NETWORKING: The Intro vs The Vouch (and why the difference matters a whole lot)

My tweets autodelete after 30 days, so when one starts a good discussion, I try to expand/archive it here. 

NETWORKING: The Intro vs The Vouch

So the “intro w/o vouch” is a double-opt in that looks something like “hey, I know you were looking to hire a BizDev lead. This guy is someone I worked with a few years back. Seemed pretty good but we’re not that close, so take a look and if you want intro, just let me know.”

The vouch version of this is more like “I strongly recommend you take a look at this gal for your BD role. Even though she might be on the junior end with regards to years of experience, she’s amazing. Worked for a friend of mine and was the star of their team – in fact, was the one behind the XYZ deal.”

Why Makes Intros At All If They’re Not Vouches?

Because they can still be mutually valuable in many contexts. I just try to tell the person looking for the intro the extent to which I can (or cannot) vouch and let the recipient know if I’m vouching or not (because I expect my vouches to be taken seriously as high signal). 

Are There Types of Intros You’ll Only Do As a Vouch?

Yes, one which comes to mind is the Investor introduction. I won’t make casual intros to investors unless I can speak to the quality of the company I’m intro’ing. I’ll also make a case-by-case judgment based on how valuable I think the intro might be to both sides and the nature of my relationship with each individual. 

I’m Asking For An Intro, How Do I Know If They’ll Vouch For Me?

You can frame it as such: “Hey, I’m looking to get introduced into XYZ because I heard her talk about how their marketing team is hiring an agency to do influencer work with them. I see you two are connected on LinkedIn. Do you know her well enough to make an intro if I forward you a note to pass on? And do you feel like you’ve got enough recent context on my work to endorse us? Thanks, much appreciated.”

Is a Vouch the Same as a Favor?

No, these are different things. For me a Favor is when I need someone to take an intro even though it might not be worth their time or ROI but it would be really meaningful to the other side of the intro. When I’m asking for a favor I’m very specific about it. I’ll also often stress when I’m *not* asking for a favor just so someone doesn’t take action on an intro request simply to please me. 

You Know, Vouching Sounds Like “Sponsorship”

Yes, I was excited to get introduced to this concept via a tweet from Lara Hogan where she links to a 2017 blog post called “What does sponsorship look like?” It’s a very good read and makes the point that most of us don’t get past mentorship when trying to support marginalized or underrepresented groups. I recommend you read it.

Vouch Or No Vouch, Should I Ever Make An Intro Without a Double Opt-In?

Fine, I Get It. Are There Any Good Blog Posts On What a Good Intro Looks Like?

Yes! Here’s one. And here’s another

A Small Change Seed Funds Can Make To Their Websites To Help Founders (and Themselves)

Here at Homebrew, we’re pretty into the idea of constant improvement. Our years of product management experience taught us that often the best insights can come from your customers. In our case customers = founders, and supporting the ones we’ve backed is our firm’s #1 priority. But you can also learn a ton from the folks you didn’t back and sometimes even from the ones you’ve never met!

What do I mean by that last point – how do we learn from people we never talked with during their fundraise? Well, we frequently diligence those deals after the fact – the startups we think we should have seen during their fundraise but for one reason or another – in order to better understand why we didn’t find each other. How are these learnings actionable? They can help direct our proactive networking – ie maybe there’s a university campus where Homebrew isn’t well-known so we try to figure out how to solve that problem. 

Given the work we’ve done understanding the patterns of seed fundraising, we wanted to share an insight to benefit our venture peers: Your Portfolio Page Is Your Thesis – Founders will often look first (and sometimes only) at your website’s portfolio page to assess whether or not you invest in their industry, business model, geography, etc. You might have detailed these ideas lovingly in a blog post or elsewhere on your site but almost all the time, your portfolio page helps teams decide if they should reach out to your or not. 

Given that more early stage startups are staying quiet about their financings (not stealth per se, just not announcing they’ve raised money), there can be a substantial lag between a firm’s investments and the display of these logos on their website, sometimes sending incomplete signals to new founders about what the fund is seeking. “Oh we love Homebrew but looked at your portfolio page and didn’t see any XYZ companies, so didn’t think you’d be interested” was something we heard from a few founders we wished would have pinged us. 

