The Face To Face Reference Check

Regular readers of this blog know that I was fortunate to learn the venture business via an old school apprenticeship at the feet of two late 50s/early 60s venture capitalists named Milton and Bliss. I learned a ton from those guys over ten years from 1986 to 1996.

I was reminded of that yesterday morning when I took another VC out for coffee to do a reference on a person we are thinking of hiring to run one of our companies. After we spent fifteen minutes talking about a person that had run one of his companies, the other VC said to me "I'm impressed that you took the time to meet me face to face. This is not an easy reference."

That's exactly the point. Milton taught me to do all the important references face to face. He said "people will lie or hide the truth from you over the phone but they can't do that when you are looking them in the eye."

But it's not just about lies versus the truth. The phone is all about expediency. Both people on the call have a job to do and each of them is looking to get through the call and move on to something else.

A cup of coffee is an opportunity to meet someone, talk about a few other things, make a friend or a business acquaintance. Done right, the face to face reference check is a lot more than a reference check. It's a way to grow your network and your business. And it's also the best way to find out exactly what you need to know about a person you want to hire, invest in, or otherwise go into business with.

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Comments (Archived):

  1. Flo Pötscher

    Very true. One can never underestimate the value of face-to-face conversations. Also the main reason, why consultant fly around the world all the time. It’s just not the same knowing someone, sitting next to him, having the immediate reaction than having a phone conversation or video conference with background noise and distractions (reading email).

    1. JLM

      The NFL draft was conducted over the last weekend with the benefit of a long time period for observation (multiple college football seasons), tons of film, weight room data on strength, coach evaluations and interviews, personal workouts, combine workouts, interviews, intelligence testing and still less than 10% of those drafted will be “players” in the League. Some of these “players” will be third round choices and many of the first round choices will be a bust.There are lots of folks who “interview” well and who have a sterling record — on paper.The ability to interview candidates and to develop a useful sense of what they are capable of doing — in a couple of meetings for which the candidate has ample opportunity to prepare — is still an art form.Years ago I found a letter from the 1880s from a bank President to his loan officers pertaining to their underwriting criteria. He urged them to visit their borrowers homes to determine if their houses were well painted, their fences straight, their horses shod, their wagons greased, their wash hung out neatly to dry, their wives pretty, their children neat and if they attended church and contributed regularly.He closed by saying: “Our borrowers will never take better care of OUR money than they will of their own lives.”

      1. fredwilson

        Milton was also a fan of going to dinner with an entrepreneur and his wife (and milton’s wife) before closing an investmentI don’t do that and more recently many of the entrepreneurs we back aren’t married anyway

  2. markslater

    its more important today than it ever has been. The internet has given us this array of masking tools that can be extremely difficult to navigate through. When making decisions like this, it must be face to face.

    1. fredwilson


  3. Mark MacLeod

    You did the right thing. Hiring a CEO is one of those make or brake decisions. Its worth the investment.

  4. Henry Yates

    Great piece of advice. So easy to take the easy option of making a phone call and then tick the process box. Thinking of it as a value add to your own network makes it easier to follow through on. Thank you.

  5. Jseibel

    I never thought of doing a face to face reference check, but after reading your points it really seems like a no brainer. Like you said, its a great chance to expand your network and actually get a true impression of what others think of your possible new hire.

  6. Steven Kane

    Common sense is a trade secret.

    1. fredwilson

      Not any more I hope

      1. Steven Kane


        1. Fraser

          Sadly I find myself believing this more and more with every passing day.

    2. JLM

      Common sense is very, very uncommon.

  7. MikeDuda

    Great comment/post and reminder that no matter how much business accelerates, the fundamentals are so crucial to execute.

  8. mickwe

    Really important, well-articulated point – I’ve found this to be one of the main challenges in managing and hiring for an international, web-based team.

  9. Frank Bonsal III

    Great post, Fred. I, too, learned a great deal from my apprenticeship, about the importance of people in the venture business. I hope that we can sit down over coffee some time and share stories therearound.

    1. fredwilson

      I’d love to do that

  10. tom_brakke

    This is so important.Throughout the markets, many try to do “due diligence from a distance.” (I wrote a piece with that title about financial advisors not getting enough information to make an informed decision.)You pick up more clues and can ask better follow-up questions in person. The incremental cost and effort may not always be worth it, but for high-value situations, it usually is.

