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January 17, 2017

2016 was a transformational year for this VC, but it’s not what you think

I was reminded of one of my late 80’s, in recession, mantras from Winston Churchill this year – “never give up”. In Q2 a number of my investments got blown off course and I needed to contend with bad news after bad news, day after day. Externally everyone in techie land in the UK was going nuts about the Brexit vote, which made them an additional irritating distraction from my daily routine. I went from “chief optimist and get shit done officer” to “why the fuck won’t Boots sell me more than 2 packs of painkillers? If I want to kill myself I’d just stockpile anyway!”

It’s the first time in many many years that all information I read or heard, I processed as negative. Everything started to look tarnished. I was seriously beating myself up. But this combination of things made no sense – buses don’t all turn up at once; fog does clear; and the sun will rise just as night follows day. I’ve not lost ‘it’ whatever it might be. On reflection, I was not getting bad news after bad news, I was getting lots of reality all at once and lots of collective negative sentiment. My perception was off and maybe I needed a bloody nose to step me up.  

The problem with people like me is that we hate losing. We’re incredibly resourceful and we think we can solve any problem. At best we’re fucking irritating but at worst we’re a danger to ourselves and others.

So what did I do?

  • The oldest lesson = manage what you can control. As a VC you actually control very little. I took soundings and clarified my thinking on each company and leader. Then I communicated very clearly what I and Notion thought was needed over a certain timeframe. The companies can choose to follow my direction, edit it or blow me off. It’s important to clarify your thinking nonetheless and communicating this clearly even more so.
  • I focused nearly all of my available time on some critical hiring, prioritising three things:

 1.  Defining what needed to be solved, hired and being forthright on getting momentum behind this. Its takes quarters to hire class talent and then more for them to deliver value (if they do at all).

 2.  Improving the quality of the processes being managed to have a highly competitive set of A-Players for selection. Then holding everyone’s feet to the fire in each process to draw out debate, learnings and up the quality of the execution.

 3.  Setting up the mandate for success of those hired – often forgotten but so goddamn critical for transformation. How the hell does “Mrs solve all our problems” get up and running, gain insight, make decisions, gain and retain buy-in and execute change? What’s the context for success over time?

  • I went on holiday, went offline and as usual switched off everything except text.

So did it make a difference?

On my return from holiday my first board meeting was incredible; so much progress in such limited time. I decided to fly from this board via a different airport and pop into one of my long-term challenges. The new CEO (month 6) was off the charts in execution mode. Half the lead indicators were unchanged but the other half were showing phenomenal signs, it was a big confidence boost. This continued meeting after meeting and company after company into Q4 and the New Year. One had doubled AOV and grown 60% QoQ their targeted number. One had 4x(!) revenue and transformed the momentum and unit economics. The positive news just kept on coming.

So hang on, what’s the lesson here? I did virtually nothing but things went from a fan full of shit to BOOM TIME. It’s pretty simple:

  • It’s early stage venture and things change very rapidly good to bad and vice versa. Occasionally lots at the same time. I have nine boards from pre revenue to > £40m of subscriptions. For each one, every year is a big year and each year the margins between success and failure are highly tuned. So that’s the life, accept your fate and suck it up.
  • It’s all in your own mind. Pain is what happens to you and suffering is what you do to yourself. The placebo (mind shift) was “acceptance” of each shitty situation, creating my own clarity about each company and communicating it very clearly. Not accepting was hell. And worrying doesn’t help. This video encapsulates that ethos beautifully.


(no we’re not related)

  • The product of a VC is the quality of the people they work and invest in. If you spend time and win here then you can win big! Invest in incredible people and help them hire even more incredible people. And enjoy all those holidays.

But let’s be clear – none of my people focus or hiring in that period contributed to any of this good news and transformation in the period. It’s all on the come for 2017. It was the CEOs, founders and their teams grinding out change and results and nothing to do with the hiring in that period. Prior yes, but not in that period. I had shit in my eyes in Q2 and Q3 but my rose(ish) tinted glasses are back with a vengeance.

So what was my transformation?

A C C E P T A N C E. 

Without taking a step back and accepting the reality fully and letting go then I could have been a real jerk and a danger to those around me. Remind you of a board member? Worrying simply doesn’t help.

As an investor I finally learnt acceptance and fuck me does it feel good. I wonder what 2017 will bring…

If you’re a founder and you’re in a year of hell, then read this.

If you’re still struggling with acceptance, then try this.

Posted by Chris Tottman, Partner at Notion Capital.

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Chris Tottman

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