Sheer madness: With VCs get an intro or get lost

By Jim Burnett , written on September 7, 2013

From The News Desk

If you have sufficient chutzpah, the gift of gab, charm -- and perhaps shit for brains -- you might cold call Kleiner Perkins and say, “Could I speak with John Doerr, please?”

Doesn’t matter how great you are on the phone. Your chances of actually reaching Mr Doerr without an introduction are roughly the same as Miley Cyrus twerking her way to a meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican.

Introductions are the coin of the realm in the hothouse of Silicon Valley. Get one or get lost. As the Freestyle Capital website states, “Get to know someone in our network or community, and ask for an introduction. More difficult? Yup. Worth it? Absolutely.”

If you want to present your potential billion dollar baby to VC firms, playing the Intro Game is essential. And since we’re nearly ready to present ExpertOpinions, I’m learning the ropes.

In some respects, the Intro Game is sort of lame. Why don’t VC firms, sloshing with hundreds of millions in funds, just hire a few supersharp interns, encourage – rather than discourage – startups with or without connections to submit business plans or pitch decks, and find the needles in the haystack? Is an introduction to a startup founder from a lawyer you occasionally play poker with more likely to lead you to a winner?

Still, the Intro Game is something of a necessary evil. As Steve Goldberg, a VC partner at Venrock, explained at a Founder’s Space event I attended in February, his firm receives some 2,800 inquiries from startups every year. Venrock listens to about 400 presentations annually – only four to eight are offered deals.

Given such numbers, the Intro Game winnows the slavering pack of start-ups baying at the doors of VC firms down to a manageable number.

Actually, the Intro Game in VC circles is a bit like the winnowing process used in the book publishing industry. Publishers use literary agents to weed out the handful of potential gems from an avalanche of dross. If an agent doesn’t recommend your book proposal to a publisher, the chance of seeing your masterpiece on the shelves at Barnes & Noble is virtually nil.

And the numbers in the publishing biz are daunting as in the start-up world. For example, my literary agent, Denise Marcil, turns down 99+ percent of the proposals that flood her office in the form of a query letter, a one-page pitch for the book that is the equivalent of an elevator pitch.

Which still begs the question. Does the ability to write an appealing query letter or formulate an intriguing elevator pitch or wrangle an introduction to a VC correlate to the ability to write a good book or create a successful startup company?


Maybe the Intro Game is like democracy. As Winston Churchill put it, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except [for] all those others that have been tried from time to time.”

And in the immortal words of singer-songwriter Steve Forbert, “You cannot win if you do not play.”

So I’ve been tiptoeing through the shallow waters of the Intro Game. Since we have virtually no money, shelling out $500 or $1,000 dollars to listen to startup gurus at conferences is out of the question. Buying a seat at a “VIP Table,” such as the ones offered at the recent Vancouver GROW conference, in the hopes of chatting up gurus or VCs over dinner, is a pipe dream. Even the $100 VIP admission ticket to an otherwise free event, a September 24 fireside chat presented by Startups Unlimited and featuring Cornerstone OnDemand CEO Adam Miller -- which gets you front row seating, a catered reception afterward, and a 12 month subscription to Docstoc Premium – is beyond our reach.

Maybe it’s just as well. To be honest, the idea of buying access to movers and shakers makes me a little queasy. Is this the 2.0 or 3.0 equivalent of greasing palms, the modern version of slipping a politician an envelope stuffed with cash?

Or maybe I’m just envious. If I had the scratch to hobnob with the gurus, I might jump at the chance.

Anyway, by necessity I’m traveling the back roads, and so far I like it. I’ve been to two meetups sponsored by Founder’s Space, one in Redwood City and the other in San Francisco. The admission charge at each was $20. The events featured VCs from three different firms, sharing their knowledge about the business, their firms, and then answering our smart and stupid questions in a small group setting.

I chose these events because at least one of the VCs works at one of the 25 or so Bay Area firms I’m targeting, firms that deal in the consumer Internet/media/publishing sectors.

At the Redwood City event in February, I met Neal Hansch, a partner at Rustic Canyon, a firm with Los Angeles Times roots. Hansch and I both went to school at Duke, so I later emailed him an article I wrote about the Blue Devils at a Final Four in Seattle.

Hansch offered to talk by phone when we complete our proof of concept surveys in September. Will the phone conversation lead to a meeting? A formal presentation? A deal?

I have no idea.

At the event in San Francisco in June, I chatted with Adam Levin, an analyst at Crosslink Capital. Although Levin doesn’t evaluate media proposals, he cheerfully offered to route our material to the partner who does.

Will that lead anywhere? I have no idea.

In addition, I met Steve Hoffman, who co-founded Founder’s Space, at the San Francisco event. He liked the concept behind ExpertOpinions. The day after the event, he peppered me with e-mails about our plans. Then I offered him a small piece of the action to join us as an advisor, and he accepted.

Will Captain Steve introduce us to a bunch of the VCs on our target list? I have no idea.

But win, lose, or draw, these types of events suit me. It’s fun to talk with other start-up founders and easy to feed off their enthusiasm. It’s refreshing to meet VC partners in a more informal setting.

Still, the name of the Intro Game is to get your name in the game. And there are plenty of other ways of getting yourself in front of the VCs you are targeting.

Since there’s an app for everything, including the Intro Game, start-up founders might consider TheBloodHound, a joint creation of the NSA and Google.

A microchip is implanted in the forearm of the VC – the ideal time for insertion is at a TED conference afterparty, when the VC is de-wired by a couple of drinks, distracted by the music, and mesmerized by the go-go girls gyrating in their cages. After the app is inserted, you can track the VC’s every movement and arrange to bump into him at the dry cleaners or the gym or his favorite lunch joint.

Some might consider TheBloodHound a form of stalking. But the company takes more nuanced view, as expressed in its slogan for the app: “It’s Not That Sleazy.”

Anyway, I’m ready to plunge into the Intro Game. Fortunately, I have now the time and gas money to do so.

In fact, things are looking up! Since my last column, ExpertOpinions acquired a third local Nevada City investor, so I’ll be working full-time on the site for at least the next 5 or 6 months. At the moment, I’ve ascended a rickety rung on the economic ladder, climbing from abject poverty to mere poverty. Progress!

Best of all, I don’t have to write any more crappy stories for Demand Media, at least until February.

So I treated myself to a massage and a thrift store shopping spree. That’s not quite as pathetic as it sounds – seemingly brand-new duds from the local charity shops, sporting labels such as Nordstrom, Geoffrey Beene, Footjoy, The Territory Ahead, Tommy Bahama, and Kenneth Cole, reside in my closet.

By February, if all goes well, we could be awash in VC money.

And if not, there’s always TheBloodHound.

This is the third in a PandoDaily series that chronicles the experiences of an entrepreneur in his 60s as he launches a startup. 

Part 1, "Starting a business in your 60s is anything but glamorous."

Part 2, "Building a billion-dollar business or going bust."

[Original image via Shutterstock]