Discover more from Investing 101
You Don’t Want My Value Add
When "Let Me Know How I Can Be Helpful" Fails
This is a weekly newsletter about the art and science of building and investing in tech companies. To receive Investing 101 in your inbox each week, subscribe here:
I'm a big Seinfeld fan. Perhaps one of my favorite scenes has Elaine on a trans-Atlantic flight with her boyfriend Puddy. As they settle into the flight, Elaine pulls out a book and Puddy stares ahead.
Hesitantly, Elaine wonders what Puddy is going to do. "You want something to read?" Without hesitation, "no, I'm good." Another long pause. "Are you going to take a nap?" Before she's even done asking, "no." "You're just gonna sit there?" And just as quickly, "Yeah." Elaine can't help but boil over.
If you're a parent, you may also resonate with that feeling of helplessly offering support, only to be rebuffed.
"Can I help you put your shoes on?"
"NO! I can do it myself."
"...You're putting them on the wrong feet."
"I know! I can do it."
"...Buddy, we're in a hurry, can I help you?"
"I don't need help."
"...Those straps are velcro, you don't have to tie them."
Sometimes the levels to which someone will go to ignore any offers of help can feel like they've been Jedi mind-tricked into refusing to accept it. The same thing can sometimes be true in venture capital. As much as I rail on VCs for often having no idea what they can actually offer, founders can be just as limited in their thinking.
Tales of Usefulness
I've written plenty of times about the VC meme of "let me know how I can be helpful." The mere existence of the meme really grinds my gears. I don't like that, at the end of almost every call with a founder, I have to fight every fiber of my being to bite my tongue. Don't let these fateful words fall out.
"Let me know h... what's top of mind for you so I can be h... sure to keep my ears open..."
The reason I hate the meme is because its based on the premise that the offer is hollow. VCs actually aren't very helpful. And, call me crazy, but I don't want to be useless. I WANT to be helpful.
VC Product SKUs
The first piece I wrote about this was "The Productization of Venture Capital." I wrote about how, increasingly, venture firms are going to be forced to clearly articulate their product. Their value proposition. Why should founders hire your money? When I asked 90+ investors what their offerings were, the vast majority of the responses fit into a few key buckets:
So these are, at the very least, the most common forms of "value add" that most investors offer. Every once in a while you see a new one, like simply buying GPUs and offering them to founders. But by and large what most investors can offer falls into one of these buckets.
50% of VCs Are Worthless
Next, I wrote a piece called "The Tales of Usefulness Have Been Greatly Exaggerated" where I tried to unpack the meme. Why does the joke quickly descend into aggressive vitriol expounding on how all VCs are worthless?
"To each their own. But in my mind, anyone who believes that all $900B+ of venture dollars invested in the last 6+ years was attached to absolutely zero beneficial advice or support is naive. Instead I think of it more akin to a marketing budget. They say 50% of your marketing budget is wasted, you just don't know which 50%. Well more than 50% of VCs are worthless, you (and they) just don't always know which half."
My conclusion was similar to the first piece. VC value add fits into a number of buckets, whether focused on capital, borrowed credibility, thought leadership, or emotional support. Ultimately, my conclusion was that there is a failing on both sides of the equation, the VC and the founder.
On the VC side, its largely an instance of over-promise, under-deliver. The offer is super broad: "let me know how I can be helpful with anything." But the delivery is more difficult because it puts the ball in the founders court. Changing the narrative to "is this helpful?" after offering specific support is much more likely to translate.
But the founders side is more what this piece is meant to unpack even further. You have to make the ask. I often come back to this Tweet that sums up the dynamic that investors often long for:
You have to make the ask. I put it this way when I wrote the piece:
"The value that venture investors can bring is poorly measured, rarely discussed, and completely ad hoc. My sense is that there are a lot of smart people in venture that are like big lovable battering rams; they can knock down walls for you but you have to point them in the right direction."
Calculated Value Adding
Finally, the last piece I wrote about this was simply called "Let Me Know How I Can Be Helpful." The idea was the value add needs to be calculated, deliberate, and active rather than reactive. The best summary quote comes from Naval Ravikant: "Helpful people don't ask 'how can I help?' They just help."
But again, so much of what I've written in the past has focused on pushing VCs to better articulate their product offering. How can you actually be helpful? How can we put the meme to rest by making VCs a genuinely useful part of the venture ecosystem?
But this week I'm reflecting not on the frailties of the VC offering, but on the founder acceptance. What do you say when founders just genuinely won't accept legitimate help that you're attempting to offer them?