    1. fredwilson

      Yes. ExactlyIt quality over quantity too

  11. Facebook User

    Fred, you’re becoming the “slow VC”’m sure Milton and Bliss would be proud to see you carrying on their legacy

    1. fredwilson

      I appreciate the sentiment but slow and success in the VC business are not very compatibleI think careful might be a better word

      1. Facebook User

        To me, the slow movement stands for slowing down to the speed that balances quality with results. Slow means patient. I understand that it’s not great marketing for a VC. But that fact is probably a perverse result of competition for LP money. From the point of view of creating value, it seems not much has changed since Doriot.

        1. fredwilson

          Yes, you are so right about thatI love the word patientIt’s an important word for the VC businessAnd patient does not mean complacent

      2. Fraser

        Calculated caution 🙂

    2. JLM

      This concept is one of the most significant insights today. The recession is making people prioritize and simplify their lives and it is a good thing.Another element is that with the embrace of technology, one is always working and playing and never working and playing all at the same time. I can be as productive for 4 hours in Steamboat Springs and then go skiing as I can when I am at the HQ. The same thing at the beach or hiking or at the lake or in Huatulco.There is no longer a “work day” as folks can communicate around the clock. I have operations in the CDT and EDT time zones in four States and find that I can effectively manage folks who are 1000 miles apart at any hour of the day. I can work as much as my energy motivates me to do.Life is good and it can be even better with a bit of simplification!

      1. fredwilson

        I really like huatulco. My favorite place in mexico

        1. JLM

          Where do you stay?I am working up my courage to buy a place at Quinta Real, a glorified time share which is very reasonably priced. The service is just exquisite. I could sit next to that pool and sip cervezas for hours. I had my checkbook out the last time I was there and decided to wait — good idea.There are now direct flights from Houston to Huatulco on Continental which can be very, very cheap (less than $300 RT) when booked in advance.I go there and eat nothing but fruit and lobster. I am wondering how cheap things will get there with the economic crisis, the drug wars and the swine flu.You know there are some pretty serious rebels back in the Sierra Madre mountains above Huatulco in the coffee plantation areas. Having always been on the side of the good guys, I think maybe I need some time w/ the rebels to get ready for the next American Revolution!I really want a coffee plantation in the mountains (with my own private army) and a hacienda on the beach. I have been there in the rainy season (which only rains in the afternoons and evenings) and it is just spectacular watching the thunderstorms swirl around against the mountains and then back along the bays. As spectacular as the Tampa Bay storms in the summertime in Florida.

          1. fredwilson

            You are the hunter s thompson of capitalism!

  12. Guest
  13. timraleigh

    I suspect there is as much an art to asking the right questions (experience) as there is the discipline to have the meeting face to face. Great post, as usual! I Would love to hear more about the early days and lessons learned.

    1. dorothy_mcgivney

      Agreed.Fred, is there any way you could be so kind as to share the top few questions you ask when doing this kind of check? Or as it’s ostensibly FTF, is that context visceral enough that you can simply let a conversation unfold from: “What’s it like to work with this person?”And thanks for sharing this tip.

      1. fredwilson

        I don’t go into these with a set of questions or an agenda per se. I like to have a conversation. That said, I did have a few specific areas I want to cover in depth but I use the conversation to do that

        1. dorothy_mcgivney

          Makes sense. Thanks for responding!

        2. JLM

          I do think there is an argument to be made to organize the conversation along lines that ensure that the entire story is exposed completely. I invest a long time to interview — 4 hours is nothing. I usually like to feed them along the way.Through the years of running companies, I have developed a very comprehensive interview checklist that covers everything from family life to passions to learning style to personal clock to integrity to healthy lifestyle to heroes they admire to preferred work environment to best/worst boss to greatest triumphs/failures to financial aspirations to why they married their spouse because I used to be a very “gut” kind of interviewer.When I was in YPO we had Robert Half as a speaker. Read “Half on Hiring” if you can find a copy. He made me a convert as to how to interview, if you have the time. Very, very insightful.My decisions are now infinitely better grounded though I cannot really say that my gut reactions were wrong to start with. I am just more confident when I say yes, but more importantly when I say “NO”! I get the interviewee to do almost all the talking and always end by asking them to tell me something about themselves which would surprise me and what I should really know about them that I do not.Then I let them ask me whatever they want to ensure they know exactly what they are getting into — as much my responsibility to sell the opportunity as to get the right person.My theory as an employer is that I have the responsibility to create an environment in which a person can be productive. Highly productive. Also to ensure he perceives it was tailor made for him.I do draw the line at waterboarding but I am re-thinking that just now!

