Some thoughts on VCs hiring journalists/PR/media staffers on their teams

July 18, 2013

Dan Primack wrote an int’g article yesterday on Fortune titled “VCs and entrepreneurial ego“, to discuss his views on why a growing numbers of VCs are getting so active in the media/PR/journalism game, and in fact spending millions of dollars (over the life of a fund) to bring on-board specialists hired to do the same for them.

Below are my ramblings on the topic. Obviously opinions don’t hold true for all investors, all entrepreneurs, or all media as well. There will always be exceptions, quite a few of them actually, in a highly dynamic ecosystem.

VCs sometimes think entrepreneurs know a lot about fundraising and investors, or that they spend a lot of time thinking about investors. I somehow doubt that.

Reality is that entrepreneurs, esp first time entrepreneurs  and those that we consider to be awesome product guys starting companies, are often too busy thinking about their own ideas, the spaces they want to build businesses in, competition, next generation technologies, recruitment/hiring etc; and spend little time thinking about VCs, angels, investment dynamics and the like on a day to day basis. In my humble opinion when time comes for them to raise capital, their thought process likely goes as follows:

Priority 1: I want the most connected investors to invest in my company. After all, I want people who can connect me to customers, partners, buyers at the highest levels

Priority 2: I want the smartest people on my Board. Those who can help me with strategy, and also educate me about trends they are observing because I will likely have have less time for that

Priority 3: I want people who can help attract great talent. How can I hire that SVP out of Ebay or Google or Facebook

Priority 4: I want people whose name being associated with me, and whose networks, can prevent dilution for me in future rounds by getting me higher pre- money valuations (at least in early rounds where cost of capital remains high)

For many entrepreneurs some names are no-brainers, e.g. Mike Moritz, John Doer, Vinod Khosla etc. But that elite list is relatively short because those guys have consistently delivered billion dollar companies over decades (and in recognition some also sit on big public company boards they didn’t even invest in). After that elite list, there is a relatively sharp drop off after that. There are investors I know who may have returned hundreds of millions of dollars to their LPs in the past few years but young student entrepreneurs building the next Facebook have never really heard of them – unless of course they hover around TechCrunch all the time, and even then its doubtful.

So how do VCs get entrepreneurs to believe that we can do all of the above for them? There are a few ways:

  1. Do great deals so you get coronated as a king in the spaces you invest in. Unfortunately a bit of a chicken and egg problem for most new investors, though some get lucky early in their careers.
  2. Be a part of an already super well-known firm so your biz card goes further than you. This might be one reason why some big name firms have revolving doors for great people going in and out as investors.
  3. Be so present in media that you have the equivalent of a high SEO/SEM/Klout score (choose your favorite – you know what I mean). And we know how much harder it is to get attention now than it was in 2000. Just as an example, banner ads may have worked well to advertise your company in circa 2000 but have much less impact now. Occasional appearances in major publications like WSJ/Forbes etc may have worked 5-10 years ago but don’t have as much impact any more given how much noise exists in the media. Sensing above, VCs started occasional blogging in the middle of last decade to share their views a bit more publicly but now even that gets lost in the clutter. So now, in order to create a large enough (and persistent) signal amidst all the media clutter/noise, you have to be more social, subtle, indirect, personable, etc. You have to use Twitter, Tumbler, Facebook, Snapchat, show up in news feeds, get on Hackernews etc. But all that takes a lot of work and while 140 chars on twitter may be easy to write a few times a week, the rest starts to look like a lot of work. Hence, IMHO, VCs are increasingly bringing on-board full-time media folk to create more and higher frequency signal, to get themselves placed at the center of every article written about spaces they invest in, and to have their companies listed as examples whenever a space gets discussed. It is to do work that many VCs are actually not very good at, and probably don’t really find very interesting, but needs to be done to win at their actual day jobs. Result: they outsource it to the best person they can find for the job.

Anyways…at least thats what I think. And I also think there is nothing wrong with it. Its good for the entrepreneurs and for the startup ecosystem to have more thoughtful views out there, to have more transparency, and for investors to be more ‘approachable’. Entrepreneurs will hopefully develop a nose to sniff out the truth from the bullshit that aggressive PR sometimes brings with it.

Reality is that at least for now VCs are as much in the marketing/sales business as any other business. Several ex-VCs tell me what they were most surprised by (and often hated) most about their jobs was that sales-y aspect of it. I actually don’t mind that part of my job. In fact, I like it. Marketing to entrepreneurs, marketing to other VCs & potential investors for our portfolio companies, marketing to corporate partners & buyers of our companies, marketing to LPs, even marketing to our families/friends when we are less present than ideal. If it helps my portfolio companies, I am game. That’s just how it goes, and we all roll with it. And compete.

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