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What I’ve Learned From 20 Years As A Venture Capitalist

It turns out crystal balls and rockstar status have nothing to do with predicting a startup’s success.

What I’ve Learned From 20 Years As A Venture Capitalist
[Photo: Flickr user Dan Taylor]

In my more than 20 years as a venture capitalist, I’ve had a lot of fun working on truly incredible companies and have thrived on being in the uniquely exciting position to help frame the future of technology and the teams that make that happen.

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From the early days around the dawn of the personal computer to my more recent investments in wearables, the excitements and challenges of being in this business are as invigorating today as they were on day one.

But what others have called prescience actually boils down to a few actionable tenets for creating disruptive companies and achieving capital efficiency. Here are four key things I’ve learned about successful startups:

1. Drive Ownership

Driving ownership means you don’t need a heroic outcome to have made a meaningful investment. By contrast, the spray and pray methodology used by many micro-funds and angel investors is not worthwhile for the investors or beneficial to the startup. Doing so sends a soft-commitment message and limits the definitions of success.

If you’re going to be in the trenches with these people, perhaps even for years down the road, you need to know your investors are committed. Especially when hard times come, you want the confidence that your investors are committed to your success.

2. Success Isn’t Driven By Social Proof

They say, “Success is driven by three things: people, product, and money, and any two will get you the rest.” And I’ve found this to be true.

My partners and I know great ideas and founders when we see them, but it’s rarely who every other firm has their eyes on. We’re not interested in party rounds or who the media reports is a “rockstar” founder. We typically invest in companies with technical CEOs, where an engineer or scientist is the founder driving innovation, not media coverage.

3. Unicorns Happen When They Happen

While some firms obsess over finding the next billion-dollar company, my partners and I believe everything we invest in is going to be a billion-dollar idea. That’s why we invested in it, but we don’t limit success to that definition.

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Instead we lead investments in early-stage companies in the amounts that are appropriate for the respective investments. We give enough so that the company doesn’t starve, but not enough so that a team becomes unconcerned with their burn rate. Then we’re there when the company needs money to scale.

4. Let The Founder Be The Founder

The Hippocratic Oath applies well to the venture capital business. Too often, VCs over-involve themselves in a company’s process, advising companies about things that are outside of their expertise or when it is not needed. So many hours of time have been wasted trying to appease that one thing a VC said rather than building the product the customers want.

There are definite points where a VC is obligated and required to intervene. These should be strategic points of engagement, concerned with course-corrections, not debating preferences.

Rich Levandov is a partner at Avalon Ventures. With over 20 years as an operating executive and 20 years as a venture capitalist, Rich has deep experience in both technology and biotech industries. He cofounded Phoenix Technologies (PTEC) in 1996, a company that helped launch the PC revolution, and subsequently served as an early vice president at America Online, Inc. From there, he started his venture capital career, joining Avalon in 2007. Rich is active in the Boston, New York City, and Seattle venture and entrepreneurial communities and is currently a director or observer of many Avalon portfolio companies including Redbooth, Aero FS, Chartio, and Skycatch and currently sits on the board of directors of Cloudant and Pingup.

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