          1. fredwilson


  14. hypermark

    Well, so much of the reference check process is attitudinal. Are you doing detective work (in which case FTF is all about physical evidence, non verbal cues and the like) or are you looking for affirmation of your pre-disposed conclusion?Specific to VCs, my experience is that more often than not, it’s the latter bucket. I can not tell me how few of these conversations really probe and push, and how many feel like they are the check box variety reference.”How long have you worked with?” Check. “What did they do for/with you?” Check. “Do you think they have the requisite skills?” Check.Bottom line: the FTF angle is a great add to the tool kit, as admittedly, I have not done that in reference checks, but makes total sense. Thanks for sharing.

    1. fredwilson

      If they are working off a checklist, then its likely to be of little to no valueYou are right, it’s all about attitude and angle of attack

  15. daryn

    FTF has clear value, but what are your thoughts of email versus phone?When I email a recommendation/introduction, I’m careful with my choice of words, pick out appropriate things to highlight, and send a second, back-channel, message if I have any additional caveats, so they are good from that perspective. And, of course it is convenient for both parties, and you have a record you can go back and reference later.But when it comes down to real diligence, if you can’t do FTF, I think a phone call is the better way to get off-the-cuff answers and a feel for cues that are easy to miss/hide with the written word. I never find video conferencing convenient, but I suppose that would be a good improvement over the phone, just not as frictionless for most people.

    1. fredwilson

      I agreeFTF is bestThen phoneThen emailThe only email references I really trust are those from really close friends and business colleaguesAs an asuide, today, not related to the work I was doing that prompted this post, I got an email from a colleague in reply to a question about another VC firm. He said “call me”. That’s all I needed to know.

  16. Steffan Antonas

    Studies show that over 70-80% of what we pick up from people in face to face interpersonal communication is non-verbal – the official statistical break down is something like ~%50-60 is body language, posturing and facial expressions (emotions come out on your face in micro-expressions that are difficult to override) and another %20 is tone of voice…all that meta data is what we use to judge intent, trustworthiness etc. It’s our primitive fight-or-flight brains in action. The rest is what people actually say – it’s a very small portion of total communication. It’s smart business to recognize how our brains work and give ourselves the opportunity (w/F-2-F meetings) to pick up all that info during important transactions. Awesome post, Fred.

    1. fredwilson

      Agreed. This is the value of in person meetings

    2. Guest

      you got me confused here. Is that a bug or a feature?Remember, that’s the part of the brain that also says, “these untrustworthy flithy Arabs, I know they are up to no good” or “I am not giving the job the this negro, he’s so different and scary”, or “heck, no, I am not getting a prostate exam from that queer-looking doctor”…The primitive brain is where most of our problems come from…

      1. JLM

        Hehehe, Krassen, I think there are few groups you have not insulted yet. Give it another whirl. LOLThough I do have to admit that I had to tell my doctor with whom I used to discuss trout fishing that it was a bit awkward to just keep chatting during the prostate exam. Ruined a good fishing friendship! But you gotta have some standards, don’t ya?

        1. Guest

          :)) If I remember correctly, you had some aspirations to be the Secretary of Offense on this blog, which got my competitive juices going… LOLthe point, though, (if I may be a bit serious for a moment) was that prejudices and tribalism reside in the primitive brain, so we should not listen too much to it…Best,

          1. JLM

            Yes I did apply to be Obama’s Sec of Offense but he rejected me — I had PAID all of my damn taxes! He said that would never do! LOLYou are absolutely correct.Don’t you think that one of the great adventures of life is to see how wrong our own misconceptions about life truly are? And how much more capable of empathy we are when we can get beyond our own preconceived notions? I continue to be amazed at how childish our own instincts truly are and how when we see them for what they truly are how liberating it can be.

          2. Guest

            Yep, Excellent point!And I am no fit for Obama’s Administration, either… Recently, I got audited for 2005 by the IRS and they found that I overpaid by thousands of dollars :)) Perhaps some “well-intended soul” tipped them off, but it had the opposite effect of putting some cash in my pocket.On second thought, I shouldn’t be taunting our IRS overlords so publicly… Oh, well. :)))

          3. fredwilson

            If you are going to secretary in any administration, its going to be in steve kane’s administration when he’s elected as the leader of the Far Center Party. You’ll be secty of treasury and I’ll be secty of state. Or maybe visa versa. I always liked that Jim Baker was able to do both of those jobs well

