Thursday, January 11, 2007

State of Antarctica and My New year thoughts

So I am back. And with a lot of new experiences in the bag. Wharton has an awesome Leadership Ventures program, and I have been fortunate to be able to do two till date. Another is due in March which means that when I am done, I would have participated in three ventures, one as a participant, and the two as a Leadership Fellow. A Fellow is like a TA, responsible for delivering the leadership curriculum and the logistics of the whole trip. I genuinely believe in experiential learning through pushing people out of their comfort zone, and camping for a week in Antarctica is pretty much out there. I daresay I learnt more than I faciliated as a Fellow. After climbing Mt. Cotopaxi, I felt I had a life-altering experience. Antarctica was not comparable in terms of stress, but being cooped up in that camp for days, there was so much that I learnt in terms of dealing with people.

What did I learn?
One of my most significant lessons was about patience and humility. I have partaken of the leadership Kool-Aid and so came
into the program with set views on how it should be run. But everyday would throw up situations that I did not expect and challenges that went against my idea of the venture. However, this time around when faced with such situations, I tried something different. I let go. I humbly stepped aside to let others run things their own way. The interesting result was that everytime I did that, the person concerned would come back with a greater understanding of why things were done according to the original vision, and I would gain immensely in credibility.

Sometimes letting go of one's ego is the best way to let others see your point.
As relevant in business as in a venture. The ability to genuinely try and see the other point of view, the knowledge that one cannot be omniscient, and the humility to lead without being directive (atleast all the time), all characterstics of a good leader. You cannot step aside all the time in business, but you can learn to lead without stepping on your team's toes.That is true leadership.

What about Antarctica?
Its warm. Way warmer than you would expect it to be. Global warming is happening. The ice-shelves are melting at a fast clip and it is pretty disconcerting to see those ice-falls and loads of fresh water flowing into the sea. There are practically no humans, so the animals are not afraid of you at all. I had penguins, sea loins and seals walking around my tent all the time. It was surreal to watch the new year tick by while I sipped wine outside my tent which was about 50ft away from the ocean, surrounded by all these animals and Wharton friends (who depending on their mood are hard to differentiate from the animals).
And finally, do not trust American Airlines. They lost ALL my gear and sent it to Dallas instead of Chile. As of now, I am officially one of the few who have gone to Antarctica with a day bag with practically nothing in it. I wore the same clothes for 8 days straight. Always a good thing for the rest of the people in the tent!

So how is Venture Capital doing?
It's going well. I have a few leads. And all my leads are not necessarily Venture Capital ones. I have always been the slow and steady kind of guy. Conservative in commiting, risk-loving in ambitions. In the last few weeks, I have learnt more about what kind of firm to avoid than what kind of firm to work for. Here are some do's and don'ts while evaluating the firms you would like to work for:

* Track - Are you on partner track or not? A two year in and out kind of program might sound like an fun career move, but it can also leave you stranded with no obvious operating role expertise, and no upward mobility in the program. Moving horizontally to another VC firm may entail starting from scratch again especially given the long-term nature of a partner track job. Having said that if you are interested in a two year in-and-out program, ensure that it creates tangible value for you and the firm you are hiring into

* Mentorship - Will you get the requisite mentorship? Some VC firms are prone to using associates as diligence resources. While grunge work is necessary to learn the ropes, it is also important to have a good apprentice-based program, where one can see the big picture context of what one does on a day to day basis

* Cultural Fit - If you do not gel with the people you are working with, no amount of remuneration can make you happy. It is important to see whether you share the same investing ideals and work ethics with the rest of the team

* Lower Tier, Worse Deals - Working in a lower tier VC firm may entail getting access to lower quality deals, which in turn leads to lower quality exits, and exits are the only report card of a VC. In the end, all this may have nothing to do with the quality of your work, and hence working in a lower tier firm could cause immense frustration

* Sector - It is important to be on the same page with respect to the location, sector and stage of investments that the VC firm wants to pursue. It is important to look at these carefully and see if they align with your investment philosophy. If the philosophies clash, expect tons of frustration especially given the low leverage of an Associate/Principal position

* Long Term Decision - Venture Capital (especially on a partner track) is a long duration career decision. It is important to be congnizant of every factor related to the position before commiting. Also, be prepared for no validation of your skills as a VC for the first 5-6 years. This is much longer than the time it takes to prove oneself in most industries

*You are what your Deals are - The deals that you do are your report card and resume. So be ultra-careful about what you associate yourselves with. No amount of intelligence can wash away a low quality investments

In the end, I have always believed that it is important to stay focused on your goals but there is no need to become obsessed with Venture Capital. It is a great career track but only if you are in the right place. And the right places are far and few between. So tread carefully.

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