Brad Hargreaves | Building Things

Brad Hargreaves on entrepreneurship, community and life

Why VCs Write the Way They Write

with 23 comments

Both Matt Mireles and Mark Davis write about startups. Both write well, and both are must-reads for entrepreneurs. But their blogs are really, really different. Matt is controversial — he’s gone after a number of high-profile targets over the past couple months, including David Rose, just about every venture capitalist and New York itself. Matt’s writings are about working outside of the system, struggling against larger institutional forces in an attempt to hack together a company. Mark’s (or Larry Lenihan, or Phin Barnes or any number of VCs)’s writings are insightful, but they focus on learning the ropes and working within the existing system to achieve success.

For the visual learners among us, I’ve thrown a few startup and VC bloggers I like to read on a chart. I guess this is my form of a blogroll.  Apologies in advance to anyone not included, I love you too but I budgeted 10 minutes to make this damn thing:

Venture Capitalists and Entrepreneurs Who Write in NYC

The placement of the dots is a gross estimate, but you get the point.  While those at the VC-oriented side of the spectrum tend toward more educational, less controversial fare, entrepreneurs tend to be a bit more inflammatory.

Does this mean that VC bloggers are more restricted by the environment of the VC firm and the potential downside of annoying entrepreneurs or (worse) LPs or other partners?  Maybe.  But just as controversial writings could be enabled by freedom, controversy is also a tool for gaining pageviews and notoriety.  Just look at compete.com’s chart of The Metamorphosis, Matt Mireles’ blog.  

Plus, you have to consider supply and demand. There are fewer VCs than entrepreneurs, and content written by VCs simply tends to be in greater demand since they are the ones dishing out the money to young entrepreneurs.  So you could say that VC bloggers are don’t need to write controversial content in order to get noticed. It’s certainly true with guys on here like Fred Wilson and Mark Suster — they write controversial stuff when they want to, but they certainly don’t need to start crafting linkbait.

I’d argue that it’s not only smart, it’s necessary for anyone in the startup world to pay close attention to the entire spectrum. Focus too much on the VC writings and you’ll lose sight of the bigger picture and the way founders really think about things. Focus too much on the entrepreneur crowd and you’re just delusional — and missing out on a lot of good posts.

Written by Brad Hargreaves

May 8th, 2010 at 10:22 am

  • http://twitter.com/alain94040 Alain Raynaud

    First of all, people like Fred Wilson are the exception in the VC world. If you rank them as conservative because they score low on controversy, how would you rate all the other VCs who never would dare write anything at all?

    You would think VCs also care about extra exposure, and since their primary issue is lack of time, communicating more clearly about the kinds of businesses they like and don't like would go a long way to have relevant startups pitch to them. But they don't (except for Fred Wilson and a handful of others).

  • http://bhargreaves.com/ Brad Hargreaves

    Right. And I noted that Fred Wilson is more controversial than the average VC. But he's still less controversial than the average blogger from the more entrepreneurial side of the track like Matt Mireles or Chris Dixon.

    While VCs tend to be very schedule-challenged, they still like to think that they see every deal being done in their area. So they'd rather an entrepreneur come to them with a deal (and receive a quick “no”) than avoid the VC because of a (possibly misunderstood) sense of what the VC “likes”. Or at least that's what I've seen.

  • F Smith

    Not sure I got the point of this post but I guess your conclusion makes sense. A diversity of perspective is good so read what investors, entrepreneurs and anyone else with a useful perspective has to say.

    The thing about reading Fred or Mark is that they're qualified to write as investors as they have money to invest. You wouldn't read a blog of someone calling themselves a “venture capitalist” if they had no money to invest.

    Which brings me to my point about entrepreneur blogs. I like reading Chris Dixon cuz he's done well, e.g. had successful exit(s). And so I think it makes sense to read the blogs or whatever of entrepreneurs who've made it. Charlie O'Donnell's opinions might be interesting and he might be higher on the controversy scale (good for pageviews), but at the end of the day his company, Path101, was a failure (let's call a spade a spade). Matt's stuff is interesting and def thought provoking at times and hella entertaining, but since he hasn't “made it”, it's the blind leading the blind to some degree with both Charlie and Matt. Plus, let's not confuse controversy with insight.

    And since entrepreneurs have limited time in their day to read the ruminations of 'smart' people, I'd suggest if there are other qualified entrepreneur blogs out there, pass those on. (Qualified = successful entrepreneurs).

    Sure there is a lot to learn from failure and all that jazz but I'd rather much read about the screw-ups of successful people who made it cuz at least I know the path they took resulted in a positive outcome.

