By Joe Darcy, Principal
One of the first pieces of advice I received when breaking into VC (shout out to Whitnie at First Round) was to listen to Harry Stebbings’ 20 Minute VC podcast. While invaluable for learning the trade, hearing countless stories about how my now-colleagues think about the art and science of VC, little did I know it would prove invaluable in the pandemic world we’re living in.
Like many VC’s, time management is one of the biggest challenges of the role(I know, cue the world’s smallest violin about this sob story). As the Zoom-filled world of 2020 proceeded, I found myself with a lot of screen fatigue but feeling a void, like there was a better way to improve the most important aspect of this job –working with Founders. To solve for this, in 2021I decided to channel my inner Harry and adopt the 20 Minute Meeting for introductory calls as a way to optimize my time.
Now a number of months in, if this were school project I’d score it a solid B+. I consistently get questions of “am I seeing this right that we’re scheduled for 20 minutes?” or puzzled looks at meetings starting on at the 20 and or 40 minutes past the hour. The purpose of this post is to shed some light on my learnings –good, bad, and ugly –and provide the method behind the madness.
- More, more, more! The impetus of this experiment was trying to meet more founders, and for that it’s proven a resounding success. As a firm we went from looking looked at ~800 deals in 2019. In 2020, we looked at ~1500! Personally, the math is also pretty simple –I have 4 hours (10% of my weekly time) dedicated to 20 minute meetings, so 12 slots a week, 52 weeks in the year enables me to meet with over 600 founders. I’d much rather meet with more founders for less time than the other way around, as a way to ensure access to investors and fully live our mission that Great Companies Come from Anywhere.
- People speak louder than decks Now, it’s not just about the quantity of interactions,–but also the quality. More often than not the secret sauce of a startup is the founder themselves, whose energy and passion inevitably is never fully captured in written form. I’d much rather hear that story directly from them than read about it in a deck. Moreover, as a generalist firm, we are constantly exploring new markets, industries, and innovation. The corollary to that is that founders often times are experts in their fields and far more knowledgeable than us. A conversation helps to accelerate our learnings.
- Scratching the surface You can only accomplish just so much in 20 minutes –that’s probably stating the obvious. The magic of startups is that people put their blood, sweat, and tears into their businesses, and there’s a lot to say about your baby. Distilling that down into a short meeting is incredibly challenging, and I’ll admit that sometimes it is missed by me at the expense of optimizing for volume. These conversations do tend to stay fairly surface level, and there are details which can slip through cracks.
- Rinse, repeat My wife (a non-VC) often gives me a hard time that she can do my job for me. In 20 minutes you are forced to be super formulaic in the approach, bordering on monotonous: 2 minutes of pleasantries, 5 minutes of me introducing IFP, 5 minutes of you telling me the origin story of your company, 5 minutes of some basic questions (the 4 M’s –market, management, model, momentum, 3 minutes of next steps.
- I’ll leave this one as fairly self-explanatory: we all know that feeling of an empty water glass, a rumbling belly, or…nature calling…while staring at a calendar of back to back to back Zoom calls with no breaks.
The old saying goes “Necessity is the mother of invention”. The most impressive thing about humankind in the past 18 months in my opinion has been the amount of personal and professional innovation that has occurred. For me, I wanted to take advantage of the extra time gained from not having to travel between meetings to meet more founders and hear more stories. I converted these extra minutes into hopping from Zoom to Zoom, and thus have met even more incredible people from around the world. While I as much as anyone look forward to emerging from COVID,I don’t think there’s any going back from The 20 Minute Meeting.
Now, if only I could find a way to speed up my voice like Harry (through the magic of post-production)to cram more conversation into these 20 minutes…