          4. JLM

            I wonder if when I am Sec Treas if the President will mind if I take a small piece of the action in a couple of the better gov’t sponsored deals?Just to keep my dealmaking skills sharp “…for the children.”Maybe a small carried interest in one of the nationalized industries, kinda like an equity kicker just to ensure I show up on time for work or maybe I could just get the rounding error on the Nation’s check books.Maybe get a couple of ships from the mothball fleet?Maybe just a tiny baksheesh on the Strategic Reserve?Or a taste of the mordida on NAFTA trucks headed north?I have always thought James A Baker was the quintessential lawyer politician able to do just about anything he set his mind to. Sec Treas, State, Chief of Staff, Pres Campaign Chair, batted .750 on Pres campaigns and just went down to Florida and ate right out of Al Gore’s chili bowl, snatched the Presidency for W and went back to the ranch. Tough, smart, clever and smooth. My favorite modern politician.My favorite of all time? George Catlett Marshall — 5 stars, Architect of Victory in WWII, Sec Def, State, Am Red Cross, Nobel Peace Prize and Marshall Plan. Great strategist, brilliant planner, superb talent spotter, simple, honest, tough. When offered $1MM for his memoirs (real money in that day) he said — hmmm, no thanks.

          5. fredwilson

            When it comes to generals, I am fond of napoleon, george washington, robert e lee, us grant, black jack pershing, and douglas mcarthur

      2. Steffan Antonas

        I think the word “primitive” might be throwing you off. 😉

  17. Jeff Hilimire

    Insightful as always, thanks. Being brought up in the email/IM/text world, its important to remember the benefits of face-to-face meetings.Question: I’ve been having a few “deal” talks with folks lately over video conference as they weren’t able to travel. Thoughts on that as a middle ground? It creates an interesting dynamic and you CAN see the person, but not quite sold on it yet personally.

    1. fredwilson

      I don’t love itI just passed on the opportunity to get a demo via phoneIt feels hollow to me

      1. Stephen Thurston

        Skype is better than a phone call. Being able to see the other person, and the environment in the background allows much more of the contextual stuff to come through. Its great for seeing your grandkids learning to crawl when they live far away, too.

  18. Nancy King

    I love the “call me” reply.Conversations are key for me. Both with candidates and with references. A check list of questions won’t tell you whether the candidate can do what you need them to do.Ultimately, you’re looking to validate that the candidate you’ve talked to, did what they said they did and can do what you want them to do in a manner that will help grow a company.More conversations, and the more varied the situations the better.

    1. JLM

      I made an awful lot of money on the golf course.Four hours, a bit of sun, a splash of whiskey or beer, a spot of triumph & disaster exposes something about a fellow — never met a good man who took more than a single Mulligan, never met a guy who lied about his handicap who told me the truth about a deal, never met a guy who “found his first ball” in the rough who could be trusted.I liked to see how a guy took a risk or played safe because this was instinctive.By the turn, I knew if this was my guy or if this deal was of interest.Of course, I was in business long before the first PC was ever invented.Wow, that was a loooooooooooooong time ago!

      1. RichardF

        Love your golf analogy I’m with you 100% …..well 99% ….”never met a guy who “found his first ball” in the rough who could be trusted”……really… wow….now that is a real shame….I often find my first ball in the rough :)… but then I’ve had years of playing out of it and having to mark it !

        1. JLM

          I probably described that inartfully. Guy hits a ball into the rough and then hits a provisional ball — also into the rough.When he enters the rough to search for his ball, he finds the “first” ball rather than the provisional ball. Hmmmmm?Once upon a time I was playing at Tryall in Jamaica. I had taken all my executives to Jamaica cause I was stepping back from day to day management of the company and was turning things over to them. They went to the beach to plot and plan and I played golf to get out of their way. Laziness primarily on my part but great timing as I got very sick and was out of work for 18 months shortly thereafter. They didn’t miss a beat and the company ran as well w/out me as w/ me.On the 16th hole, I was leading by several strokes (counting my winnings truth to be known) and a couple of holes when my playing partner hit a ball deep into the rough and then his provisional also. We were playing w/ caddies (a wonderful way to play golf and a great way to play a good but unknown course).He found his “first” ball. The caddies (who get a % of the winnings) got into a fist fight over whether it was the first or provisional. We routinely used to “mark” our balls and there was some discussion as to whether the ball found was appropriately marked.We were winding up w/ about $2K on the match and the caddies would get about 20% from the winner. My caddy’s name was Dalton and he could read those damn bermuda greens like a wizard. So it was enough to arouse passions. I ended up winning nonetheless but I have always parked that fact in my brain and I have never done another deal w/ that fellow.BTW, there are snakes in the rough in Jamaica. So hit it straight!

