Sabet to VCs: We have a lot of work to do as a community

By Michael Carney , written on July 10, 2014

From The News Desk

For many people in the technology and finance industries, being a venture capitalists is a dream job. The pay is great and, so the logic goes, you get to spend your day with brilliant and ambitious people, most of which are trying to change the world – or at the very least, make themselves and a bunch of their friends very, very rich. It’s also a prestigious industry, with numbers that are not much bigger than many professional sports leagues.

But, despite this external perception, it’s not the easiest job in the world. There is a real emotional toll associated with the role and real ethical questions with which to grasp. Spark Capital partner Bijan Sabet spoke to this fact on the PandoMonthly stage tonight in New York.

Sabet recalls a recent reality check kind of moment. “I was walking down Market St. [in San Francisco] and heard these two guys behind me and one guys said, ‘My friend’s thinking about starting a company and is not sure if he wants to raise angel money or sell his soul to VCs.’”

“I was like, oh fuck,” Sabet says. “I just felt like, I haven’t been a VC my whole life, but it started getting a little numb that I forgot that we still have a lot of work to do as a community and as an industry. It felt like if we’re still at that point – which we obviously are – it really hit me between the eyes. We can do better.”

Sabet describes himself as a reluctant VC at the outset and one who continues to doubt whether he’s actually “good.” Investments into Twitter, Tumblr, and Foursquare suggest he’s at least been able to pick a few (relative) winners. The feeling of stress and doubt as a VC isn’t the same as it is in a startup, Sabet says, where a founder knows he could be out of business in 18 months. But there’s a persistent doubt that “it could turn out I suck at this.” The problem is you really don’t know for 10 or more years.

“We all have demons, don’t we?,” Sabet asks whether pressed on whether he thinks he’ll ever get over that feeling, or if there is a point when most VCs cross that line.

Before we get too far down the road of heaping pity on members of one of the highest-paid industries anywhere – particularly where success rates hover right around those of a weather man – Sabet knows that he’s lucky to be in the position he is. And he seems to genuinely like the work, speaking about founders he’s backed like they’re family or, perhaps more accurately, superstar athletes the he admires and can’t help but root for.

Sabet and Spark Capital have been at the forefront of moving away from some of the founder unfriendly behaviors long considered the norm in the venture community. The firm was the first in the industry to waive the requirement that startups pay a VC’s legal fees after a funding round closes. (This did not make him or his partners popular among their industry peers.) Spark also stopped mandating non-compete clauses for founders and their employees as far back as 2008. It’s a practice that few east coast firms have mirrored, standing in stark contrast to California where non-competes are unenforceable, and thus largely non-existent.

“There have been a few things since I started this business where I’ve been like, how did we get here?,” Sabet says. “I thought maybe there is like two stone tablets somewhere – like maybe in [Sequoia Capital partner Mike] Moritz’s basement – that these things exist and I just didn’t know about them. I mean this legal fee thing is just bizarro.”

Some of the founder-friendly rhetoric coming out of the venture community is little more than marketing, Sabet concedes, but he believes there has definitely been movement for the better in recent years. For example, VCs aren’t demanding as large stakes in the companies they back as they once did and are less insistent on board seats in many cases. Also, the so-called "cult of the founder” has meant that more founders are allowed to continue running their companies, even when things are going poorly or when an operation outgrows the founder’s prior experience.

“In a previous generation, would David Karp have been able to run [Tumblr] from start to finish?” Sabet says. “Maybe yes, because he’s so exceptional, but there would have been so much tendency to say ‘We need to get a world class CEO.’”

Spark was rewarded recently for this type of loyalty when OMGPOP finally developed Draw Something, it’s first hit game after six years and 24 prior relative failures, and was quickly acquired by Zynga for $200 million.

“We believed. Those founders stayed through thick and thin. We had one investor who wanted their money back. It was hard as hell,” Sabet says. “But I kind of feel like if the team is committed I should be committed. If the team had bailed I probably would have had a different perspective... We got really lucky.”

Venture capital is a service business, and a highly competitive one at that. With success driven so disproportionately by a few winners, even when offset by a huge number of losers, VCs are always selling themselves and their firms with an eye toward getting into the most competitive deals. With billions of dollars at stake, as well as, in many ways, the technical progress of our society, there’s a lot of pressure on these investors to succeed.

As Sabet explains, that pressure can often exist at odds with acting as good member of the ecosystem. But Spark has shown that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. It simply requires a mindfulness and a willingness to hold yourself to a higher standard. As an upside, not habitually screwing founders is a good way to assuage any nagging guilt about your industry, and to limit the tendency to be compared to the devil.

[photo by Brandon Bakus for Pando]