  • http://bhargreaves.com/ Brad Hargreaves

    Eh, I see what you mean but I think I disagree. The elements that lead to success vs failure in particular startups are so complicated and multivariate that I don't throw up a big distinction between “done it once successfully” and “hasn't had a big success but knows the space well.” I do, however, make special note for people who have found alpha, as the finance geeks would say — repeatedly and reliably been successful, even in “lifestyle” businesses.

    And yes, not all of my posts have points. Sometimes it's just an excuse to put Charlie O'Donnell on a chart. :D

  • F Smith

    Brad – See your point, but I think the only way to know if an entrepreneur knows a particular space well is their ability to translate some vision/idea into some amount of business success.

    Let me give an example — If I wanted to learn Spanish, I wouldn't goto a guy whose failed at learning Spanish so he could tell me all the ways that don't work to learn Spanish. And I wouldn't goto a guy whose never learned Spanish but who has ideas on how to learn Spanish even if he's got a great blog or good at other tangentially related things, e.g. he runs the Spanish meetup or whatever.

    I want to learn from entrepreneurs and not wantrapreneurs.

    If entrepreneurs had unlimited time, I'd be all for reading Charlie's or Matt's hypotheses aka opinions on what works. Given the extreme multitasking required to be an entrepreneur, I think they need to pick and choose the insights that they digest judiciously. And so in the finite time they spend, why not read the insights of entrepreneurs who've won and not those who are speculating about what it takes to win.

    Perhaps I'd suggest making the Y axis Insightfulness (in lieu of controversy). Of course that is a lot more “controversial” for you as you'd have to say who the blowhards out there are whose value-add is questionable. But you'd get a great debate going and entrepreneurs might find some really insightful people to learn from (and also learn who to avoid).

    Enjoying your blog. Thanks for the dialogue.

  • http://caterpillarcowboy.com dlifson

    Hey Brad, not sure I understand the x-axis in your graph. Is Mark Davis “more” investor than Fred Wilson? Is Chris Dixon “less” entrepreneur than Nate Westheimer?

  • http://bhargreaves.com/ Brad Hargreaves

    Think about it this way: Is the entrepreneur/investor dichotomy binary, or
    is it a spectrum? Given the complexity of positioning and experience of
    players in the space, I think it has to be a spectrum.

    Chris Dixon, for instance, has both titles, but he clearly aligns more
    toward the entrepreneur end of the spectrum given that the great majority of
    his experience is on that side of the fence. Fred Wilson is an “investor”
    in the traditional sense, but he has started multiple funds — and starting
    a fund is an entrepreneurial activity in a way. Other VCs haven't had any
    startup experience outside of their work in a VC fund, and they can clearly
    go on the far “investor” side of the spectrum. This is clearly qualitative
    work, but I think there's some hint of truth to it.

  • http://caterpillarcowboy.com dlifson

    Gotcha, makes sense to me. So the x-axis is really “Cold-hearted investment banker / vampire on one side and maniacal serial entrepreneur on the other side”. I'm with you on that one :)

  • http://www.thisisgoingtobebig.com ceonyc

    hmm… I don't really know if this is either a) a representative sample set or b) really that accurate in terms of placement. For example, you put me on the entrepreneur side, but if you look at my career, I have almost 7 years of venture capital experience (I did funds and late stage directs while at GM from '01-'05) and only 3 at startups. That kind of messes with your chart.

    Plus, for every Matt Mireless, you have a lot of entrepreneur blogs that aren't controversial at all:

    Matt Blumberg http://onlyonce.blogs.com/
    Craig Newmark http://www.cnewmark.com/
    Dharmesh Shah http://onstartups.com/

    Most people who actually have something to lose simply don't find a high ROI in creating controversy… the Jason Calacanis's, Mark Cubans, and Mike Arringtons of the world are by far the exception.

    So, when it really comes down to it, what you have is a chart that show's most people not really creating that much controversy… b/c if you take Matt of the chart entirely, it's pretty lopsided. Most people group around accepted norms of professionalism–maybe along a spectrum, but still not too far off the chart.

  • http://www.thisisgoingtobebig.com ceonyc

    “F Smith”… If you wanted to learn how to play basketball, would Michael Jordan be the best teacher? I highly doubt it. The guy has so much natural talent that I'll bet half his game is totally unconscious–that he couldn't even explain to you how or why he does things.