What did we do with this feedback and what do we recommended to our peers? When you make an investment, you can put a placeholder slot on your portfolio page which generally describes the company. For example, here are two examples of “placeholders” we use on our website. 

The only downside we’ve considered is whether any potential founders would see something and erroneously consider it a “competitive investment,” (since our descriptions are so general) but most folks will ask. Or once they share their startup with us, we’ll tell them we’re competitively blocked in the very small number of cases where that occurs.

Just a small thing we’ve done that could be helpful to others out there and make sure founders are finding the best funders for their startups. 

My Virtual Assistants 2018: Nothing New Under The Sun(set)

Time for my annual wrap-up of how I used virtual assistants to augment my productivity in 2018. Overall this year was a real bummer as there weren’t any new services or paradigm-breakers that I encountered as a consumer. And pour one out for Facebook Messenger’s M, which sunset earlier this year. If even a tech behemoth doesn’t want to subsidize my restaurant reservation requests, then our future is grim…

There are some *very* interesting beginnings in the enterprise space beyond just virtual executive assistants and getting into real workflow augmentation, but I’ll save that for a separate blog post, especially since one is portfolio company 🙂

What Virtual Assistants did I rely upon in 2018?

FancyHands – The old man stands alone. While the service hasn’t gotten any new features – heck, I think they pulled their iPhone app at one point it was so janky – FH still delivers for me when I need very basic tasks (make a reservation, set up a car service, find out whether this hotel has non-smoking rooms)  and research completed (what are the five best coffee cafes in Portland, OR) for me. I think you get a discount if you use my referral link. And shout out to my friend Maia who uses FH in creative ways. 

Wonder: I use Wonder for b2b’ish research but they’re pretty solid for any type of research question where you could imagine a subject expert needing 30 min – two hours to pull you together an answer. Think of it as someone who is really good at Googling and has some domain expertise. At latest glance they’ve sunset their a la carte model and now seem to be fully focused on enterprise subscription models, but I’ll keep them on this list since I seem to be grandfathered. 

Fin: The most modern of the services that I’ve seen, Fin’s suggested uses span personal and professional. Do research! Book a dinner! Schedule your client meetings! If you’re price insensitive and want a pay-as-you-go service, this one is probably for you (assuming you don’t want to set up an ongoing remote EA type of deal). Additionally, true to their software roots, they’ve got a nice app that you can even use apart from the service to send quick ToDo notes to yourself (or others). 

What other services am I missing?

Previous Summaries

2017, 2016, 2015

Where’s my Personal Wirecutter? I Want a Place To Talk About The Products I Love!

I want a place to talk about the products I love in a more persistent fashion than a tweet – my favorite notebook, best coffee, preferred blanket and so on. 

I want this place to be the equivalent of Instagram/Medium for Products. What does that mean? Templated to make my creation look beautiful.

Mixture of structured information (such as product SKU, etc where appropriate) and free text. I can upload my own photos or select from ones provided by the item’s creator/manufacturer (or submitted by other users a la Unsplash). I want light grouping mechanisms for my posts, maybe similar to Pinterest Boards. They’re all public with addressable URLs. 

When I’m browsing other people’s posts, I want purchase information to be available when applicable – either from them or from a retailer – but I don’t want the commerce aspect to overwhelm the presentation format. This is about sharing our favorites with love and care, not just p2p transactions or earning affiliate link credit. 

I want light grouping mechanisms for my posts, maybe similar to Pinterest Boards. They’re all public with addressable URLs. This would allow me to create a List of, say, favorite coffees, or ask a question like “What’s your favorite pillow?” and have other users use their own URLs from this platform in response. 

There have been various attempts around this format but they’ve all failed to realize their full potential, or focused more on reviews and discussion forums than visual presentation. 

People love to talk about the gear and goods they use. There’s so much product talk on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram that just gets lost into the feed ether, destined to simply become targeting criteria for ads engines. 

If I had to guess where this product might emerge it’s either Instagram or Pinterest. But I also think there’s a vector for a startup to design something wonderful and independent. If you’re working on something like this – or something unlike this but you want to jam with me on why it’s even better – send me a note – hunter@homebrew.co. 

What Happens When A Founder Wants To Stop Versus Pivot?

