The Value of Writing for the Firmless Professional

Work has changed, and writing has changed with it

Sara Eshelman
Oct 1, 2020 · 5 min read

Someone told me recently that my superpower could be wordsmithing. I sarcastically asked whether even Marvel could create a situation for this superhero to be called upon. But secretly, I was thrilled. I love wordsmithing. I also love writing.

Clear and concise emails: I love them. Sometimes I re-read the ones I’m particularly proud of even after I’ve pressed send.

Memos, especially long and detailed ones for our investment committee, can be a thing of beauty. They lay out facts, organize our analysis, and create a lasting record of what we believed to be true at the time. I often have to be reminded that a graphic does wonders for what could otherwise pass as a textbook chapter. And when someone tosses around “good memo”… I struggle to suppress a Cheshire Cat grin.

Yet, I’ve never felt comfortable writing publicly. I admit I have some negative associations with it, particularly in the VC world. I’ve also always thought of my ideas as “works in process,” not yet ready for the piercing scrutiny of my twelve or so Twitter followers*.

Recently though, I’ve started to rethink my position: so many people across so many industries are now public writers through Twitter threads, Medium posts, newsletters, and the like. I started to ask myself why. Why do so many smart people, with higher opportunity costs of time than mine, engage in the time-consuming act of writing? There must be more to it than just marketing value.

Here’s what I came up with: The Transaction Cost Theory of Writing.

The economist Ronald Coase proposed that firms exist, in part, to minimize transaction costs associated with identifying potential trading partners, negotiating contracts, and monitoring for compliance.

But today, we live in a world of firmless professionals. Firmless professionals work across firms as much as they work within their own firm. But their success is defined by the interactions that take place outside the firm. The way work is realized relies less on the firm and more on the individual. A firmless professional is anyone who’s building something new and needs to gain buy-in from third parties to grow — whether they’re partners, investors, or advisors. It’s also anyone in sales and marketing whose success depends on external interactions. It’s also the growing number of freelance knowledge workers (and “creators”).

For these people, success is often defined by interactions with people at other companies. And that territory comes with transaction costs. It used to be that firmless professions like venture capital could manage this through tight-knit networks. But in venture capital, at least, our networks (and potential networks) are much bigger than they used to be. Their boundaries are rapidly dissolving; they’re diverse, global, and growing every day. And the transaction cost of exploring all those relationships in real-time is unbearably high.

So, what’s the solution?

It looks like it’s writing. Writing has become the firmless professional’s public portfolio.

Writing is an efficient way of telling a wide audience of potential partners who you are and what you’re looking for.

It helps you find and be found by people who have similar values, priorities and ideas, and establish a framework for working together. Industries like venture capital are rife with transaction costs from searching for founders to back and investors to invest alongside. Tools like LinkedIn and Angellist held promise of added transparency, but remain painfully one-dimensional and are regularly out of date. For an industry obsessed with scale, writing is one of the few strategies that truly enables us to lay the foundation for creating high-quality connections at scale.

A public portfolio of writing is a window into an individual’s thought processes and values.

The medium that was once reserved for fully robust arguments and checked facts today often represents a real-time log of ideas-in-process (much as this one is). It’s become a public journal that shows evolution, revision, and learning over time. Learning in public enables the writer to get real-time feedback (hopefully constructive, but this depends heavily on the platform), and the reader to see the progression.

Writing is also a commitment, in public, to those ideas and values. Setting and enforcing rules for how individuals should engage with one another is an important role of the firm. But for inter-firm engagements, a public commitment defines (and, to an extent, enforces) how they will behave.

A portfolio can also signal potential chemistry.

Every effective business relationship has some kind of personal foundation. We don’t articulate the importance of chemistry between founders and investors and coworkers often enough. It’s essential for establishing trust in what are inevitably very long-term relationships (some with very brief courtships). Interests and experiences shared (initially) through writing can lay the foundation for this bond. They set context for what shaped us as individuals and how we are likely to think and behave in the future. In short, they allow us to skip the small talk and move into real talk from the beginning.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when a founder we’ve been working with brought up a piece I wrote last year about “a week in my life”. Especially now, when meetings are confined to one-hour Zoom blocks, we’re seeking out ways to form a real connection. Writing enables that.

In the spirit of learning in public, this is a log of my current perspective on writing. It’s a significant revision, and a commitment to give it a try. In the coming weeks, I’ll share more of my own “public portfolio” and invite you to do the same. In the meantime, I’d welcome your comments and thoughts! There are obviously lots of other reasons people write — to teach, to organize thoughts, to connect. What else?

* Let me be clear: I find writing publicly absolutely terrifying. I would never have actually published this without the support of a couple of amazing women who’ve been thought partners for me. Bo Ren, Shely Aronov, Shripriya Mahesh, Ellen Fishbein — thank you for your support.

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