How to stop being a jerk as a VC in 10 simple steps?

Borys Musielak
7 min readDec 5, 2022

Startup fundraising sucks, especially in late 2022. Venture capitalists are taking advantage of the bad economy. Delayed processes, not respecting the founders’ time, backing out of term sheets has become a norm, again. But if you are a venture capitalist on the verge of breaking bad, think again. Your reputation might not survive it!

A founder comes to a VC…

One of my first encounters with a Venture Capitalist was back in 2012.
I was invited to pitch my startup Filmaster in front of a new VC firm operating out of Warsaw. I was super excited! Four middle-aged white guys and a young female were awaiting us sitting around a table in a nice glassy meeting room. The white guys turned out to be fund’s partners and the female was an analyst. Quite a surprise. Not.

“four middle-aged male venture capitalists and a female analyst sitting around the table in a glassy meeting room, comic book style”, source: DALL-E

One of the guys started by saying that he knows absolutely nothing about my company and he doesn’t even remember its name as “there is so much stuff on his head right now”.

Nice start, I thought. But it only got weirder later.

They dismissed my angel investors and seed investors saying “we don’t know those guys”.

They kept asking detailed questions and then getting immediately disinterested, looking at their mobile phones all the time.

When they asked how much I’m raising and on what valuation, they laughed loudly after hearing my answer and offered me $50k for 50% of my company. Actually a pretty decent deal for CEE at that time. No, it’s not.

I was in shock, disbelief which quickly turned into anger.

“middle-aged male venture capitalist sitting at the table in a glassy meeting room looking at his mobile phone, comic book style”, source: DALL-E

But the funniest thing happened just before the meeting was over. They came to me and actually dared to ask to “work more on the model with their analysts and then come back to talk again about a potential deal”. We politely refused the offer. At that time we were already at a late stage of raising capital. We sold the company 3 years later.

Being a (jerk) VC sucks

Being a jerk VC must be hard work, I thought. You talk to many startups, you like them, they seem to want your money, but then you only read on TechCrunch about the deals they made with other investors. You end up with the shitty deals, so you moan about how hard it is to find a good startup to invest in and you wonder how come you always miss the UIpaths and Ustreams of the world.

But I know why it happens.

It’s actually quite simple.

It’s because you’re a fucking jerk.

Don’t want to look like a jerk?

So after selling my startup and switching to the dark side of investing all I thought about was “what do I do so that I don’t turn out a jerk like those guys?”

Late 2022 seems like a perfect time to be a jerk VC. No one expects you to be nice. The market is tough, fundraising is suddenly hard again and entrepreneurs are looking for deals. Any deals.

But I believe this kind of time is also a perfect time to show that you are different as a VC. That despite the bad market conditions you are still a human.

Look I’m not saying I’ve got it, I’m sure there are founders I dismissed too early, others I could not find enough time to appreciate their tech. I was often not responsive enough and maybe even ghosted a few people by accident.

Follow those 10 rules!

That’s why I came up with a list of 10things I should work on as a VC, so that I don’t end up a jerk. And if you are a VC, you should, too.

1. Be honest

VCs often say things like…

“You’re a bit too early for us” (while advertising as a preseed fund)

or

“We’ll be cheering you from the sidelines” (which means “fuck off, I never want to hear from you again”

So a good first step is: to stop saying generic bullshit. Either be honest or don’t speak at all.

2. Be fast

A fast “no” is the second best answer from a VC.

Most good early stage VCs know that they’re not going to invest only a few minutes into the conversation. You may think it works to your advantage to drag the process, wait for more information, delay a decision. But it works exactly opposite — it ruins your reputation as a VC, especially an emerging VC. You can always come back and re-engage, but the founders deserve to know where you currently stand.

Founders hate being in the limbo. So, only ask additional questions if you’re actually considering investing. Otherwise, give a straight “no”, so the founders can move on.

3. Be transparent, aka don’t lie

If you don’t have money to invest now, say it!
If you are already deep in the process with a competing startup, admit it!
If you’re not investing in that geo, industry, stage, make sure the founder understands that before they take that meeting.

Time is the most important resource founders have. Stop wasting founders time!

