In defence of the new (or what Ratatouille taught me about Venture Capital)

Towards the end of Ratatouille, which happens to be one of my favourite Pixar movies, the antagonist, Anton Ego (such great word play!), walks into Gusteau’s restaurant set on destroying its reputation. He is Paris’ most renowned critic and hence judge, jury, and summary executioner of every kitchen in the city. It’s clear that Ego has eaten countless meals by as many aspiring chefs, who harbour dreams of greatness. Most of these chefs and their dreams have, no doubt, been dismembered by Ego’s words that cut like a knife.

At Gusteau’s, he’s served a simple peasant dish, and at that moment, everything changes. That meal has such honesty, such clarity of thought, such earnestness in its execution, that he forgets the fact that he’s a critic. He’s transported instantly to his childhood, and the memory of his mother cooking the very same meal, floods his mind. He’s no longer the formidable Anton Ego, curator of haute cuisine, and destroyer of careers. He’s just a kid who’s delighted to have tasted a little piece of home.

Ego then returns and pens one of the most insightful monologues I’ve ever heard in film.

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.
But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations.
The new needs friends.
Last night, I experienced something new, an extra-ordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: ‘Anyone can cook.’ But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.”
Peter O’Toole’s brilliant rendition of the review

My job as a VC feels a lot like this very often. When I set out to be an investor, I promised myself that I’d be the most pro-founder VC in the country. After all, I’d been there, tried to do that, and failed. Who could possibly empathize with a founder’s plight more? I made several promises to myself, that I’d reply to every mail, return every call, never pre-judge any business, and give every founder I met a patient hearing.

After all, every single founder has poured their life, savings and every ounce of courage they have into their company. The least I could do was give them my time, and my best, most considered advice.

Then the volume began to build. As I began to establish myself, the number of emails, calls, requests to meet, began to climb. Slowly at first, and then in a rush, and it continues to build to this day.

In the face of mounting demands on my time, I still do my very best to respond to every call, mail, tweet, linkedin message, and request to meet. But every once in a while, I slip. A call goes unreturned, a mail falls through the cracks, a meeting is rescheduled, a founder feels ignored, alone. Every once in a while, when I’m tired, or busy, I snap at a founder, cut them short, pre-judge the business model, or worse, make them feel like they don’t stand a chance.

The sheer volume of work gets to me sometimes. And so I begin to rely on pattern recognition to pass on deals, skip out on the details, and do less than I should. I, sometimes, turn into Anton Ego, and wield my opinion like a judge’s gavel. Even though I know I shouldn’t. Even though I swore I wouldn’t.

To any founder out there, if I’ve ever let you down, just know that I’m truly sorry. And only human.

But every once in a while, I taste some Ratatouille. I see something genuinely new and potentially world-changing. My eyes snap open, everything else falls out of focus, and I remember why I still do this job. I do it to fight for the new.

How it feels when I see a founder present something truly special

It’s why the team at Aspada invests in companies like EM3, Xamcheck, Dunzo, and Reverie. It’s why we fight like hell to explain to anyone who’ll listen: why the sharing economy is crucial to small-hold farming, how personalized education is possible even in low-cost schools, why local languages on the internet is the key to the next 500 million Indians, and how Dunzo is not just another “hyper-local” company. Because we’ve tasted something true, and new.

And because, as Anton Ego said so eloquently, the new needs friends.