    Proof of that comes from the fact that most coaches aren't necessarily the most successful players. Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa, Tommy Lasorda, Sparky Anderson… all barely made the majors and sucked when they got there. The best pitching coach, Dave Duncan, was a catcher. Even in the VC world, whereas lots of people think that you need to have been an entrepreneur to be a good investor, Mike Moritz and Fred Wilson never did. It's better to evaluate ideas based on their own merits versus where they are coming from. If you want to discount everything I say b/c my startup didn't end up with an exit, that basically means that you'll do the same for just about half of all the entrepreneurs out there. I'm not saying I'm right all the time, but it would be pretty shortsighted to write me off because I'm “0 for 1″. If anything, I'm more of a VC…and my venture track record is much better. If you added up all of the deals and funds I've been associated with, going back to when I co-led purchases of whole portfolios of VC assets while I was at GM from '01 to '05, it's probably a top quartile record, to be fair. Add in the fact that I was the first VC-type to publicly raise a flag on Foursquare (I just didn't happen to be working at a VC at the time), then things look even better.

    I have a long way to go to of course, but just writing me off as 0 for 1… that's not really so accurate.

    Point is, you can learn from anyone. For me personally, I find I learn the most from “failure” because successful people are often successful b/c of luck, timing, etc… but people who fail spend a lot of time analyzing why things didn't work out for them.

    Take Bebo, for example.. it's about to get shutdown by Aol not long after they bought it. It proved not to be a viable business for them and will be widely seen as one of the worst purchases ever… Would you want to learn how to be successful from the Bebo founders or is it more likely that they had the worlds greatest timing and stepped into the worlds best (or worst) acquiror?

  • http://bhargreaves.com/ Brad Hargreaves

    You make some good points — most writers in the community rarely stray from accepted social norms, even if they say things a bit more bluntly than others.

    Perhaps it would be worthwhile to look at specific writers (like Calacanis and Mireles) who do create controversy and figure out (a) why they do it and (b) if it is rational in terms of ROI.

  • F Smith

    Without getting into placement in chart as I'm still not sure what the chart is about, my point is that given the explosion of qualifed and unqualified advice out there, they need to pick and choose wisely where they get their wisdom and the amount of they spend getting it. You can learn from anyone but if you're a real entrepreneur building something, that is where 99% of your time should go. And so when reading, pick those who've won whether it is investors with good track records or who cut checks or entrepreneurs who've “made it”. I do think, all other things being equal, reading someone whose 1 for 1 or even 1 for 2 or 1 for whatever is better than 0 for 1. Of course, there are exceptions. Jason Calacanis is 1 for something but his self-promotion and general douchiness makes him a non-read.

    On your coaches point, I agree but it's simply an overstatement to equate blogging which is one to many with coaching which when done right is one to few or one to one. It's customized.

    Re: Bebo, in most “successes”, luck plays a part and there is some ability to “makes ones luck”. While we'd all love to believe that it's all about aptitude, gumption, vision and smarts, being in the right place at the right time is pretty valuable. So I think the Bebo guys might actually have something to teach even if it is how to recognize a wave and get on it and then how to spin yourself into getting acquired by a company with more money than brains. Plus, M&A in general has a pretty terrible and checkered past. I just think Bebo's disaster played out in the public eye more than the typical M&A debacle.

    I'm breaking my own rules spending way too much time writing these comments. Back to work.

  • http://www.thisisgoingtobebig.com ceonyc

    For Jason, it's worth it for a couple of reasons:

    1) First and foremost, he can back it up. He's already sold two companies.

    2) He runs a media company, so attention is good for his product.

    For Matt, well… I dunno. He might be getting community attention from
    entrepreneurs who feel left out of what they see as an “insider” scene, but
    for successful, experienced entrepreneurs, VCs, lawyers, he doesn't seem to
    be gaining much. I think you need to be careful who you target, how often,
    etc. There are lots of people who have no problem hiring engineers, raising
    capital, etc… to those people, which are the people I'd say are the ones
    most worth building great relationships with, he's not winning very many
    fans. Sure, it may seem “unfair” to some… or you could just say that's
    the free market vetting everyone and ascribing the most resources to the
    people with the best ideas.

  • F Smith

    Agree with Charlie on his viewpoint on Matt. I think Matt's an entertaining blogger but since that's not his biz (SpeakerText is), not sure the upside of creating controversy. (I do think if SpeakerText doesn't work out, he could create a nice blogging biz)

    But while he is an entrepreneur, did he come out on top on his David Rose battle royale recently? Perhaps amongst some segment of entrepreneurs who like to blame their deficiencies on pay-per-pitch models or whatever, but I'd imagine anyone affiliated with NY Angels is not loving Matt. Or many other folks he'd want to know who worry the guy may be a loose cannon.

