Rethinking Our Heroes

As I sat in the movie theater watching Justice League, I thought a lot about the idea of a hero in the context of 2017.  

Generally, we've thought of heroes as possessing some kind of special power--or larger than life.  We've confused the powerful and influential for people we should look up to.  Yet, as we've seen in the retelling of a lot of the comic book stories on screen, our heroes aren't always purely good, nor are they as good at being people as they are at being powerful.  

This year has seen a toppling of those heroes the likes of which we've never seen before--Hollywood Actors and Directors, Former Presidents, US Senators, Would Be Senators, Midas List VCs, and yes, Confederate Generals.  We're being forced to reckon with our ties to everyone from slave-owning forefathers to Bill Clinton.  

We look up to heroes because we see them exhibiting power over others--yet it's this power they often seen to struggle to control and use appropriately.

As 2017 winds down to a close in the next two months, perhaps we can all think about what kind of heroes we'd like to have in 2018.  As many heroes fell this year, many others found the heroes in themselves--taking to the streets in protest for the first time, sharing their stories of mistreatment, and taking the time to listen and learn about the struggles of others.  

What kind of hero do you want to be?  Will you risk speaking up on behalf of others when it isn't popular?  Will you be vulnerable?  Will you admit when you were wrong, and try to make up for when you fell short with people?

Not all of us have a cape.  Not all of us are rich.  

But we can all be heroes.  

The Foolproof Way to Tell if Your Employees Have Issues

CEOs, founders and managers are more worried than ever about issues in their organization that they might not be aware of.  We've seen a ton of stories come out recently around bad workplace environments, and business leaders know that for every really bad story, there are a thousand festering smaller issues that need to be gotten out in front of before they get worse.  

That's why it's critical that they understand the one question that can fish out whether or not there are workplace issues lurking underneath the surface of their companies.

Here's the question...  are you ready?

You sure?

Ok...

Ask yourself, "Does my company have more than one human working in it?"

If you answered "Yes" then your company surely has workplace conflict and issues.  There is a 100% chance that when two individual humans work together in the same place, things will come up.  It's perfectly natural, but it's also something they don't have good tools to work out on their own. 

Bringing up conflict is difficult.  First, a lot of people are embarrassed that they can't fix a situation on their own.  They might feel like they're making a big deal out of nothing, even though it's making them more and more unhappy each day.  

Second, even when a company does have outlets, like manager reviews or HR staff members, these relationships can easily be perceived as conflicted.  Maybe you're not ready to talk to HR or the problem is with your direct boss, and you don't want to make the situation worse because you can't change your boss.  

Whatever the reason, these issues most often manifest themselves in unexpected churn.  How many times is the first hint of employee unhappiness the day they give notice about leaving?

At worst, these issues come out in headlines.  In so many of the worst stories we've seen this year, there was a moment where someone could have head something off before the issue grew.  

That's why Brooklyn Bridge Ventures recently funded Bravely.  

Bravely that offers conflict and communication coaching for employees navigating issues in the workplace.  Through Bravely’s application, employees can confidentially describe the issue they’re facing and schedule a phone consultation with a ‘Pro’, an expert coach or HR professional with deep experience in helping resolve conflict, structure effective communication plans, and develop skills for constructive work relationships.

Every single company has issues.  Hopefully not all of them are as serious as the ones that make headlines, but 65% of performance problems are linked to strained personal relationships, which happens everywhere.  Effective communication among colleagues, even for the small stuff that a lot of people let go, yields a significant impact on workplace wellbeing. 

The secret sauce of Bravely is to help employees feel empowered--given them strategies and language toolsets to address acute issues right on the spot.  Bravely is that first step; that safe place for venting, getting advice and putting a game plan together when you are not yet ready or lack the confidence to approach your boss or HR business partner.

I'm excited to work with Toby and Sarah, two experienced former startup pros, as well as my co-investors Primary Ventures, Trailmix, and Correlation. 

If your workplace has more than one human working in it, there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn't talk to Bravely now.

Five Lessons to Learn from the Success of The Wing

Two years ago, Brooklyn Bridge Ventures became the largest seed investor in The Wing--a network of co-working and community spaces for women founded by Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan.  They recently opened their second location in Soho after raising an $8mm Series A from NEA earlier this year, and their 3rd and 4th will open in the next few months.  It's perhaps the most well executed company I've ever been involved with, and there are some key lessons to be taken from watching how they've become one of NYC's fastest growing rocket ships.

1) Don't assume anything.

