Thursday, December 01, 2005

The Secret of Success

Commenters on my previous post have correctly pointed out that a logic puzzle is probably a weak indicator of VC skills. So what is a strong indicator of success? The question reminded me of an encounter in 1990...

The first person I ever met from Bessemer was Neill Brownstein, one of Silicon Valley's pioneer venture capitalists (with investments like Ungermann Bass, Telenet, Maxim, Veritas and BusinessLand). At that interview, he asked me this question:

What do you think is the most common trait among successful venture capitalists?

I thought hard, trying to impress him. "Deep industry domain knowledge."

"No," he said.

"Um, analytical skills?"


Uh oh, I started grasping. "Rich network of contacts? Operating experience? Engineering background? Financial background? Skepticism? Patience? Sense of Urgency? Salesmanship? Decisiveness?" (the last of which I clearly didn't display)


"I give up. What is it?"


I have since followed Neill's advice.

Coincidentally, the second most important factor, I now believe, is a strong, stable platform with great mentors (like Neill and Felda) and smart partners.


  1. Anonymous6:01 AM

    There's a saying that luck is opportunity met with preparedness.

  2. I'd agree with you about luck being very important to a venture capitalist. I'm sure having great mentors is critical as well, but that's true in almost any profession. I'm an engineer by training and would not be where I am today without having had some pretty great mentors as well.

    I think your previous post was about trying to ascertain if a potential candidate has what it takes to be a VC. Luck may be important, but how do you test for luck? If the two you list are the two most important characteristics of a VC, then it seems like to interview you just need to figure out if they're lucky or not, assuming you have a great set of VC's already that are willing to be mentors.

    I don't think your logic puzzle was as off base as some of the commentators seemed to indicate, even discounting the fact that I came up with a solution. The point is to give someone a complex question, something that forces them to go through a problem solving mental pattern in an environment where you can observe their thought processes. Venture capitalists must be problem solvers, but more importantly, abstract and future looking problem solvers. VC's must understand the "big picture" have some good tools for understanding system complexity.

    I personally don't like giving formalized puzzles to potential hires (even though I love puzzles). Formal puzzles make people nervous because they assume there is a trick (there usually is). Formal puzzles also always seem to start "out in left field" something that the candidate probably wasn't mentally prepared for. I've primarily interviewed people for engineering positions but as I've posted before I don't think engineers and business people are that different.

    My methodology is to look over the candidates resume, pick out a few fields they seem to be familiar with, then as the interview progresses I construct an abstract problem in my mind. This problem will be rooted in things they understand but will force them to think "big picture" and conceptually.

    I always start off the "abstract problem" part of my interview by telling the candidate that I am not looking for a specific right answer, I try to put them at ease some. I'll then ask them some, purposefully hard, extremely complex, and rooted in concepts question. I try to make it something that a real engineer might face in the world.

    First, I look to see how they react to the question. If they start to get nervous again, I repeat my line that I'm not looking for a specific answer. I encourage them to think out loud, interjecting occasionally with "monkey wrenches" if appropriate to see if how they react and alter their thinking.

    The keys I am looking for and that I think your logic puzzle can help show as well are:
    - "big picture" and conceptual thinking
    - creativity
    - being methodical
    - clear thinking
    - thinking under pressure
    - breaking down complex problems into more solvable chunks

    These are mostly the same skills in solving a logic puzzle, but I believe they are important to engineers, business people, and I would argue even more important to a good VC that should embody the commonalities between the two fields.

  3. If luck is so important, how do they test for this at the interview stage when bringing in new employees to a VC firm?

    What gets learned from the mentors? psychology?

  4. Anonymous8:34 AM

    Ok, just my 2 cents worth... a key skill needed is psychology, ie, knowing how people will likely react in a given situation. It is applicable in all kinds of profession and life for that matter.

  5. Anonymous8:39 AM


    As one of the people who questioned the logic question initially, I'm pleased to see this follow-up. From my own personal experiences (both as interviewee and interveiwer), I'm much more interested in how a person reacts to the flow of the conversation than their ability to answer a glorified riddle.

    To see your mentor say "luck" illustrates several qualities I hope you carry with you in the latter and more successful stages of your career...1) Don't take yourself too seriously and 2) Recognize that there's often a fine line between success and failure.

    Best of luck and keep up the good blogging,


  6. It's interesting to compare Venture Capitalists to hedge fund managers and value investors. Warren Buffett likes to talk about the importance of integrity in the people he works with. Perhaps M&A is a better model for VC.

    I read that successful value investors regularly do background checks on the manangement of companies they invest in, and rely on services like Round Table Group for additional opinions.

    Seems like trying to get as many opinions as possible on a prospect is an honest way to do the job, at least in my opinion.

  7. Irrational,

    Actually, luck is quite easy to test for, but alas, only retrospectively.

  8. That's pretty scary. If luck is the key, it seems like a sign that there are a lot of very lazy people working in VC. That's not to say that they aren't hard working.

  9. Hi 'the Irrational Investor',

    You should probably pick up & read a copy of "Fooled By Randomness" By Nassim Taleb , you would realize why David says that 'Luck' is the single most important factor. What taleb calls as randomness is same as thing that is being referred to as luck here. Being lucky does not mean that you should not hedge yourself, VC's do it differently.


  10. Anonymous5:57 PM


    That sounds like a good synopsis of Nassim Taleb's book Fooled by Randomness.

  11. Has anyone mentioned the skill of getting along with people? No one thing really is the key to success - that's an oversimplification.