Tales become legends about founders of exceptionally transformative companies who truly struggled to get any investors’ attention early on. These rejection emails to the founder of Airbnb represent just one of the most recent example of this familiar theme.
If a startup were obvious, then everybody would be doing it. And it wouldn’t be an opportunity.
My partner Lee likes to talk about successful fundraising as “finding the believers, not convincing the skeptics.” When I think to the best performing companies in our NextView portfolio, the investment process was driven by (at least) one of the three of us who became a true believer. It wasn’t obvious. In fact, some of these investments were initially not unanimous in perspective and perhaps controversial decisions internally. That’s not to say that all of our strong portfolio companies were nonconsensus among the three of us – the opposite. But looking back upon reflection, they were almost all nononsensus within the venture community.
Instead, we had a unique insight that drove our conviction. A long-standing relationship with a founder and her ability to execute. A deep understanding in a particular market landscape. A lesson from another portfolio company situation which “rhymed” that could extend to another situation. A stronger appreciation of the primary distribution method’s effectiveness. Or perhaps a simple recognition of the market need that others don’t see. Even the “hot” companies which seem perhaps obvious given traction or a star experienced founder sometimes have pricing that’s driven up to being “crazy”… consensus then becomes that “the VCs overpaid.” Consensus internally, nonconsensus externally. That’s what my partners and I at NextView are striving for.
(Note: we have an explicit internal cultural “ethos” rule that once we decide to make an investment as a team, together we collectively fully own it and work tirelessly 110% for all of our portfolio companies.)
Entrepreneurs (rightfully) lament that VCs follow a herd mentality. It’s true. It’s easier to, and human nature to, unconsciously shape your thinking with heavy influence from your peers. VCs are people and are subject to the same conformity bias that social psychologists identified decades ago. The proverbial “me too” VC-funded companies in any category du jour are a reflection of that fact.
But with the recognition of this natural tendency comes the ability to overcome it. My partner Rob talks about “getting beneath the surface” in “truth seeking” diligence. We deliberately ask ourselves, “What do we recognize or understand about this investment that others do not?”
The truth comes out in looking at our own NextView portfolio. Why would consumers ever want a new calendar app when there’s already one installed on their phone? Exceptional product execution fundamentally changes its utility. Why would moms ever dress their kids in somebody else’s used clothes? Great selection of like-new condition items at lower-prices. Why would developers ever turn over their entire source code to a third-party? Ensuring security and efficiency.
The flip side of seeking nonconsensus is not doing it for its own sake. Nonconsensus is perhaps necessary to invest in a transformative company, but it certainly isn’t sufficient – you also have to be right in your thesis. Mike Maples has talked a lot about this framework; so has Peter Thiel in his Venn diagram that opportunity is the overlap of “seems like a bad idea” and “is a good idea”; and Chris Dixon’s continuing meme about “the next big thing will start out looking like a toy.”
Last week I shared the pitch about our latest (to be announced) investment to another VC. The human in me naturally wanted him to say, “Wow! That’s a unicorn in the making.” Instead, he just forced a grin and noted it was “kind of interesting” while citing the meaningful challenges ahead. It’s certainly a nonconsensus bet… but I believe that I know something he doesn’t. Now we just have to wait half a decade or more and see if I’m right.