You Can Hear the Desperation When They Pull the Trigger: Gun Control or Empathy

I didn't grow up in a neighborhood where gunshots were a thing--and I know I am incredibly lucky for that.  That's why when I pulled up to the corner of Atlantic and Fourth by the Barclay's Center yesterday at a couple of minutes after 2pm, the sound of gunfire was pretty startling, and it's not something I can easily shake.

Pop!  Pop!  Pop!  Pop-pop-pop!  Pop!

I knew what it was right away.  

A car or motorcycle backfires once.  Construction noises are mechanical and repetitive.  Fireworks go off with a kind of chaotic randomness that you only get when timing is dictated by the burning of a fuse.

These pops had intent, and moreover, desperation.  You hear it in the cadence.  Those three quick squeezes in broad daylight on what is perhaps the busiest intersection in Brooklyn can only come from someone who has long stopped caring about the moments after their actions.  

I was glad to be on my bike because I was out of there immediately.  Whereas my first instinct in many instances might be to help--I was one of the first on the scene when I paddled out in a kayak to the helicopter and plane crash over the Hudson quite a few summers ago now--guns change the game.  Guns are to be run from--unless you're in unfortunate enough proximity to be closer to grabbing it than you are to getting away. 

I got away and called 911, and flagged down some MTA police on Hansen Place as well.  

This post isn't intended to say we need gun control.

It's to say that if you have any logical thoughts in your head, a desperate person with a gun presents a relatively simple choice for society:

If you don't believe that babies are born pure evil out of the womb, then you have to concede that either the problem is the gun or the desperate person.  This is a person consumed with so much fear, hate, frustration, etc., that they believe that ultimately, the risk of throwing their whole life away is worth pulling the trigger.  If you pull a trigger, chances are you're going to get caught or killed.  

So if you don't mind the guns, then what are you doing to address the person?

At one point, this person went down a path that conceivably could have been avoided with some help.  We know that--and we know the root causes.  Maybe they had an unaddressed mental illness.  Maybe they grew up in a family decimated by unfair criminal justice policies and lacking in positive role models.  Maybe they lacked economic opportunity, and turned to crime out of financial desperation--that they saw that the upside of theft or drugs calculated out to be higher than a life on welfare or in homelessness.

Sure, not everyone who deals with this winds up in a life of crime.  That doesn't make the people who do purely to blame.  Not everyone who eats spoiled food gets sick--but you don't blame the sick people for not having iron stomachs, you blame the restaurant.  You don't just enact policies to penalize restaurants either--you give them little hand washing signs for the bathroom, you inspect food along the supply chain.  You figure out the root causes and work on preventing them no matter how far up they go.

We know, factually, that all of these things contribute to crime--so if you want to prevent this from happening again and again, and you're not going to blame the gun, then you've got to enact policies that have way more empathy for people than the system currently does.  

You have to decide, as a society, that we're not going to let anyone get to the point where they think the solution to any issue they have is to start shooting in broad daylight in a busy intersection.  You'll decide that you'll teach kids anger management, communication, and give them skills that make them productive in society, not forgotten by it.  You're going to fix the issues that create havoc and desperation in people's lives--like getting bankrupted by a health issue or having an unstable housing issue.  You'll treat addiction for what it is--a disease--rather than a crime.  

That's what I can't reconcile about most of the gun rights defenders.  Their policies seem to align with not providing any services or social safety nets to people.  It's like, "We know your world sucks and is full of pitfalls that other people don't run into, but still, we're not only not going to do anything to help you, but we're not going to do much to curtail the guns that exacerbate these issues."

At this point, it doesn't seem worth arguing about whether guns should be a meaningful part of people's lives--but I hope we can all agree that desperation should not be.  Throwing people in jail and losing the key doesn't solve for the desperation component, but we know what does. 

So if you don't have a policy of gun control, I look forward to hearing about your support to increase funding for education, housing, physical and mental healthcare, and worker protections.

The Rainy Day Fund of Reputation

One aspect of venture capital that rarely gets talked about is competition to get into a deal.  

What happens when a founder has that rare wealth of riches when they're choosing who they're going to allow onto their cap table?  The tables turn and the one being pitched to becomes the one pitching.  

The moment when you find out that you're not guaranteed a slot is my least favorite as a VC.  I've seen different investors react to it differently.  Some are really competitive.  They want to "win" a deal--by beating out others.  

Personally, I don't like being left out of the chance to work with really great people on big problems worth solving.  I love this job so much and like seeing other people succeed that I have serious FOMO not to hear those stories firsthand and be able to make those hiring intros, pitch a reporter, or ask the right question at the right time in a board meeting.  When it all works out, it's amazing--and when it doesn't, it's really tough, but challenging in the best of ways.  

At the end of the day, however, a VC's money is just as green as the next one--which is where your reputation comes in.  There's nothing I can say or do at the moment of offering to invest that is more convincing than the sum total of what not only the fifty plus founders I've worked with beforehand have to say about me, but the countless others I've run into as an investor.  I take 150+ pitch meetings a year, and probably do a speaking thing every other week if not more.  

That's why it blows my mind when VCs are standoffish or disrespectful, or even worse, dishonest.  The reputation you create off of each 1:1 interaction with a founder is like a rainy day fund.  Every time you truly help someone, even if you don't back them, is a small deposit.  It's a founder being willing to say something nice about their dealings with you or to recommend you to a friend.

