How a year of virtual living made me appreciate people more
When I tell people I’m an introvert, reactions split into two camps. For those who know me well, it’s pretty much, “Yeah, duh.” But for those who have only been exposed to me in public settings, or online, there’s usually more surprise that a venture capitalist like me could be an introvert. People sometimes mistake introversion for shyness or lack of confidence. But it’s really about whether being with people gives you energy or takes energy away. I love people, I just need adequate amounts of time to recharge, usually spent by myself.
If you’re reading this I’ll assume you’re human, which means the past 12 months were probably pretty tumultuous for you. My family has been incredibly fortunate and hopefully, the long-term consequences are going to be minimal. Lately, I’ve found myself mostly trying to figure out what lessons my daughter should learn from this time, and what lessons we specifically don’t want her to carry throughout her life.
This has given me a chance to redefine my own habits as an introvert — especially those related to how, where, and when I spend time with people.
When it comes to my job, after practicing venture capital for seven years under normal circumstances, it was instructive to get thrown into this new scenario, because I don’t think we’ll ever fully “return to normal.” Instead, we’ll blend aspects of pre-2020 and our experiences from the past year into a “new normal.” This has given me a chance to redefine my own habits as an introvert — especially those related to how, where, and when I spend time with people. It’s a work-in-process but here’s what I’m thinking:
In the past, these would always trip me up. I would experience some social anxiety mixed with generally feeling overwhelmed by my own internal scorecarding and thoughts of, “Am I networking enough?” Now on Zoom, I can just fall back to audio-only, or drop off the gathering when I’m ready to leave. (What’s the “turn off video” equivalent for me when being at a large event? Probably peeling away with a person or two for the ol’ walk and talk.) Going forward, I think virtual events will continue to evolve beyond the Zoom room and into formats like Icebreaker. I can’t say that Covid-19 has made me rethink the personal utility of the really big conferences (I don’t attend many), but it does make me miss the curation of smaller groups. The events where hosts put effort into bringing together people with a high degree of purpose and work hard to ensure mixing, those are wonderful. My 2022 will hopefully include a return to events like these.
Working with founders
This is what I really have missed. You might think I’m referring to the time spent with a founder before deciding to make an investment in their startup, and certainly, there are moments where an in-person conversation can be the difference between Deal or No Deal. But I don’t think we’ll ever go back to 100% in-person pitching, especially in the earliest stages of getting to know someone. It’s just too mutually efficient to make a first pitch into a call or video, especially if the founders prefer it.
But what I really do miss are the post-investment moments that are so much better in-person — the types of relationships that get built over meals, over walks, and on a whiteboard. Not the perfunctory showing up in person for a board meeting (although sometimes being there is important), but rather the stuff which requires as much EQ (or emotional intelligence) as IQ. And I’m anticipating doing a lot of this in the places our portfolio companies are scattered: the Bay Area, New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Toronto, Portland, San Diego, Boston, Salt Lake City, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and so on.
For what it’s worth, I sense lots of startup teams are ready to get back into offices as well or at least have the flexibility to work in-person for the periods where collaboration and culture-building are most essential. If I were early in my career, it would absolutely be my preference to work for a company with an in-office culture (either full-time or hybrid). There’s just so much community and learning-by-osmosis (or serendipity) that comes from being together. So while our VC firm Homebrew definitely invests in companies that are 100% remote/distributed, we also espouse being intentional about what it means to do so and not underinvest in the infrastructure, travel, and skill-building it takes to succeed in this model.
Do we still call it this? How about just happiness and sanity? I’ve found that I really enjoy driving my kid to school on Friday mornings. I’ve found that playing backgammon with my wife over lunch is nice when our mutual schedules accommodate. I’ve grown increasingly fond of just talking on the phone with a founder for five minutes when they need some help (versus going back and forth over email). Optimizing as best I can for flexibility has been a delight and a privilege, one I hope to maintain. My weekdays are basically 80% Homebrew, 20% family, with my weekends being the reverse. So far it’s worked out pretty well, except I think my dog is going to be shocked when we’re not in the house with her 24/7.
Homebrew closed its office in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood last March, and we’ve only been in there a handful of times since. Our lease runs until spring 2022, and I have no idea if we’ll renew it or not. It’s a great space that accommodates our five-person team quite comfortably with flex-desk room for another four to six people. My best guess is that we’ll retain the office — or something like it — but hopefully, see the benefits of a city in transition realized in slightly lower rents. Or maybe not. Perhaps San Francisco rents are positively correlated with VC’s internal rate of return!
I do miss being near my business partner Satya. During the social distancing era, we’ve found ways to safely get together but, to be honest, it’s not frequent enough for me to be optimally happy. Years ago, before we started the firm, my wife and I casually looked at buying a house two doors down from his. Maybe if we’d pulled the trigger I could have had a true Homebrew pod! (Although I’m not sure what the rest of our families would say about this?)
There’s still a lot to figure out over the next few months, but here’s to vaccinations! I hope you all get through the next few months healthy, supported, and thriving.