It’s that time of year when many of us reflect on the year behind us and make resolutions for the year ahead.
This has been a very interesting year for me personally. I joined two terrific partners to start something new, we made five seed investments with more on the way, and we’re embarking on a process to build an enduring seed stage firm that we hope will be around for a long time. It’s an invigorating feeling – 2010 has been a year of risk and venturing into uncharted territory. It’s been a joy, and I’ve learned so much.
There has been one theme that I’ve been thinking about all year as I’ve reconnected with old mentors, met new people and faced some unfamiliar situations. That theme is PROFESSIONALISM. As I think about 2011, I’d say that my major resolution for next year is to be more professional in the way I work.
Professionalism is somewhat of a lost art, I think. Especially in the startup world, where it is rewarded to be a bit of a rebel. But I feel like I’ve learned a lot this year from a wide variety of people about professionalism, and I aspire to be more like them in a few ways. These areas are nothing fancy – in fact, they are so stupidly simple that it’s a shame that these behaviours aren’t more common.
1. Be respectful of other people’s time. It’s a simple thought – be on time, respect schedules, be efficient. But it’s easier said than done. Often, investors are notoriously late, cancel meetings multiple times, or have opaque and long drawn due diligence processes. Both investors and entrepreneurs are also guilty to scheduling meetings with little focus or too much idle chit-chat. I’m guilty myself – just last week I stood up an entrepreneur that I was meeting “just for coffee”. A double fail.
But working with my new partner David Beisel has been really inspiring for me. I’ve never met another VC that is so committed to being on time, no matter who he is meeting. As we’ve worked together, I’ve found that when I just make the effort to be punctual, you get into a habit of doing so, and it’s not so hard to maintain (although I’ve slipped back into my perpetual 5-minutes late habit recently). I’m also working on being more efficient with my time and direct with feedback in order to make more time for other entrepreneurs and avoid spinning cycles. I may come off as a little less warm and chummy as a result, but I think in the long-run, it’s good to have a reputation for being focused and direct. (I admire Brad Feld’s direct advice in this post on first meetings).
2. Say what you mean, do what you say. Again, very simple, but harder than it sounds. There is such a stark contrast between the people that make promises that they never deliver on and those that do exactly what they say (or at least acknowledge that they changed their minds). It’s so easy in a conversation with an entrepreneur to offer to make an introduction to person x or y, especially when you want to seem helpful. But then, it’s easy to walk away and say to yourself: you know, I don’t think I actually feel comfortable making that introduction, and never follow through. I also find that it’s easy to get overly excited when meeting with a company and signal very serious interest too soon. Then, I might sleep on it and realise that I’m not that interested after all.
I did this recently with an entrepreneur – I was very excited about the initial product and offered to make three intros to folks that I thought could be helpful and personal investors into the company. But I stepped back, did a little due diligence, and thought more about the potential for conflict with these parties and decided that two were not going to be great intros after all. My own enthusiasm for the business waned as well. The entrepreneur was very gracious about it, but I know if I were in her shoes, I would have been pretty annoyed.
3. Maintain a long-term perspective. I think that most failures in professionalism can be countered by taking a long term view. In the moment, it’s very easy to do something unprofessional because it meets your immediate needs. Anyone who has faced any real pressure in their professional life knows the temptation to compromise one’s principles for short term gain. But there is a longer term toll on this – sometimes it is very obvious, but sometimes, it creeps up on you over time as little behaviours develop into some pretty damaging patterns. Although it’s a total cliche, it really is true that it takes just a second to ruin a reputation that took a lifetime to build.
There is a lot more to professionalism than this, but for me, this is plenty to focus on. Here’s to a greater level of professionalism in 2011!
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