I probably do some kind of speaking event at least every other week. This week, I've got three things on the docket. Needless to say, I have a fair amount of startup event experience.
What I find a bit frustrating is how easily some people get onto panels and are put up in front of an impressionable crowd of new entrepreneurs as "experts". You'll get a venture capital analyst from a brand name firm who has just recently taken his job talking about what makes a company successful. You'll get an entrepreneur who has raised one and only one round of financing in his or her entire life--all from relatively unsophisticated individuals, giving fundraising advice.
Some of what I hear coming out of panelists is either really skewed to their own experience or just plain wrong.
The problem is that as much as we say we're ok with failure, we're actually not very discerning about people's experience. Some people have definitively had better experience than others.
Other people just plain failed.
I've funded or committed to a few dozen seed companies in the last few years and worked for First Round Capital and Union Square Ventures--two of the best early stage firms on the planet. I feel like I can say pretty much all their is to say about seed rounds. However, I'm not about to dish out advice on how to grow into a billion dollar company, because I haven't taken a company there yet. You should probably get Rob Hayes or Fred Wilson for that. I won't ever be offended if you tell me, "Actually, we were looking for a VC who has backed a company that has gone public."
Sometimes, I see people on venture capital panels that aren't even VCs! In common parlance, "VC" refers to someone who is an investor--who can do a deal. To me, the absolute minimum criteria has to be that you work for a venture capital fund. This means you have a pool of money. You're not a broker. You're not a development shop that takes equity. You literally have a bank account that you have access to with millions of committed dollars already in it.
Personally, I also feel like you need to be a check writer to call yourself a VC. In other words, analysts who cannot lead a deal are not venture capitalists. They shouldn't put it in their Twitter bio.
Analysts support deals, but they don't really vote on a deal in a way that carries the same weight as a partner. If that's the criteria, than most executive assistants should also be able to call themselves venture capitalists. They certainly do their share of work to support a deal and often have the ear of partners when it comes to a lot of the consumer deals they do. They definitely weigh in on whether they like the management team.
If you can't lead a deal, you're not "a VC" and you probably shouldn't call yourself one on a panel. I wonder whether or not you should even be on a panel without actually bringing that up as a caveat--that you work for a partner driven shop and that you can't speak as one of the people who actually write the checks. Some analysts definitely say that. Others talked as if they were the ones doing the deals--even though they're just the ones making the cap tables in Excel.
Dear Analysts: No offense intended, btw. You're smart. You're awesome in many ways I'm sure, but I did your job for years--I wasn't "a VC". I was an analyst.
And don't even get me started about exits. Just because you sold your lost company for a nickel plus a modest amount per engineer doesn't mean we should trumpet that as a qualification to be on a panel. Talking about your acqui-hire as anything but a failure is just plain fraud.
Don't get me wrong--failures are great experiences. I wish *more* people who failed went on panels. I failed and I learned a ton from it--but if your goal is to build a big company and then you flip your dev team to Yahoo! after shutting down your product, you failed. Your speaker bio shouldn't inform the audience that you sold your last company as if your experience is one they should aspire to have.
Same works with pitch events. Organizers need to be really draconian about who gets up to pitch--especially if the point of your event is to trumpet a geography or a type of company. If you give companies with a social missions an opportunity to pitch, they better be really compelling--because otherwise two things will happen: First, as an investor, I'm going to think, "Ugh, all social mission companies are duds." Secondly, the audience is going to think, "It's ok that my startup's plan makes no sense, because I have a social mission!"
If you can't get a really compelling set of people pitching, speaking, or repping any kind of startup experience, just don't have the event. Skip a month. It won't kill you to keep up the quality--and panels with questionable guests or pitch events with really problematic companies are the best way to turn your event into a D lister.
We have a bad habit in the startup community of validating and celebrating everyone's experience as informative, and even authoritative--and it's just simply not true. I think we need to do a lot more questioning and vetting of people's experience and perspective and whether or not they're in a position to dish out any advice. Were you the one who actually led the redesign? Was it successful? Did you actually lead that deal?
The truth is out there.