Fred Wilson’s ‘Pivot or Fail‘ post earlier this week was especially timely for me. Now that my friend Jason Jacobs shared his own experience of winding down Two Way Labs, I can more easily contribute my opinion with a specific example. As Jason wrote

Across our first 45 core investments (Funds I and II), we’ve had three winddowns which come to mind. One was the result of a cofounder breakup. The other was a combination of struggling to find PMF and the realization by the CEO that she didn’t want to run this type of business. And most recently, Jason’s, which he describes in the link above. All three were very much the right decision.

Only Jason’s was in the “hard pivot” category that Fred describes (“Changing the product, market, and business entirely. Essentially starting over from scratch.”) but we’ve definitely had some “soft pivots” which probably should have just been shutdowns and some “soft pivots” which resulted in tremendous successes. When they’re at seed stage, we’re deferring to the founders’ decisions but also trying to help them understand the challenges associated with a hard pivot if their cap table isn’t supportive of the direction.

Sometimes founders think their VCs want the hard pivot – that the goal is to keep the company alive no matter what – or that if they don’t show ‘grit’ they’ll never get funded again. My opinion? Startups are really hard. If you don’t have a mission or problem you’re passionate about, where investors are aligned on the business, and it’s still early stage, you’re better off returning the cents on the dollar. We’re prepared to take the risk and redeploy. 

At the same time, investors should give the founders some space to figure out if they want to push on or not. A “hard pivot” sometimes requires laying off the rest of the team and getting back to the garage days of idea generation. Doing that for 30, 60, 90, 120 days isn’t a waste if the founders are inspired and want to continue working together. But I’d suggest at the end of that they “re-pitch” their lead investor(s). If they’re not supportive it can be easier to restart the business altogether with the new idea than it is to push onward. 

As a Seed Investor, Do I Want Softbank to Invest In My Best Companies Or Not?

Oh boy, conference season in the venture world and one enduring question this year has been “What to do about the Vision Fund?” It’s been a topic of lobby conversations, off-the-record chats and sometimes even an honest public panel!

What’s my answer to The Softbank Effect? First you need to separate the investments into two categories:

Mature Growth Investments a la Uber: Multi-billion dollar commitments to companies that are already at scale. So far at least these investments seem to contain some secondary sales. Which means as a seed investor, I’m thrilled to see Softbank invest. Yippee, go Masayoshi Son!!! It’s essentially a private IPO where early investors, founders and employees get some liquidity and Softbank gets minority ownership, maybe a Board seat. Cool, cool.

Early Stage Hybrid Buyout a la Wag, Brandless, DoorDash: Softbank becomes the largest investor on the cap table, sometimes clears out the Board, and, if reporting is correct, doesn’t broadly offer secondary to earlier investors. *This* is a more complicated situation for seed investors. You’re basically along for the ride with an investor who has very different incentives than you do – a different time frame, the AUM business vs IRR business, and requiring a scale in outcome that’s just astronomical

What do I think is happening in #2? Vision Fund is selecting categories where they believe a $10-100b company/conglomerate can be built and investing in the tip of that spear. Wag represents pets, Brandless CPG and DoorDash delivery/logistics, OpenDoor home buying, etc. Picking Categories and trying to make Category Killers.

Over time they’ll grow these companies w Amazon-like rapacity. Through internal efforts, through acquisition, through investment. Very exciting if you’re an entrepreneur, perhaps less exciting if you’re a seed fund (or even Series A VC). My guess is obviously don’t do your pro rata into the Softbank round and are left to go along for the ride, hoping to end up owning a very small piece of a very big thing. For the multistage VC it’s more complicated but I bet one reason the Sequoia’s of the world are raising mulitbillion dollar growth funds isn’t to coinvest along Softbank, but to protect their ownership in Sequoia core companies.

From my perspective – and we haven’t been involved in any Vision Fund deals yet – the outcome of a Softbank investment can be inconsistent with our investment model. I want to own a larger piece of a company that we hope can go public but more realistically, in a success scenario, will be bought by another company at a premium. And I worry about the impact of too much capital on a youngish startup. 

