start-ups, venture capital

The One Question Every Investor Needs to Ask Themselves

Last week, I shared some thoughts on how Founders can be more effective in pitch meetings. This post takes a different perspective. It explores something investors can do to have richer initial conversations with Founders. If it makes a even a little impact, that’s great. As a class, the venture community is not reputed to be a great meeting participant. Yet, one simple question has the power to change this.


In Adam Grant‘s book, “Give and Take,” the author describes three types of people: takers, matchers and givers. Takers use other people for their own gain. Matchers expect that each favor given will be a favor returned. Givers are motivated to help other people. It’s part of their soul. They have an intrinsic desire to bring out the best in others. Guess which personality type is correlated with the greatest success? Givers. It turns out that that nice people do finish first.

One of the givers that Grant profiles is George Meyer, best known for his work as the Head Writer on The Simpsons. Hollywood writing rooms are intense, competitive places. Writers continuously jostle to have their ideas included in a script and utterly freak out when their scripts are rewritten. While Meyer was not known to mince words Tim Long, a staff writer on the Simpsons, described to what it was like to have him review a script:

“It’s as if you just handed him a baby, and it’s his responsibility to tell you if the baby’s sick. He really cares about great writing – and about you.”

Seems right to me. This same statement should apply to anyone listening to a Founder’s pitch. And yet that’s usually not the feedback Founders have after pitching to investors. Why?

For anyone who invests in early stage companies, it’s always easier to pass on an opportunity rather than to find a reason to work alongside the Founders. These ventures are nothing but risk & uncertainty. And because it is so difficult to build a successful company, statistically this negative bias points to the correct outcome. However, it is the wrong bias for an effective conversation.

There is a way out of this trap. Before the start of meeting, investors should stop and ask themselves a simple, powerful question:

What am I hoping to get out of this conversation?

The answer should be, “I’m hoping to meet great people who want to build something that lasts. And I hope I can help them.” This pre-meeting practice brings with it an attitudinal shift. It counters the negative bias with a giving perspective. Risk and uncertain are forgotten. It focuses the mind on opportunity. It asks, “How can I help them make this opportunity bigger?” not “Why aren’t they pursuing something bigger?” It fosters body language that encourages leaning forward.

Just ten words. That’s all that is required to shift from taking & critiquing  to helping. The best investors aren’t opportunists looking to throw dollars at someone else’s idea. The best investors are people who look to partner with Founders from the moment they meet. “What am I hoping to get out of this conversation?” is all you need to ask yourself to be reminded of how to take proper care of a Founder’s baby.

One thought on “The One Question Every Investor Needs to Ask Themselves

  1. Pingback: Best of what I read – August 12, 2013 | Alex LaPradeAlex LaPrade

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