    Raising money is hard so it's best not to reduce your potential target market by doing harmful things unrelated to your biz.

  • http://bhargreaves.com/ Brad Hargreaves

    Depends on what his goals are. We're talking about him, right? That's good enough for some people.

  • F Smith

    Not sure I got your last statement.

    I'd imagine Matt's goals are to make SpeakerText into a successful company. So is what he does helping to that end?

  • http://venturebanker.tumblr.com/ zackmansfield

    sure, entrepreneurs have limited time b/c they have tons of things to do with their start-ups but let's not kid ourselves, there's plenty of time to read diverse opinions from people who have had successes *and* failures. If the argument is that there simply is not enough time in an entrepreneurs day to read more than a handful of blogs, then I guess you'll have to choose some criteria. But most entrepreneurs I know live and breathe their start-ups and find they can learn from all types. After all, at the end of the day it's not like you get bonus points for reading a bunch of blogs – it's about synthesizing what you've read and applying it to your venture to lead to results. I respect Matt, Charlie and all the others who take time to contribute content for everyone in the ecosystem.

  • http://www.sneakerheadVC.com/ phineasb

    Thanks for including me on the list. Recognize that I have written a lot more about “learning the ropes and working within the existing system to achieve success.” than i have about my own experience on the other side of the table. However, my goal here has been to provide some information that I wish I had as an entrepreneur more than to maintain some sense of status quo.

  • F Smith

    Zack – I assume you are not an entrepreneur as there is never plenty of time as an entrepreneur. Time is probably the most important finite asset (or a second to money) that any entrepreneur has.

    And what Charlie and Matt do is commendable but again, all I'm saying is since an entrepreneur has finite time to get their isht done, I think reading insights from appropriate and relevant winners (not Calacanis) is more valuable.

    If you have unlimited time to read blogs as entrepreneur, more power to you. Just not the best resource allocation.

    Speaking of resource allocation, I'm not doing a good job of that spending time commenting here. Peace.

  • http://www.metamorphblog.com Matt Mireles

    Charlie and I are supposed to have lunch and bury the axe sometime this week or the next, so I'm not eager to quarrel. That said, I do want to clarify, for the record, that my blog has––quite ironically––gotten me WAY MORE “insider” access and helped build my network way more than it has hurt. I am on the map with way more people because i have it than i would have been had i not. I'm not trying to brag, but the idea that my blog is more of a liability than an asset is just simply untrue.

    Also, to be clear, when I write, i try to get at bigger truths than just my own experience. Obviously, my data sets are quite limited, but I am fairly well plugged into the scene here (again, my blog is a BIG help) and try to reflect reality as best I can. And because my blog is such an insane marketing vehicle, I feel like i have access to resources and networks that other people don't, which makes me discount some of my own experience and rely more so on the data I get from my founder friends.

  • http://www.metamorphblog.com Matt Mireles

    Hi F,

    I think you're making a common mistake about brand building and missing an elementary lesson of marketing when you say “it's best not to reduce your potential target market..”

    So untrue. When you're building a brand, you want to be polarizing. It earns you enemies while at the same time it wins you friends. Soo many people have reached out to me since I started blogging and wanted to engage that it's ridiculous. Entrepreneurs, investors, employees. Sure, i piss some people off like Charlie, but that's OK, because it also helps me make friends. And those people know a) where I stand, and b) that I have enough guts to say stuff that pisses people off.

    “When you polarize your audience, you set yourself apart from the crowd and you often gain respect. If somebody does not respect you for who you are, you probably did not need that respect anyway.”

    From http://www.awebguy.com/2010/02/polarize-your-au

    My blog actually started as emails that I would send in reply to people asking questions on the Columbia alumni entrepreneur email listserv. Other entrepreneurs expressed gratitude so much that I decided to edit and port the emails to my blog. And then Venture Hacks started syndicating them and my Hacker News karma exploded, etc etc.

    Have I capitalized on ALL the opportunity and exposure that my blog has afforded me? No. There have been fumbles along the way. C'est la vie. But the blog has put me and thus SpeakerText on the map, and for a guy who started with nothing, that's something.

    Now it's up to us (newly re-constituted, as we had some changes in the team) to leverage that exposure into something bigger and more meaningful business wise. It's a work in progress.

  • F Smith

    I like the fact that you piss of Charlie. Props for that.

  • F Smith

    I like the fact that you piss of Charlie. Props for that.