March 26, 2005

Why VCs are jerks, according to Paul Graham

Paul Graham, co-founder of ViaWeb (acquired by Yahoo for $50 million), has figured out why (most) VCs are jerks.
The problem with VC funds is that they're funds. Like the managers of mutual funds or hedge funds, VCs get paid a percentage of the money they manage. Usually about 2% a year. So they want the fund to be huge: hundreds of millions of dollars, if possible. But that means each partner ends up being responsible for investing a lot of money. And since one person can only manage so many deals, each deal has to be for multiple millions of dollars.

This turns out to explain nearly all the characteristics of VCs that founders hate.

It explains why VCs take so agonizingly long to make up their minds, and why their due diligence feels like a body cavity search. With so much at stake, they have to be paranoid.

It explains why they steal your ideas. Every founder knows that VCs will tell your secrets to your competitors if they end up investing in them. It's not unheard of for VCs to meet you when they have no intention of funding you, just to pick your brain for a competitor. This prospect makes naive founders clumsily secretive. Experienced founders treat it as a cost of doing business. Either way it sucks. But again, the only reason VCs are so sneaky is the giant deals they do. With so much at stake, they have to be devious.

It explains why VCs tend to interfere in the companies they invest in. They want to be on your board not just so that they can advise you, but so that they can watch you. Often they even install a new CEO. Yes, he may have extensive business experience. But he's also their man: these newly installed CEOs always play something of the role of a political commissar in a Red Army unit. With so much at stake, VCs can't resist micromanaging you...

I realize now that they're not intrinsically jerks. VCs are like car salesmen or petty bureaucrats: the nature of their work turns them into jerks.
Graham also has an "explanation" why a few VCs - like Mike Moritz of Sequoia Capital and John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins - are "good guys" despite being VCs:
They work for the very best VC funds. And my theory explains why they'd tend to be different: just as the very most popular kids don't have to persecute nerds, the very best VCs don't have to act like VCs. They get the pick of all the best deals. So they don't have to be so paranoid and sneaky, and they can choose those rare companies, like Google, that will actually benefit from the giant sums they're compelled to invest.

Arun Natarajan is the Editor of TSJ Media, which tracks venture capital activity in India and Indian-founded companies worldwide. View sample issues of TSJ Media's Venture Intelligence India newsletters and reports.