The Perception Of Conflict Is Conflict
VC is a service business like law firms and ad agencies. Our customers are the entrepreneurs we back. Our shareholders are our limited partners. When we do a good job of helping our customers create value, our shareholders benefit.
But, like law firms and ad agencies, it is hard to provide truly objective and unbiased advice when you have a conflict of interest. In the law and advertising business, clients will demand that their service providers don’t work for their competitors. The same is mostly true of entrepreneurs and VCs. There is no language in the stock purchase agreements we sign with our portfolio companies preventing us from investing in a competitor. But there is an understanding about conflict avoidance and breaching that understanding can have negative reputational consequences.
The problem that arises is that conflct is not the same to everyone. As I said to an entrepreneur yesterday, “conflict is in the eye of the beholder.” This entrepreneur had pitched me on his business via email and I told him it sounded a lot like one of our portfolio companies. He was shocked as he didn’t (and doesn’t) see it. A few months later, he went to see the Gotham Gal about making an angel investment in his company. She pointed out the exact same conflict to him. Again he was surprised. So he emailed me yesterday about the situation and I pointed out that not everyone sees conflict in the same light. But I went on to point out that the perception of conflict is conflict.
When someone feels that something you invest in is encroaching on his or her territory, you have created a perception of conflict with that entrepreneur. Even if he or she is dead wrong about that, it doesn’t really matter because they are now in conflict with you in their own mind and they won’t listen to you the same way again. And that is the most powerful leverage point a VC has when making an investment. If you cannot get an entrepreneur to listen to you objectively and rationally, then you have lost your greatest hope of postively impacting that investment. And that is a tool that VCs should not throw away lightly.
So the meta point I am making in this post is that it isn’t the facts that matter when discussing conflict. It is the perception that matters. If anyone in a relationship with you percieves that you are in a conflicted situation, you are in a conflicted situation whether you agree with them or not. Your only choice is to try to convince them otherwise before you obligate yourself to the conflict situation. Once you’ve obligated yourself, it is too late.
A friend in the VC business told me yesterday that he thinks this is the biggest issue top VCs face. Because they get to see the most interesting investment opportunities, but the opportunity cost of saying yes to an investment is that they take themselves out of the running for everything else in that category going forward. I agree that conflict issues are large and need to be front and center in everyone’s minds when making an investment decision. But I also think that large markets are large and there are ways to slice them up in ways that do avoid conflict. And if you can get an entrepreneur comfortable, you can make multiple investments in a large space. We made five or six social media investments. We’ve made a similar number of crowdfunding investments. I would like to make a large number of bitcoin related investments. If you think carefully upfront about how these markets will likely segment themselves over time, and if you can make that case upfront (not after the fact) to an entrepreneur, I think you can navigate this tricky issue.
But the thing you have to keep in your mind first and foremost is that perception is reality. And managing that is the most important thing of all.