What I said above isn't exactly true--I didn't really invest in "The Wing".  At the time, the company was a Powerpoint about a space called "Refresh"-- a four walls experience that was a lot more utilitarian than today's incarnation of The Wing.  What changed?  Well, instead of resting on the initial idea after a successful seed round, the founders surveyed their potential customer base to make sure the space had exactly what people wanted.  While there was interest in a women's space that had showers and a place to clean up between work and going out, among other amenities, there was a ton of interest and curiosity around who else might be at the space.  In fact, the desire to network and connect with other women in a safe and supportive space was so strong, it drove the brand in a more community centric direction.  Just because some investors put money into your idea doesn't mean you can't question it--even at its core.  

2) Make big asks.

The Wing raised a $2mm+ seed round on a Powerpoint and they made no bones about asking for a big Series A to launch three more locations.  The founders knew they had something special and desired to make it appropriately impactful, which could only be done with real capital.  It sent a strong signal to the investor community that they had national and global ambitions, more so than if they had asked for "just enough to break even" or a smaller round than they knew they could execute on.  This is something I see with too many non-male/non-white founders in general, and I often find myself asking, "Is this the right amount to raise?  What would you do with more?" Undercutting yourself on a raise is fixable, but it makes even me worry about whether or not you'll make the big asks the company needs down the road--for that NYT piece, for that hire that would be crazy to take that leap, etc.  

3) MVP and great product aren't mutually exclusive.  

The original Wing location is smaller than their new spaces--but it's a beautiful, extremely well done and expertly designed space.  It served as an example of what could be done when you create such a community space, but it was built on a reasonable budget and less space than what future locations would entail.  Too many products cut experience and design instead of cutting features, making the limited number of data points users and investors have about your MVP that you can't build something interesting.  The Wing showed that they could build a great product, even if a little smaller, without breaking the bank, but also without scrimping on who they worked with around the design and the brand either.  

4) Build a network ahead of building a company.

When I first got the pitch deck, I had no shortage of people telling me that Audrey Gelman was a rock star and that I had to meet her.  That stood out more than anything she could have put into a deck.  Having that kind of network and reputation is wind in the sails of any business--and should be worked on years in advance of setting out on your own to build something.  Who needs to know you to help you with this business?  Go build a relationship with them before you even start the business--because after, it will be less authentic and more transactional.  

5) Stand for something.  

If you follow The Wing on social media, it makes no apologies for making bold statements and standing for more than just a consumer value proposition--nor should it.  In today's environment, people want to know what side your own and what you believe in.  A more conservative partner might be put off by their content--but if conservative means not standing up for women's rights, then that's not a partner The Wing would want to work with.  In a sea of competition for your customer's time and money, I don't think companies should be afraid to take stands on issues they would be proud to share anywhere, anytime and fight for.  

It's exciting not only to watch the success of this company based around these kinds of moves, but moreover to see the value they contribute to the community creative and impactful women. 

Why You Shouldn't Put VCs on a Pedestal

Influencers.  Kingmakers.  Sharks.  Power brokers.  Visionaries.

There are a lot of ways the startup world describes venture capitalists that portrays a certain power dynamic, real or perceived, that I believe is at the heart of so many of the industry's problems.  The industry treats VCs as if they hold all the cards, and the worst behaviors of investors reflect that.

Frankly, it makes me uncomfortable, because it's undeserved.

Here's why...

Who's really chasing who?

Do you think there is more money out there looking for good opportunities, or more fantastic opportunities?

Right.  Clearly, truly great ideas and great teams are at a premium--and there's a ton of money in the world.  It's rare that you really only have one option as a seed investor (follow on rounds are different, because it is expected that insiders are your first option, and their actions can influence others).  The idea that there's only one human on the face of the earth that will back you, and if that person is an asshat that you have to accept them is false.  If you can get one investor, you can get others.  Remember that we're lucky to be investing in your company, because ideas as good as yours don't come around too often, and that will change your approach as you try to gather your first check.

A lot of our success is on paper, or just dumb luck.

There was a time not too long ago when VC bios read "Fab investor", "Quirky investor", and "Gilt investor".  None of those companies produced great returns to their backers, so as the old saying goes, "Don't count the money until it's in the bank."  Today's Postmates might be tomorrow's Fab.

On top of that, you've got companies like Bebo that were huge exits that were eventually folded or written off by their acquirers.  Be careful giving too much credit to an investor who lucked out because a stupid acquirer mistook a flaming pile of dog poo for the greatest thing since sliced bread.

Founders do most of the hard work.