What would be the most provocative ‘hot take’ I could write about Scenario #2 above? Probably something like “if you’re a seed investor, you want Softbank to invest in your second best companies, not your best” or “a solid venture investment strategy might be to immediately invest in the strongest competitor to a company that Softbank has funded.” I don’t fully believe this but I’m also not sure it’s pure hyperbole. And I *like* everyone I’ve met on the Vision Fund team. It’s not about people, it’s about models. 

Anyway, that’s just my POV right now from a hallway conversation occurring in lots of halls at the moment. 

Finding Yourself In Places That Weren’t Built For You

“I’m tall, male, white, straight and wealthy. If it wasn’t for that ‘Jewish’ thing, I’d be fine,” I’d joked to another politically progressive friend on Friday morning ruminating about the state of America. Tragic irony that 24 hours later I woke to a reminder about how that ‘Jewish thing’ leads some to believe we don’t deserve to be Americans, or to live at all.

On Saturday’s flight home I finished Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. Traister has been on the self-described “women’s anger” beat since the 2016 elections and the book is a kaleidoscope of sorts: political history of female protest; sociological analysis of patriarchy’s impact upon the emotional framework that women are allowed; #MeToo memoir; and race’s impact on gender solidarity.

It’s a good read. Took me back to my undergrad at Vassar. I spent four years at a place that wasn’t built for me. One that, until a few decades earlier, explicitly forbid me. It survived and thrived for more than 100 years without me. Vassar was my first experience being somewhere where I wasn’t just the statistical minority (my childhood suburb was heavily Jewish) but at an institution where I was the interloper, the violator of a heritage. No number of coeducational decades can change the fact Vassar was a women’s college first. It’s in the walls, the trees, the soil.

Every once in a while I drop into the DMs of a friend on Twitter. “Hey, do you mind me asking you something…” it usually starts. I think by now they know that means “Hunter is about to ask me something about that tweet” and they’re gracious enough to educate me. Sometimes it’s a simple cultural reference that flew over my head. Often it’s an unpleasant reality that their identity – or intersectionality of identities – exposes them to but I’ve never seen or recognized. And I thank them for bringing me into a world that was hidden to me because I get to emerge more aware and connected to their human experience.

Later this week I’m flying to Nevada to canvass for Jacky Rosen’s Senate bid. I’m a little nervous about residents asking me if I live in their state and accusing me of being a carpetbagger, or someone who should mind their own business. I’m hoping to come up with a funny, disarming response before Thursday.

Can everyone vote on November 6th? And help America continue its bumpy journey towards being a place that wasn’t just built for those who arrived by a certain previous date. Or sound, or look, or pray a certain way. And if you want to go beyond voting, The Last Weekend can help mobilize you prior to Election Day. It matters.

Dear Future Team Member, I Originally Didn’t Want You But I’m Glad You’re Here (aka Homebrew is Hiring)

Dear [NAME] – Welcome to Homebrew! I’m so glad you decided to join our team. I’ve done a ton of hiring and truly believe People Choose Companies, not the other way around. You left an awesome gig and passed up lots of other options to bet on us, and I’ll work really hard to repay that 10x to you. But because you now have access to Homebrew’s Slack and are reading messages about this role, I wanted to admit something before you come across it on your own: I was originally pretty dead-set against bringing you on board. Not “you” in particular of course, but more so the idea of growing at all. I was worried it would impact our culture, increase complexity.

What changed my mind? A few things. As we begin investing out of our third fund, Satya and I believe there are now enough portfolio companies (and learnings from our work with them) to take portions of the help we provide one-off and think about how to scale it. We’ve also found that during the pre-investment process, certain types of diligence we do not just helps to qualify an investment but actually provides value to the entrepreneur and lets us hit the ground running post-close, so we want to increase our capacity to get that work done efficiently. But that’s the practical stuff that you read about in the spec. There’s also a host of benefits we believe our firm can realize by adding an additional POV around the table. That’s one reason we didn’t decide on a job title before hiring you – we wanted to collaboratively create the opportunity and make sure we were attracting people across a range of backgrounds and aspirations.

I’m also glad we got to know each other well during the process. As we’ve emphasized, Homebrew isn’t just a checkbook. We have strong beliefs about our model, especially how we can support the founders we back to build not just successful companies, but ones they are proud of. There’s a reason I have our logo as a tattoo and not just on my business card. I also appreciate that you admitted that you weren’t sure whether VC was something you even wanted to try out. Me too! I do venture because I do Homebrew, not the other way around.