4. Respect the term sheet

Once you sign a term sheet with the founders, you expect them to stop shopping and focus on making a deal with you, right? Well, the expectation works both ways. A signed term sheet should turn into a deal 99% of cases. The only valid reason for backing out of a signed term sheet is discovering deal bodies in the closet in the startup’s office (aka new undisclosed information that significantly changes the deal).

Once the founders sign a term sheet with you, there usually aren’t a lot of other options given the run way is usually short at that time. So backing out of a term sheet often means killing the startup. Don’t do that.

VC is not PE. A signed term sheet is sacred. Even if you changed your mind.

5. Stop ghosting founders!

Ghosting is when you suddenly stop responding to e-mails, messages or other type of communication even though you were pretty responsive before.

Once you engage with a founder, i.e. respond to their initial email with questions or have a call or a meeting, it’s your responsibility as a VC to get back with an answer in reasonable time (2–3 weeks seems to be acceptable).

The only situation where ghosting is ok is where the founder did not do their job and sent a spammy looking, non-personalized email to a VC. If you’re not putting the effort, don’t expect me to do so. But in all other cases, ghosting is not cool. It’s low effort to send a generic “no” email but it’s least you can do to be fair to the founders

6. Be prepared

One of the most disrespectful things VCs do is coming to meetings completely unprepared, not knowing the startup, not reading their pitch in advance, not having a clue why they are even meeting.

You expect the founders to be prepared, do research about your firm and ask relevant questions, right? So how come it’s suddenly ok for you to come unprepared?

If you however happen to come unprepared, at least apologize to the founders at the beginning of the conversation. You really don’t want to look like an asshole. They’ll remember.

7. Stop disrespecting founders

Yes, everyone knows you’ve got the money, but it’s not your money. You’re a money manager and your job is to allocate the money in best deals possible. The entrepreneur is your client. If you’re condescending, they’re going to leave, regardless how tough the times are.

8. Don’t be a sexist (or ageist)

A (young) female founder is not “a girl”, “honey” or “darling”. Stop with the sexism and ageism. We are in 2022!

Treat female founders exactly the same as you’d treat the males. Treat young founders the same you’d treat the older ones. Don’t make stupid assumptions about their experience, knowledge, tech-savviness. You can do better.

9. Learn how to pitch!

If you thought some founders struggle with pitching you’ve never see a VC pitch.

Remember that jerk VC I met back in 2012? When I asked them to say a few things about themselves as a firm, they replied angrily that “all the details will be on their website soon”. Then reluctantly started bragging about their past achievements while staring at the ceiling.

It’s very hard to differentiate as a VC, so you need to really work on what’s your unique value to the founders.

You’d be surprised how refreshing it can be when you start a meeting with a startup by pitching yourself first. Helps to break the ice and makes you feel like an actual human.

10. Show empathy

There was a cool Polish OLX commercial a while ago that said “Be yourself!…. unless you’re an asshole. Then, be someone else!”

Founders have it 10x harder than the VCs. They are in constant stress. Appreciate their effort and try to be helpful. Really helpful. Even if you don’t believe in what they’re building. Even if you don’t believe in the founder… remember that you might be wrong. And that you’re going to look like an idiot for passing if you are. So do yourself a favor and be a human to those that are smarter, bolder and more innovative than you’ll ever be! Be someone else!

Founders, report bad behavior!

But it’s not just on the VCs to get better. The founders also have a role in helping to eliminate bad actors from the ecosystem.

If you’re a founder and you’ve ever encountered bad behavior from a VC, do yourself and other founders a favor and go to Landscape.vc or Bound and leave a note there. They are like Glassdoor for VC, but better — anonymous, but verified, allowing founders to quickly grasp opinions of other founders on how different VCs act — both positive and negative.

Unfortunately the Central & Eastern European VCs are underrepresented on the website, so I urge you to change that. Speaking out is the only way to help drive change in this market!

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At SMOK Ventures we invest in top pre-seed founders in the CEE region.

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If you like what you read, take a look at our FAQ www.smok.vc/faq and reach out at borys@smok.vc

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Borys Musielak

I invest in early stage startups in CEE via SMOK.vc. Prev CEO Filmaster sold to Samba TV, co-founder ReaktorX, Startup Poland. Filmbuff. NBA lover.