes sooner, for some later. Don't let reductionist materialism fool you: leadership is first and foremost about people, not things. 

Equally, beware of falling into the converse trap: the ego is only a hindrance to success if it is inwardly focused. If the flow radiates outward - to the thing you're looking to do and the people you're doing it with - you're unstoppable. You will be called magnetic, charismatic, inspiring. Even if you have all the social awareness of an Erlich Bachman.

Perhaps this is why large companies are less successful over time. The manager's primary motivation is personal success and the "I" will get in the way of truly caring about employees, customers, colleagues, and making good products. 

The point in time when you've reached product/market fit and sit back and say "now we have to become a real company" is one of the most dangerous, pivotal moments in a startup's life. It's where culture gets lost, empty mission statements are formulated, useless lists of values circulated and dominator hierachies installed. Rules and processes can't substitute for creative, purposeful founder leadership. 

You can only show up as that purposeful leader day in and day out if that's who you authentically are. And that authenticity is one of the things I increasingly look for when investing. 

Founder coaching

2017 was a year of profound changes for me. I thought long and hard about what kind of founders and what kind of companies I want to back in the future. With my partners, I began to rethink what a venture capital firm should look like and stand for. And I finally tackled my perceived lack of horizontal value-add (impostor syndrome much?) by completing a professional coach training program. 

I've always liked the sports coach analogy of the founder/VC relationship. You're the athlete, playing the game. We're there with you - emotionally, financially - but supporting you from the sidelines. Just like VCs, some ex-players make great coaches. But some of the greatest coaches were never particularly great athletes (I was an OK but not a great founder). The delineation is also useful: when I have the urge to "get in the game", I know I'm overstepping my bounds.

Some of the tools and perspectives I've gained through coaching have been very rewarding. I find myself asking more questions and helping develop options, instead of just dumping opinions and pattern recognition. I've been acknowledging and validating different perspectives, giving more compassion and empathy during difficult times, always trying to move to a "higher", more integral perspective. It changed board room dynamics more than once. To some extent, it feels like I've been re-learning the "people" side of the venture capital business. Which is really the only side of the business that matters. 

I'm incredibly excited to continue this part of my work in 2018. And finally I'm excited more because I believe that what we're doing has meaning and purpose, rather than because we're going to kick ass and make a lot of money for everyone. That's kind of incidental.

It's my job to help you realize your full potential. What could be more fulfilling than that? 

Have a wonderful start to the year, everyone.