Helping every founder is an impossibility.  Sometimes, you just can't stick around one more minute at an event.  You've got friends or family waiting--and sometimes, you just need to put the e-mail down.  You can't get to that one founder that keeps pushing themselves back up to the top of your inbox, because you have four term sheets out and you're trying to help someone close a round, and someone else hire a COO.  You can't get to everyone, but you can respect everyone you did get to--and act like you know that as hard as you're working, they're working even harder.

Every time you slip an obnoxious term into a cap table, or take six positive meetings before ultimately passing for a reason that should have come out in meaning one, you're debiting your rep.  That's going to come back.  Maybe someone might actually ding you, but you're not going to have a founder go out of their way to recommend you either.  

Founders are making incredibly important decisions when they decide what investors to take.  They're literally stuck with this group for the duration of their company--and there is going to be no one they'll trust more for a recommendation than another founder.

So, as you're building your career, treat every founder as if they're going to talk to that one founder whose company is 3x oversubscribed--the one you think could make your career if only you got a shot to participate.  

The Five Questions You Need to Answer to Succeed at Startup Recruiting

For the last couple of months, I've been recording interviews with founders and recruiting professionals for the Startup Recruiting Podcast.  Despite my best efforts to make it tactical--full of hacks, tips, tricks, etc., the common themes that keep coming up are much more about meaning, mission and values.  At first, I'll admit it felt a little fluffy, but more and more I realize that without answering questions about the "why" of what it's like to work for your company, you're never going to be able to write that pitch e-mail, LinkedIn message, or have anything convincing to say in an interview.  

Here's what every founder should put in some time to not only have an answer, but to make sure that answer is backed up by actions, incentives, and real effort at your company:

1) What's the reputation for greatness that will attach itself to your employees long after they leave?  

Will your company be known for being a great place to learn to sell?  To scale lots of data?  To build brand?  To push the envelope around computer vision like at Clarifai?  What kind of a challenge will a VC know that they can back a former employee of yours to tackle?

2) Why are employees at your company great teammates to each other?

If 1+1 is going to equal something more than 2, your team will have to be better together than as individual contributors--so while you might think the most important question is how they're going to do that, you'll realize that if you can handle the "why", they'll figure out the how.  Check out the x.ai employee pledge for a great framework on this.

3) What is it that you sell?

You don't sell a product.  You sell something else.  Is it time?  Is it piece of mind?  Is it a lifestyle?  Reliability? Clarity around what your customer cares about and why they buy your product usually means your employees are focused on what matters most--and helps you figure out which potential new hires are best suited to deliver.

4) Why would an employee recruit their friend?

You know why you started the company--but that doesn't mean it's the same reason why a front end developer would tell their friend the growth marketer to join.  Thinking about the incentives for your individual contributors to recruit others keeps you focused on the day to day of each employee up and down the org chart.  Can you create an environment as clearly articulated as Do Something?  Is it because you're hiring people others would like to work with like at Zola?

5) What will this company look like in five years?

It's highly unlikely that you'll survive five years if you can't imagine it--and a strong founder vision not only provides direction around day to day tasks, but also inspires people.  It's really easy to get stuck on the metrics you need to get to the next round and to forget to play the long game of people development and skating to where the puck is going.

Bonus: What are others likely to hear about your organization?

Your recruiting brand is different than the brand around your product--and should be attended to just as intentionally.  Etsy spent a lot of effort making sure the Etsy culture permeated outside its walls.  What are you doing to spread your company's culture?

The Madness of the King

I don't know whether or not Donald Trump colluded with the Russians around the election--or whether any of his associates did either.  

I certainly don't think much of him--and it certainly doesn't seem beyond him, but obviously I don't have all the materials and information I need.

But what I do know is that anyone who is sure of their innocence wouldn't fire the very person investigating them IN THE MIDDLE OF THE INVESTIGATION.  Can anyone logically imagine an innocent person thinking, "I know I didn't do anything, but instead of waiting until I'm cleared, I'm going to get rid of the main person I need to vouch for my innocence and that of my staff."

It's completely unconscionable--and any other politician who doesn't denounce it isn't representing their constituency well.  It wreaks of the kind of abuse of power that ultimately sent Nixon packing--and the fact that Trump and his staff either don't see that or don't care is deeply deeply troubling.  

There have been many days this year where I sit here and say, "Should I be doing my job or raising hell today?"

Today, it is clear what we all should be doing.  This is a fork in the road we cannot afford to go down.

Qualify Your Investor

I can't tell you how many pitches I've taken where a founder told me they needed revenues, or a fully functioning product to raise capital--and they were told that by X number of investors, so they took it as gospel.  

Plenty of companies have raised money pre-revenue and pre-product, so why the discrepancy?

What you're most likely hearing from an investor who says this is that what it takes to raise from *them* and they're not speaking for the whole market.  I always qualify these kinds of statements by saying, "I can't speak for other investors" when I suggest how likely someone is to raise in their current state.  

When you sit down with an investor, just like when you sit down with a customer, you need to qualify them--to ask whether or not they have invested in a startup at this stage.  This way, if they've done pre-revenue or 10k MRR a month or pre-FDA approval before, you know that if you get turned down, it's not because it was too early for them.  

Otherwise, you really don't know if they're suggesting the bar is higher then where you are because they just don't take risk at this stage.  

Some of my best investments, like Canary, Orchard and goTenna, were pre-product, but not every VC wants to take that type of risk.  Make sure you know you're pitching to the right stage VC when you go out.