VCs can provide a useful piece of advice at a key moment--or help make a key hire, but the day in and day out grind is done by the work of the founder and the team, and they deserve 99.999999% of the credit.  Most of the time, if that VC didn't back them, someone else would have and they would have been just as successful.  

Good investor doesn't mean good person.

I wish that only high character people were allowed to make boatloads of money, but that's not the way it works.  Some people are complete scumbags, make a fortune, and karma just never catches up with them.  It's not how I would want to reach success, but for some people, it doesn't bother them.  We can debate whether they're sociopaths, but we definitely shouldn't assume that every "great investor" is "great" at being human.  

No one is perfect.

Kind of the same as the prior one, but backed off a bit.  Even if you're not one of the worst, and you strive to do your best everyday, a VC isn't perfect.  They're just a regular person and they don't always get it right.  Founders are in that boat, too.

Few of them made sacrifices to get where they are.

There are a lot of things you don't get to choose--like the gender you were born with, your race, and whether you were born into money or not.  All of these increase the chances that someone winds up being an investor.  I hope that, in the future, a more diverse population of investors will come from more humble and less privileged beginnings, but the majority of VCs out there were born with advantages.  To put us up on a pedestal as if we built up our career from scratch is giving many of us too much credit.

There...  If you go into your next pitch meeting and the VC seems cut down a notch, you can thank me after.  ;)

I Can Be Difficult

Last week, I heard the word "difficult" describing investors twice.  Once was about me and once wasn't.  

The founder and investor relationship is, in fact, a difficult one to get right.  Both sides walk in with a lot of cognitive biases and style differences unique to every pair.  Meanwhile, the work of trust building is hard and takes a long time.

In one instance, there was an investor holding up a round after agreeing to sign off on something verbally.  They weren't wrong about the term in question, but the dollar impact to their investment was so small that it wasn't meaningful to a fund of their size.  That's the kind of thing where you have to choose between being right and seeing the bigger picture in order to facilitate a transaction that was good for the company. 

No one wants that kind of difficulty in an investor and it frustrates me on behalf of my founders to see that.

That being said, I can be difficult in other ways.

On my side, I was told by a founder that they found some of our interactions difficult--a little too blunt without enough understanding of where the entrepreneur was coming from, doing all of this for the first time. 

The most successful founders have often told that they're crazy or stupid or both on many many occasions on their way up--and none of that helped them get there, at least, not on a productive way.  It's important as an investor in the company to make sure that when you have constructive feedback, it comes with support and respect.  Founders are going to hear a lot of naysayers from the outside, and so when you're on board with the company, you want a founder to feel like you believe in them personally, even if you disagree with them.

This isn't always easy.

VCs get the benefit of having worked with dozens and dozens of companies--and so it's easy to have a dismissive reaction to what you might see as a bad course of action, without realizing that the founder doesn't have the benefit of your experience.  Not only that, but a founder is basing their decisions on a lot more information than you--so while you're concerned about the what, perhaps you should be diving deeper into the why before you react.

Being a founder can feel like driving a car for the first time.  You're nervous enough--the last thing you need is a parent yelling at you for clipping the curb with the back tire on a turn.

Doesn't mean it isn't hard to freak out when you're a passenger in that car when you hit something!  

Still, it's something I need to work on more.

At the same time, there's also a "good difficult"--being willing to deliver tough feedback or pushing the founder to do difficult things they'd rather not do that are better for the company in the long term. 

This is something I'm unapologetic about.

I can think of a few instances where I've been "difficult" and I think ultimately it was better for the founder and the company.

For example, I've been putting in a spending clause in my term sheets lately, where above a certain one-time spend triggers a conversation.  The founder can spend whatever they want whenever they want, but we just have to talk about it.  It's a seed round, and so it winds up happening around hires, rent, and contracts with agencies or lawyers most often.

Some might see that as a pain because other investors won't ask for that--but it's already facilitated a lot of great conversations.  

For example, it helps to hear why you're hiring who you're hiring early on.  I want to understand your thought process and make sure that you have a method to salary and equity compensation.  That's not only good discipline, but it helps me figure out who to send you to help with recruiting in the future, because I have a sense of how you evaluate candidates. 

Still, it's always your call.

Communication is important to me.  The more I know about what's going on, the more helpful I can be--and everyone's got blind spots.  (Especially your investors!!)  Sharing more with your investors is critical for founders because the number of things a founder has to keep an eye on is overwhelming.  It's just good practice to have a few people around asking the right questions at the right time. 

It doesn't mean they don't trust you.  

They're being difficult because being a great founder and building a great company doesn't come easy.