Being a founder, not to mention a CEO, can be a very lonely place, carrying loads of stress and requiring constant peak performance. This often makes it hard to balance one's professional and personal life. Maintaining solid relationships with the co-founders and investors is also not an easy task, where clarity and empathy are not always present. As one of my entrepreneurs says: “It’s not the technological challenge we deal with, it’s the mental one.”
“Throughout my +15 years as a professional, I've always been attracted to the intersection of business and psychology through entrepreneurship - What makes people tick? How do people think and act? And what motivates people in business? What drives me is being there for the amazing entrepreneurs, who are under constant pressure, so that they can make our world a better place. That’s what I’m here for, and this is my podcast – The Human Founder.”
Ep #83 - With Daniel Cohen, General Partner at Viola Ventures
Transitioning from one VC to another
Ten years ago, Daniel made a big shift in his career, leaving Gemini after 11 years working there. At that point, he transferred from holding a senior position, knowing everyone in the company, every investment they made in their portfolio, and being immersed in how everything worked, to being the most junior guy in his new company, knowing nothing about the culture and the people he now worked with. “On the one hand - it’s the same job, you just leave one firm and join another, but it’s in very different cultures and organizations, so it takes a minute to leave the previous way you were doing things behind and adapt to a new way.” The second part of what made it hard to make this shift was leaving the 7 companies he had worked with for so long while he was part of Gemini, being so involved, caring about them deeply - it felt for him like leaving his kids on their own.
But although it was challenging and difficult to make, there’s an advantage and an opportunity in transpiring from one organization to another - “There’s a window when you come as the new guy, where in the beginning you still look at things differently, you have a different angle on things, and then it takes about a year where you merge and mold the different views of the organizations to the best of them both. That period is critical because you can really see things and can change things. After that, you lose that window.”
That window of opportunity allowed him to change and add some things at Viola, the new company he was joining because his fresh take on things was valuable - the people who were working in the company for a long time were already used to the way things were operating, their perspectives were too fixated to be able to see how things could be different for the better.
That change is a two-way street, Daniel said, because two years into working at Viola, he was a better investor than he was before.
A change is something difficult to digest - sometimes we don’t want it and have a hard time coping, but there’s also the flip side of things - getting your hopes up too high, clinging to the idea that one change will make everything so much better, even perfect. We’ll be so different, nothing will be the same - just because we changed our location, our job, our environment.
Daniel shared about the low point he had to go through during that period of change; having his fantasy burst like a bubble - “In my mind, I said - when I’ll move, I’ll take only the good parts of me, and leave the bad parts behind, and when I’ll arrive into the building, I will be Daniel 2.0. And right then in the first minute, I sat in the office - guess who appeared right next to me? - All of those bad parts were there too. You want that one change to be a turning point - but change alone is not enough.”
Finding the right founders to invest in
Daniel defined venture capital in one line: “Find great people that go after great markets.”
Every team has strengths and weaknesses, because we’re people, it’s multidimensional and not just black and white, good or bad, and so the way to look at teams needs to be thorough: “Investors specifically tend to overscore the outcome. They say - ‘Oh, that was a great outcome, so it means that's a great team’ - but let’s hold on for a second, maybe it’s not a good team, they just went after a perfect market.”
He stressed the importance of the combination between a great market and a great team - one cannot exist without the other, and in the end, even a great team can’t compensate for a bad market - we need the combination of the two.
When we zoomed into the characteristics of a good founder worthy of Daniel’s investment, he said - “One of the key dimensions to see an entrepreneur unrelated to their schooling, background, or success but rather look at the level of hunger and what’s driving that hunger - if you can see and sense that drive, that needs to prove something, that hole that needs to be filled, that’s a great indication for success.”
That hunger comes from pain a lot of the time, but it doesn’t have to. It can also be derived from a positive source, from passion - the important part is that the spark in the eyes and the need to achieve that goal is so strong and deep that it runs through your veins.
Daniel added that a big part of that hunger is also being curious - “Being excited about where the world is and where it’s heading - it’s in the combination of being curious and being willing to fight for it.”
And from the other side, as investors, Daniel sees emotional support as a big part of their role, being supportive of the founders and their team when something bad happens and being critical when something good happens - making that rollercoaster of highs and lows more balanced and digestible is a way for investors to bring great value to the founders they work with and their startups in his eyes.
The perspective of an investor who’s also a father to daughters
As a husband and father to girls, I asked Daniel if it has an impact on his personal and professional life, to which he answers with a smile, that talking about feelings is a big part of who they are as a family - “It helped me connect to a softer side of me, and I think that connecting to the softer side of you makes you a better listener, and also a better investor.”
We still have so much work to do to ensure women are getting an equal amount of opportunities as founders and investors - we’re getting better these days, but it’s still not enough. When I asked Daniel what can be done to change that, he pinpointed that a lot of that gap of representations of women in this arena stems from the fact that we’re operating in a world that is defined by the way that men behave.
He gave an interesting example of the way we deem behaviours like shouting and banging a hand at the table as acceptable, which is considered more manly behaviour, while another form of expressing emotions like crying is deemed as supposedly unacceptable in this field - “I think we need to understand that the way women present startups and talk about startups is different in some ways than men, and we need to understand this language, judge it differently and really educate investors on how the different startups behave when they’re led by men versus by women. So I think the best thing is to bring more female investors, and through that, we’ll gain and see more female founders being successful.”
In the end, it all comes down to the fact that we just want to be our authentic selves, even at work. Why should we try to be anything else?