I was reading this article on fundraising the other day and was disappointed, among other things, about the tone it had toward associates at VC firms: “I say “no” to associates. They — along with most VCs — waste founder time.”, “#1. IF YOU SEE AN ASSOCIATE, RUN.”, “Here are the questions I ask when looking for a suitor. a) Are you an associate? Run.” As an entrepreneur and investor I have seen this attitude expressed numerous times by a few founders, and even by investors (e.g. the great Paul Graham at Y Combinator has said “…an associate is not a VC. They have no decision-making power. And while they may introduce startups they like to partners at their firm, the partners discriminate against deals that come to them this way. I don’t know of a single VC investment that began with an associate cold-emailing a startup. If you want to approach a specific firm, get an intro to a partner from someone they respect.”). However, I would like to strongly advise entrepreneurs in our network to not embrace this kind of perspective. I can tell you a few reasons why:
First of all, associates can be your friend and champion within the VC firm. Because partners at top VC firms don’t have a lot of time to dive deep into each deal they are reviewing, many times they rely on associates to break down the opportunity, the SWOT, pros and cons, etc. All things being equal between you and other competing deals, you can bet that the associate will promote your company if he/she has built a good rapport and relationship with you. Associates, too, want to be associated with the best winning startups and their founders, especially those they end up becoming good friends with.
Many associates take the time to comprehensively study the industry that startups are battling in, and can sometimes provide insights that the entrepreneur did not have a chance to gain due to lack of time and resources, especially competitor intelligence and industry trends. When they are your friend, they’ll freely share this data with you and try to be as helpful as they can.
And, this one may be the most important of all, the associates of today are the partners and big shots of tomorrow. Just within my network, I can mention a few great examples (and they abound):
- Sarah Tavel, Partner at Greylock. She’s Greylock’s first female partner, and she was an associate at Bessemer who discovered, among others, the Pinterest opportunity and championed it within the firm.
- Kevin Zhang, Partner at Upfront. He’s Upfront’s first Asian-American Partner, and rose through the ranks in a short time, from Associate to Sr. Associate, Principal and then Partner thanks to his sharp acumen as an early-stage investor.
- Jimmy Rim, CEO of Kakao. Kakao is S. Korea’s top mobile platform, and its messaging app, Kakaotalk, is used by 93% of the whole country. Before heading this Korean tech giant, Jimmy led one of the country’s top seed firms, Kcube Ventures (also affiliated with Kakao), but prior to that, he was an associate at Softbank Korea responsible for sourcing top deals. It was at Softbank, while he was an associate, that he became a close confidante of Brian Kim, the founder and chairman of Kakao.
- and I could go on and on, but I think you get the point.
In summary, I believe that for both founders and investors, maintaining an attitude of humility, respect and listening is critical to our long entrepreneurial journeys and relationships. I know it’s hard (tell me about it), but worth the try.