Valuing My Own Time and Saying No

The other day, I got a note asking whether I'd be willing to meet some "Head of New Things" at a big telecom.

That wasn't their actual title, but it was something like that.  

You've met them before.  They're new to the gig, super excited about all its potential, and getting out there selling founders hope for that one big gamechanging deal.

But I've seen this movie before, so here's how I responded:


"Hi!

To be honest, these meetings never really work out and I've decided they're just not worth spending the time anymore. There's so much corporate bureaucracy in telco, and they can never actually get anything done.  They just move too painfully slow to work with startups.

I'm sure this is a lovely human being that means well, but it's kind of like getting an invite to a dance party in quicksand.

I like a good dance party, but... well... quicksand.

As always, I hope you are doing amazingly.

Charlie"

Funny enough, I ran into that person later that day and they said they totally understood and actually really liked the note.  I think it encouraged them to say no more often.

The most precious commodity I have, especially as a one person firm, is my own time.  That's really all I have to give to the founders I back.  Sure, I write a check, but anyone can do that.

If I'm going to be effective, I have to be very careful about how I dole out my time and where it goes.  Therefore, I've had to do a lot of saying no to requests for my time.  Here are a bunch of things I don't do:

  • I won't do office hours anymore at incubators and accelerators.  You know those meetings where you get this endless parade of companies sitting with you for 20 minutes each?  I just don't think those are good for anyone.  It skips the whole vetting process for me--so I wind up giving time to a bunch of companies whose business model I might find problematic from the get go.  I'd rather get a list of all of the companies and then pick and choose who I'm actually interested in.  What I've been doing instead is doing a talk and agreeing to do a bunch of public Q&A that *everyone* can benefit from all at once.  Takes an hour or an hour and a half at most and everyone gets the benefit of a public conversation--versus three or four hours of pitches.  
  • Panel prep calls.  There's a special place in hell for panel prep calls.  It takes up a lot of cycles to schedule everyone and then we just kind of either a) awkwardly try to recreate the panel beforehand or b) each say what we think the panel should be.  If you're a good MC, you should just tell us what you want to hear from each of us and cut us off when we go off the rails.
  • No "Just 5 or 10 minutes" meetings.  So many entrepreneurs beg for just a few minutes of my time.  Those kinds of requests feel desperate and not only undermine their pitch, but it's still real time that adds up.  In 5 minutes, I could call my nana, answer some e-mail or help a portfolio company with some intros.  If I'm just not that into what you're up to, even one minute is too much.  
  • I only invest in NYC, so I won't take meetings with out of town companies or people "planning on moving".  Focusing on one geography saves me travel time and narrows the set of companies I'm looking at to the ones where I can get the highest signal earliest.  I don't know the startup networks in Chicago or Boulder, so it's that much tougher to filter the top of the funnel for out of towners.  Not only would it take me a lot more time in general to look at non-NYC companies, but even those individual deals take a lot longer.  It takes longer to get to know the founders.  It takes longer to diligence them.  These are cycles more effectively spent locally.
  • I rarely go to other people's after work events if I'm not speaking.  At this point in my career, I have to be pretty sure that I'm either a) getting exposure to a lot of people at once or b) getting exposure to really fantastic people and ones specifically relevant or interesting to me.  I don't really get that if I show up to an event where I'm just in the crowd and only get to meet the person next to me, behind me and in front of me.  Investing a few hours of time to meet five random people doesn't make a lot of sense.  Being on a panel or actually setting the event up myself might take more time, but I get a ton more out of it--and time management isn't just about cutting stuff out, it's about ROI.  As for learning, if I really want to understand a topic, I'd much rather just connect up with a panelist one on one.
  • I don't drink.  There are a lot of reasons I don't drink.  For one, I don't like the taste and I think I'm disproportionately sensitive to it.  Plus, I bike all over the place and need those reactive miliseconds to defend against taxi doors.  But, one big reason is time.  I really don't have the time to be fully awake when I wake up, nor do I have the time for headaches.  Any minute spent feeling less than fully "on" feels less than optimal.  
  • I take way less initial pitch meetings than the average seed investor--about 150-175 a year, which amounts to like 3 or so a week.  I know people who are taking three meetings a day.  That makes no sense to me.  There are roughly 400 venture deals being done in NYC each year these days, and maybe about 30% or so of those are seed financings.  That figure could be more if you're counting angel deals that don't really get reported.  In my opinion, if there are around 150 or 200 companies that get seed or pre-seed financing in NYC from *someone*, that's about how many meetings I could take.  If you're taking 300 meetings a year, that means that *half* of the companies you meet with never get financing from *anyone*.  That's a bad batting average and a lot of wasted time.  Just think about all the really terrible ideas that you see get funded.  Now think about how bad the ideas must be to not get any funding at all.  If that's half your meetings, you need better filters.
  • I don't take meetings just as favors for people.  One of my investors introduced me to a buddy of theirs in hopes that I would give them some feedback on their startup.  It wasn't the quality of deal I'd normally take a meeting with, so I turned down the opportunity to meet.  I gave the founder some thoughtful feedback, but declined the one on one.  I then explained to my investor that I felt like I was paid to find and invest in the best companies I could find--and if I took just one meeting a year as a favor to each of my investors, that would be an hour a week--almost 25% more initial pitch meetings than I take anyway.  That's a lot of time not spent trying to do the best deals on behalf of my investors and I'm sure if my fund performance wasn't up to par, they'd frown upon all those hours spent on favors.  

I'm sure there are other things I say no to, but I'm going to say no to writing any more than this.  It's more than enough for you to get the idea.