So again, thanks for joining us. I know it’s going to be a great next few years and the impact you make on us and our investments is going to live on way beyond your tenure.

With warmth and respect,

Hunter

(oh hey, if it wasn’t clear, we’re hiring)

 

A Strong Cold Email Always Beats A Weak Warm One

The “always find a warm intro to a VC” axiom is misunderstood. Its intent was to suggest that a mutual connection who can vouch for an entrepreneur’s abilities, experience and perseverance would be of value to the process. This is still true. It did not mean “find someone who happens to have the VC’s contact info and get them to forward an email without much context or relevance.” At least one third, and maybe as much as 50%, of the “warm introductions” I receive fall into this category.

What happens in this case? Something like the following…

Me: Hey thanks for the forward. Are you vouching for this person or just passing along? Are you investing as an angel, or would you if you could?

“Warm” Intro: Met him at an event somewhere but don’t really know him… Worked with her but she’s actually not that good… [or variation of these]

Me: ……

From my standpoint, it’s a negative signal for an entrepreneur to take this route. It suggests lack of self-awareness or strategic thinking – you prized someone having my email address (which is publicly available anyway) versus knowing what that person would actually say about you. It’s like supplying a bad reference to a potential employer.

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What would I prefer instead? Send me a great cold email. One which tells me why you’re reaching out, directs my attention to something, and suggests what you’d like as a next step. Provide proof, rather than claims (show me code, a blog post, a deck). And don’t start off by apologizing for sending me a cold email.

I’ve funded companies off of cold emails. I’ve taken coffees off of cold emails. I’ve sent (hopefully) thoughtful replies to cold emails. There’s nothing wrong with a solid cold email.

Gee, Male: Using My Inbox As a Window To Gender Bias

If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. That’s why role models and representation is so important in changing the ratios of tech as we seek to build a more inclusive community that resembles society, and not our industry stereotypes. Last night I attended an AllRaise event where table discussion included male and female venture capitalists noting the differences in gender breakdown of their inbound dealflow. You can guess how it skews, no surprises here. We track our own gender stats at Homebrew and while we invest in female founders 3-5x more than the industry average, we know that as a two man fund, we don’t fully represent the transformation that we hope to help assist.

If you don’t know her, you can’t fund her. A few years back Google Ventures’ partner Rick Klau ran an experiment on his Twitter follow list and noticed he underfollowed women because his phone contact list (what is often used to bootstrap social graphs) biased male. He took steps to fix it.

Rick’s project reminded me of studies to better quantify representation, namely the Institute on Gender in Media, which analyzes the speaking time that women get in films, tv as well as educating against stereotypes and other imbalances. More casually you have concepts such as the Bechdel test, which asks whether a work contains scenes where two women are talking substantially about something other than a man.

If you don’t communicate with her, you can’t work with her. My inbox and my calendar are the ground truth for where I spend my time and attention. Unfortunately they still gives me very little feedback to understand, or even improve, these allocations. What does this have to do with gender? Well, both Gmail and Google Calendar should be able to provide summary level stats of the amount of time (meetings, email) that I spend with men vs women. What percentage of my meetings don’t include a woman. What are the words I tend to use in communications with women vs me vs mixed gender threads. And a host of other data that could expose me to unconscious bias and help me change my behavior over time.

But where does the gender data come from? As I understand it, Google+ profiles support a wide expression of gender identities. As a Gmail user you already have a Google Account/Profile regardless of whether it’s publicly available or not. Letting people opt-in to contributing their gender data for this research could be an easy call to action. Especially if Google is thoughtful about pronoun usage. Even without user contributed data, I’m fairly certain Google could use names, Gmail text and your Google cookie to make some assumptions about gender. I’m not suggesting that they “prefill” your gender identity in a way that presents to anyone generally -or- that the gender interaction data I suggest tracking above is available in any individually-specific/PII manner – just in aggregate.

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Gender research isn’t an area that I hold any expertise in – probably naive somewhat to be honest – but I’m curious if this type of data collection and presentation would be useful and what some of the design considerations should/could be in order to maximize effectiveness without creating any harm.