Steel in Their Eyes—Why VCs should be Startup CEOs


A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.
—Mark Twain

Venture capitalists who are serious about turning their firms into more than one-fund wonders may want to have their associates actually start and run a company for a year. Running a company is distinctly different from simply having operating experience—(working in bus dev, sales or marketing). None of that can compare with being the CEO of a startup facing a rapidly diminishing bank account, your best engineer quitting, working until 10pm and rushing to the airport and catching a redeye for a “Hail Mary” close of a customer, with your board demanding you do it faster.

Today, you can start a web/mobile/cloud startup for $500,000 and have money left over. Every potential early-stage venture capitalist should take a year and do it before he or she makes partner.

Here’s why.

Venture capital as a profession is less than half a century old.

Over time venture firms realized that the partners in the firms needs a variety of skills:

  • People skills (ability to recognize patterns of success in individuals and teams)
  • People skills
  • People skills
  • Market/technology acuity (patterns of success, domain expertise)
  • Rolodex/deal flow (deal sourcing/ability to make connections for the portfolio)
  • Board skills (Startup coaching, mentoring, strategy, operational/growth)
  • Fund raising skills

Some of these skills are learned in school (finance), some are innate aptitudes (people skills), some are learned pattern recognition skills (shadowing experienced partners, hard won success and failures of their own), and some are learned by having operating experience. But none of them are substitutes for having started and run a company.

How to Become a VC
Early-stage venture capital firms grow their partnerships in different ways. Some hire:

  • partners from other firms
  • associates and put them on a long career path
  • venture/operating partners to get them into new industries
  • an executive who had startup “operating experience”
  • rarely a startup founder/CEO.

In surveying my VC friends, I was surprised about the strong and diverse opinions. The feedback varied from:

  • “.. because culture is such an important part of who we are, we will probably never hire a partner from another firm. The idea of bolting on someone from another firm is somewhat antithetical to who we are. We think that our venture partner role is the most likely path to general partner.”
  • “..we have a partner-track associates program. We want to find someone who has a lot of consumer internet product experience as either product manager, founder, VP Product, etc. with 3-7 years of experience.”
  • “…we do not even try to train new partners. We bring people into our firm who have learned how to be VCs at the partner level somewhere else and have demonstrated their talent in boardrooms alongside of us. We completely and totally punt on the idea of ‘training a VC.’ It’s an ugly and painful process and I don’t want to be part of it.”
  • “…if they don’t have operating experience the odds of them knowing what they’re talking about in a board meeting for the first five years is low..”

Carrying the Cat By The Tail
When I finally became a CEO it was after I had spent my career working my way up the ladder in marketing in startups. I did every low-level job there was, at times sleeping under my desk (engineering was doing the same). By the time I was running a company, having some junior employee tell me why they couldn’t do something because of “how hard it was” didn’t get much sympathy from me. I knew how hard it was because I had done it myself. Startups are hard.

What running a company would do is give early-stage VC’s a benchmark for reality, something most newly-minted partners sorely lack. They would learn how a founding CEO turns their money into a company which becomes a learning, execution, and delivery engine. They would learn that a CEO does it through the people—the day-to-day of who is going to do what, how you hold people accountable, how teams communicate, and more importantly, who you hire, how you motivate and get people to accomplish the seemingly impossible. Further, they’d experience first hand how, in a startup, the devil is in the details of execution and deliverables.

My hypotheses is simple: what most VCs lack is not brains or rolodex or people skill, but hands-on experience as startup CEOs—knowing what it’s like trying to make a payroll while finding sufficient customers while you’re building the product. Sure, a year as a CEO won’t make them an expert, but it will change them quicker than 10 years in the boardroom.

Does it Matter?
There’s a school of thought that says the skill set of a great early-stage VC —awesome people skills, curiosity, likable, etc,— versus the attributes of a great entrepreneur—pattern recognition, tenacity, etc.—may not have much overlap. Early stage investing is not a spreadsheet, quantitatively driven exercise, nor is it about technology—it is a deal business and people drive the deals. And while having experience as a startup CEO may make you a better board member, it may not substantively contribute to your career as an early stage investor—which depend on many more important skills.

Steel in their Eyes

Ten years ago starting a company required millions of dollars and first customer ship took years. Now it’s possible to build a company, ship product and get tens of thousands of customers in a year with less than $500K. For venture firms who want to groom/grow associates or operating execs into partners (rather than hiring proven partners), here’s my suggestion:

  1. Have them start as an analyst (search for deal flow and people, due diligence)
  2. Then take a year as a product manager in a startup in the firm’s portfolio
  3. Then come back as an associate for a year—shadowing board and partner meetings
  4. Then take a year and $250-500K to start and run a mobile/Web/cloud company. See what it’s really like on the other side of that boardroom table
  5. Then return as a partner.

This process will create a new generation of venture capital partners, ones who have been battle tested in the trenches of a startup, hardened by hiring and firing, tempered by making a payroll and losing orders. They will never forget it’s all about the people.

These VCs would return to their firms with steel in their eyes. They’d be relentless about accountability from board meeting to board meeting with laser like focus on the one or two issues that matter. They would understand the CEO-VC-board dynamic in a way that few who hadn’t lived it could. They’d be ruthless in their choice of people and teams, looking for those few who have natural curiosity, a passion to win, and who won’t take no for answer.

Lessons Learned

  • Venture capital is still a “craft business”
  • Early stage VCs should have startup CEO experience
  • It can now be gained cheaply and quickly
  • It will give them perspective and edge that would take a decade to learn.

Steve Blank is the co-author of The Startup Owner's Manual and author of the Four Steps to the Epiphany, which details his Customer Development process for minimizing risk and optimizing chances for startup success. A retired serial entrepreneur, Steve teaches at Stanford University Engineering School and at U.C. Berkeley's Haas Business School. He blogs at Follow @sgblank

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  • Steve – This is a fantastic article, thank you for the perspective. I have had similar experiences in my career, and full-heartedly agree with what you’re saying here.

    The reality is that VCs are trailblazing a new professional field, and there are natural learning curves & corrections which occur. It is survival of the fittest, and many firms are struggling to adapt to the changing domestic AND global economies. The “incubator / fund / operating company” model appears to be the one rising to the top in my opinion.

    Having the ability to incubate, fund, and grow companies is where the real satisfaction lies…

  • Chris Noble

    I would say that VCs have been around at least since Queen Isabella of Castile financed Columbus’s new venture with a formal profit-sharing contract, after he shopped it around to all the other sources of risk capital in southern Europe.

    And I know successful startup CEOs who have been unsuccessful as VCs, and vice-versa. Interesting topic though, and some good points.

  • nanostring

    Chris, excellent point; notice that the business plan was to find India. Today, unfortunately, many VCs would not tolerate a changing business plan… #ovpventure, #idiots


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