Larry Ellison has known this for years, as he tries to extend his years ;-), but also in the sense, I mean. I had breakfast with a friend at Kleiner
last week and he was bemoaning wasting 3 months on a deal and having to drop it. He was doing a deal with a foreign company in a region known for tough negotiations--and great falafels. So he had done all his diligence, reworked the plan with the team 5 times, secured his tier 1 co-investor (yes, even Kleiner likes to have a co sometimes), and had signed the term sheet. But there was a slight problem: There was a local angel investor who wanted to renegotiate the deal. He wanted blocking rights, veto rights, and the more they talked, the worse it got. Worse, the CEO clearly couldn’t manage the negotiation, and my friend had been negotiating with the wrong person and quickly decided 3 things:
1. If the CEO couldn’t manage his investor, then he couldn’t run the company.
2. The angel investor added no value to the company, and would jeopardize its success.
3. Life is just too short; he had seen this movie before and knew the ending.
There are very few negotiations you will do in your life that are transactions without some form or ongoing relationship. Even when you buy a car--a negotiation that is very adversarial complete with appeal to authority, missing man scenario, even ignoratio allenchi, and all 7 of the classic gambits--there is still a relationship to worry about post-transaction: Someone has to service your car and deal with your warranty.
Someone who takes a transactional approach to a deal with you is a great example of life’s too short--you should politely bow out and forget the deal, no matter how good it seems. Entrepeneurs have been often been advised to tell the VC that they don’t need or want the money--don’t play this game--you will get "great, then come see me when you do." If it's going to be all about price, go to a bank, a strategic investor, or an angel--the price will inevitably be better, but the value-add will likewise be less. And if it's just a transaction, why would you expect any value after the transaction?
Another classic tell is assignment of blame--in its worst form, the entrepreneur blames you when things go wrong, but generally it's their team or the economy, or the weather. Life is simply too short to work with anyone who won't accept personal responsibility for what they do. This tell usually comes out in the first Q&A session.
First impressions from engineers are difficult because they are almost always geeky--a good friend here in the valley created the first impression with some foreign investors that he would make a lousy CEO. Too much of a techie and a geek--kind of a gangly, dorky guy. Now, he is that, but if you have ever worked with, say, Intel
, you will find that they are all a bit that way, but if you listen to what they are saying, you will quickly realize that they are really exceptional business people as well. The culture of semi people is quite unique--to be good, they have to be quirky, and only the paranoid survive. :-) So, I am not talking about superficial first impression--you have to see deeper than that. As dorky as my friend can be, his integrity is without question and his dedication focus and passion for what he does are compelling. He also built 4 tech companies and turned a zero-revenue tech acquisition into a division on Intel generating 100s of millions in revenue--so his business skills aren’t too shabby, either.
A young guy in Sydney caught my admiration dramtically when he argued passionately on a panel of older, more experienced investors, a very controversial point--but he showed passion and belief, and some serious cojones to take the position he did. (And, by the way, against my point of view as well--yet as a first impression--I’ve gotta find a way to work with this guy!)
It's really hard to practice what you preach in this regard. I am working on a project at present where we are literally founding the company around the entrepreneur--which any good VC should do. In this case, it’s the opposite of the first impression--my first impression was "there is something here; this guy is good, but he needs a lot of help." In working with him I have since seen many red flags, but can't get past my first impression--we’ll see if it works out. :-)