Last week, I threw an event for the NYC tech community at the Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. It was sponsored by 20 participating VC firms. Three hundred people in attendence--which was awesome. Statistically, it also meant that most people in the tech community were not invited.
Sounds pretty unwelcoming, doesn't it? "You were not invited." It's simply a statement of fact, but we assume it connotes a lot of things--purpose, intention, and judgement, perhaps.
Most times, in my experience, it isn't any of the above--but I didn't always think this way and I understand how it creates a perception of exclusivity, especially in the startup community.
Putting together any kind of group or event with basic constraints like cost, location, or focus means that, by definition, you exclude somebody. Last week, for example, we had enough sponsorship to pay for 300 people. That was also the limit of the space in the park we were using. People tend to be somewhat understanding when your constraint has to do with such basic laws of physics like dollars or square feet.
Sometimes, though, the intention is to create a certain atmosphere around an event--to skew a crowd towards technical people, or more experienced founders, or even simply founders-only. Now you start to walk down a rabbit hole of trying to explain to people why you picked one person's experience over another. That never ends well--but the fact remains that some people have more relevent experience, or simply more experience, than others.
I'd never begrudge anyone for leaving me off a panel, for example, where VCs speak about trends across their careers and the other speakers are Alan Patricof and Fred Wilson. I'm realistic about how much experience I have relative to those guys. If it's simply about investing in NYC, though--sure, I'm going to want on. I don't always get included in things I think what I have to offer is relevent to. No one ever does.
It's easy to think that exclusion is purposeful--and in a controversy seeking media world, there's lots of chatter around one group keeping another group out. VCs are conspiring. Valley insiders are conspiring. The best things in the world are kept from you by these people over here and that's the reason why they're in and your out.
Does it happen? Sure, it does--and work needs to be done to fix those situations, but in the meantime, what can you do? You have to make sure that you, as an individual, do everything you can to make sure you're breaking in and not let the idea that people are working against you keep you from trying.
One of the most powerful lessons I've learned in my career was to stop believing that there were levels of experience and resources that were closed off to me because of intention or something to do with who I was, and to start going after them as if it was more a matter of showing up. When I was a high school intern, I thought that my firm was only taking college interns until I asked if they'd keep me around. It didn't matter that I wasn't heading to an Ivy League school like every single other intern in the program. I was doing good work and they were happy to have me stay. When I was a buy side analyst, I thought that you had to have an MBA from Stanford or Harvard to get into venture capital--until I just e-mailed Fred Wilson and asked what a VC analyst does. When I was a lowly VC analyst, I watched Brad and Fred get all the cool invites to places--until I started asking them if I could go. They were more than happy to oblidge where appropriate. I also used to watch visable bloggers like Zach Klein doing cool stuff with his startuppy friends feeling like there was a "cool crowd" that I wasn't in. The "cool crowd" just happened to be his friends, as opposed to some contrived club of people that applied for admission. Thinking it's the latter is a paralyzing and self-fulfilling mindset--that people are actively working against you or you'll never be on the inside.
I happens all the time when people e-mail me. They assume they've offended me, or I don't like them, or some other personal issue I might have--when it's nothing more than just getting a lot of e-mail because I give away money for a living. I'm stunned at how often people fail to follow up because they think I made a judgement about them and that's why I haven't gotten to a reply.
That's why I love this article "How to e-mail busy people."
What I've learned over time is that a big issue is just simple logistics. If you've ever run any kind of event before, you know how difficult it is to build an e-mail list of invitees. There are no perfect lists of "the 30 most experienced founders in NYC". You do your best to construct it, and you wind up running that list through filters like, "Who do I remember in the middle of doing 800 other things?" or "Whose contact info do I even have?" and finally "Who am I even aware of?"
Last week, for example, I depended highly on other people's networks. Sponsors were entitled to many of the invitations. Other people were invited because I asked technical people and design folks, "Who do I not know that I should invite?" I probably only personally invited about 100 or so people. Afterwards, there were quite a few faceplants on my part where I had to say, "Seriously? I didn't invite you. Oh, jeez. I'm so sorry. I can't believe you weren't on the list."
Others were invited and missed the e-mail, or it didn't find it's way into their inbox. Sending automatic invites via any service is frought with issues. It's often times an imperfect system more times than it is an unjust one.
More recently in my career, I realized that a lot of being invited to things is about showing up, giving, helping, and doing a good job of staying in touch. It's about being on that "who have I heard from lately" list for the biggest number of people posible. A lot of my invitations last night weren't about whose startups are cool. Quite a few of the invitees went to people whose startups I passed on, but who just made a point of asking to participate in more community activities, stayed in touch, and showed up to random other things that I've invited them to. Many were teachers from Skillshare or GA who contribute a lot to the community so I felt like they should get something in return. The occasional blog comment doesn't hurt either when I'm just trying to think of who comes to mind. It's not an exact science.
In the startup community, I think getting into things is so much more about fresh contributions to your network rather than some social hierarchy. It's easy to sulk, get annoyed, or pick fights about what lists you're on or events you get invited to--things I will totally admit to doing in the past. Now, I find it much more productive to say to myself "What can I do for this person to make sure I'm top of mind the next time they put something like this together."
Even if there was some social hierarchy, I'd like to believe that accomplishment and effort trumps any biases people might have towards me--that even if someone didn't like me that they'd simply have to have me involved because of something I did for them or accomplished. In the startup community, I believe that's largely the case. Either way, I have to decide who to listen to--the people who tell me these walls are unclimbable or these things are not for me--or the people who encourage me to ask, my way in, make myself the kind of person you want to include, and to continue to trudge forward.
PR works very much the same way. It's easy to flip out and think, "You covered THEM? We're so much better!!" Maybe the reporter had just never heard of you, or forgot. How can you be unforgettable to them the next time?
For me, it's true for getting into various deals. If someone raises money in my network that I don't hear about (which is luckily pretty rare) I sometimes ask whether or not they had considered coming my way. It's not about criticizing their choices. It's about understanding whether or not I'm conveying the right brand, staying in touch with people often enough, or throwing off unintentional signals. Maybe they thought I wasn't interested or that they weren't sure if it was a stage fit. I'd like to know. Often times, it's not a slight, but just a "Things happened so fast, these people just happened to show up first."
Good to know.
Note to self: Be faster.