  19. Damian

    So have you paid it forward by being a great mentor to apprentices?

    1. fredwilson

      workin on it

    2. Fraser

      yes 🙂 all of us who have read years worth of great material here at AVC.

  20. julie_poplawski

    I didn’t see anyone else mention how convenient the coffee-date is; not as lengthy as a meal and not as weighted socially as a drink. Not nearly as committed as golf or tennis; you can “coffee-date” comfortably with anyone in less than an hour.Much is written about first impressions because they matter!

    1. fredwilson

      Exactly. Only issue is I get hyper with too much coffee in my system!

  21. Jesse Nahan

    I’ve provided many references through my career — written, phone and face-to-face. I take the giving of a reference seriously. When I’ve been face-to-face with someone who is interviewing me about a former employee, I have found it condusive to presenting a more complete picture of the candidate.But face-to-face references can take up a lot of time. In the mid-80s, a gruff secret service type planted himself in my office and quizzed me relentlessly about a former employee of mine who was seeking a job that required a security clearance. This former employee was a total straight arrow and a solid guy. I did my best to answer the repetitive and off-the-wall questions until I could take it no more. I finally told him, “Trust me. You want this guy working for the government. He believes everything Reagan says and never questions it. Now, please leave.” Hopefully, my former employee got the job….and I didn’t make some CIA list.

    1. fredwilson

      Great story!

  22. david

    Fred, we continue to look at your website for more insight into educational beliefs and philosophies. I thought your geocities post was education, but your hacking education post was beyond education. I don’t know what you would call it. Perhaps, inspiration would be the appropriate word.Regards,David

    1. fredwilson

      If you want to get inspiration you have to give it

  23. slowblogger

    I can’t agree more.It is hard to really appreciate a person as your colleague. I think I begin to understand a person after working together a few months. Based on my experiences (or mistakes more precisely), it is not very different hiring a stranger vs. hiring a classmate. Being a colleague is different from being your friend.Given the importance and difficulty, people seem to hire too easily.

  24. disqus_H9yvoA9WQz

    Excellent idea in this anoanymous Internet world of recruitment, good way to screen top talent

  25. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

    Forgot to comment on this earlier but I think it’s absolutely dead on. It’s true about VC and everything else. In my experience there’s a true difference between face to face and other interactions, and face to face are key if you want to manage people and relationships well.As a side note, I’m bullish about the potential of “virtual” businesses (no office, people work from home or on the go) but if you look closely the successful virtual businesses still put aside time for the people in the organization to meet once in a while, if only informally (there was a great study in The Economist about that, last year I think).

  26. Colette Ballou

    Speaking of F2F, when are you coming back to Paris? Let’s do another speed dating!

    1. fredwilson

      Maybe this summerI’ll let you know

  27. Drew Meyers

    Well said Fred — very good advice. I know the feeling of trying to get through a phone call all too well. I try to stay engaged on phone calls, but with the seemingly unlimited interruptions via twitter, facebook, and blogs — and my inbox constantly blowing up right in front of me — it’s difficult sometimes.

  28. Donna Brewington White

    I have been an executive recruiter for over 15 years and have never heard of (and I confess) nor thought of this approach. Brilliant! This will definitely become part of my arsenal wherever practicable. I do often establish this type of rapport over the phone which elicts amazing candor, but know from experience that face-to-face almost always produces a more transparent exchange. Which is why I fly all over meeting candidates face-to-face!Fred, I must say that part of the enjoyment/benefit of reading your posts is the range and quantity of comments that many of your thoughts seem to evoke — which adds even more enlightenment and thought-provocation. You are a gifted conversation starter!

  29. Riaz Kanani

    I would definitely prefer face to face.. stops the tedium of getting vague non-conclusive answers. Are there any laws governing references in the US? Here in the UK references are becoming harder to get clear answers because of laws which mean a company can be sued for a bad reference. HR depts are stating that you can only give out minimal info on former employees in case the reference comes back to bite them.

    1. fredwilson

      Well the HR dept doesn’t know what is said over a cup of coffee in a loud coffee shop 🙂

      1. Riaz Kanani


  30. fredwilson

    No worriesI got it

  31. fredwilson

    I’ve not seen this happen in my portfolio. It might work with smaller investments and lower valuations