Zero Cost Contribution
At the end of the first piece I mentioned above, I made one of my favorite memes I've ever made:
For a lot of investors, the pain of this meme feels all too real. The traditional conversation on Twitter so often revolves around how VCs are useless. But what happens when you're truly, genuinely trying to offer valuable help to a founder, and they couldn't care less about you?
I've posted before about how more founders should put VCs to work:
I think of this as zero cost contributions. Especially when VCs are trying to convince you, as a founder, to let them spend time with you, putting them to work doesn't even cost you part of your equity. Obviously before you take money from a VC, there is a real equation you have to evaluate as to whether or not they're worth it.
But what do you do when you're offering a founder customers, candidates, or press, and they ignore it?
You're Just Gonna Sit There?
I've been investing for nearly 10 years, and in that time I’ve come across several companies that I thought so highly of, even before I ever invested, that I couldn't stop thinking about them.
I would email the founder saying "what I can do to help?" Then I would hate myself for days thinking, "you're the VC meme!"
Then I follow up, "what's top of mind for you? Customers or candidates?" No response.
"I looked at your job postings, and saw you've got several openings for front-end engineers so here are three candidates that would love to chat with you." No response.
"I'd love to help you nail down some customers. What is your ideal customer profile?" No response.
So I cold email their head of sales. "You don't know me, but I want to make your life easier and get you some customers. Who do you care about?" No response.
I take a shot in the dark, and start cold sourcing on Linkedin to find who I think would be a good fit. I find the C-suite exec at a company who is pretty interested in being a customer.
"Hey CEO, I recently chatted with so-and-so, the C-suite exec that would be interested in seeing if becoming a customer of yours makes sense. Can I intro you?" No response.
The Sound of Silence
So what's to be said when founders seem impervious to any help at all? Even zero cost contribution? Some thoughts.
First, I think there are certainly times where the value add and the value need aren't compatible at the moment.
I've had plenty of companies where I say "let me introduce you to candidates," but then the candidate experience isn't great. The interview is delayed. The founder seems distracted. And then the candidate gets ghosted after the fact.
Later, I learned the founder was drowning in customer demand. They had already built a lot of the product they needed to go to market. Now, basically just the two co-founders, were trying to manage $1M+ of customer pipeline alone.
It wasn't that the founder didn't appreciate the candidate intros, but it just was not near the top of their priority list. And even if the candidates are good, unless they solve the "hair on fire" issues the founder is dealing with, they just have to radically prioritize.
Second, I think there are often "not right now" value offerings that founders appreciate but can't take.
A lot of times, investors want to involve founders in events, podcasts, press, market maps, or other media-attention-creating opportunities. The founders might think these are great, and can certainly help build their brand. But they are sprinting to build a product their design partners wanted two weeks ago.
There just isn't the ability to stop and focus on something that takes them away from the core priority that has to be their entire focus. Eventually, those kinds of opportunities will be great. But not right now.
Finally, I do think there are some founders who squander opportunities that eager investors try to present to them.
The one I have the hardest time understanding, or empathizing with, is not responding to customer introductions. Again, there can be mismatch. You're really focused on enterprise customers, and an investor brings you a startup? No thank you.
But if an investor is offering you a good fit as a customer, its surprising to me when founders ignore those offers. There's always a caveat, a prioritization, and things like that. So I'm not saying its a blanket red flag.
But there are instances where, if a founder doesn't accept your help when it feels like the help is a clear fit, it can be very surprising. And in some instances, the investor may think less of the founder if they can’t figure out the reason for the disregard for what feels like a clear win for the company.
Put Me To Work
Every founder is different, and prioritizing different things that different times. There are so many intricacies to running a business that it can make the exercise of mapping a value add to a value need quite difficult
VCs can do more to thoughtfully calculate the true value of their offering. But founders could also do more to transparently communicate the things that are top of mind for them. When VCs demonstrate a thoughtfulness about their business, founders could do more to point them in the right direction as they try to be helpful.
The one caveat here too, is this idea of mutual attraction. VCs have to first demonstrate their vibes, their brand, their quality. Founders respond to that. It reminds me of this meme about sexual harassment.
Your offer to help is only really warranted if the founder finds you, as a firm, attractive. So that's the very first step. Communicate your vibes. But if you've done your best to articulate to the founder why your offering is attractive? Then all you can do is your best to offer well-intentioned calculated help.
It's up to the founder whether they choose to be transparent and receptive to the value add. Otherwise? Maybe it is just a Jedi mind trick that's stopping them from leaning into the value add.
Thanks for reading! Subscribe here to receive Investing 101 in your inbox each week: