The Comic Life of a VC
Perhaps you've been hearing about the venture capital (VC) craze that's now full upon Washington, but you just haven't had the "bandwidth" yet to focus on learning the VC lingo. Of course, we've been doing our part to initiate you to elevator speech and the like, but you might also benefit from a few doses of The VC comic strip.
Combining von Goeben's knowledge of the VC community with Siegler's artistic talent, they've created a comic strip that depicts life at the conference table. Their ideas, says von Goeben, come from real-life situations or at least what passes for real-life in that strange realm where high finance and high technology mingle.
Von Goeben: The VC Comic came about completely by accident. Actually, it started as a joke. I had just moved from Los Angeles to San Francsico, having been asked to join a venture capital firm. I was familiar with high-tech startups and had heard that the road to getting funded was pretty surreal. But nothing prepared me for being in the thick of it. The whole ritual fascinated me, from the endless pitches, to the "Yes we'll fund you, no we won't" dance, to the barrage of buzzwords.
Q: Where do you find the ideas for the situations in the strips?
Von Goeben: They come from my everyday experiences as a VC. But they also come from good cocktail party gossip. I gotta tell you, in Silicon Valley, everyone has a VC story. It's universal. The tales are never ending: "I tried to get the guy to call me back, but he wouldn't." "I tried to get the VC to understand my market, but he was fixated on the Java VM." "Our company started to go south, so the VC wanted to merge us with a company that is in a completely different field." I was amazed by the tales.
Q: What is the reaction from your peers in the VC industry?
Von Goeben: When we started, I was terrified about how the comics would be received. This is a very closed network in the valley, a total relationship business. These VCs are the people I put deals together with every day. The last thing I wanted to do was become a pariah in the industry, especially since I was relatively new. That's part of the reason why I started writing under Red Howard (a pen name I'd used in the past). Well, after the first few strips came out, the e-mail started flowing in, and guess what? It was overwhelmingly positive!
Q: How did you settle on the comic's look and feel?
Siegler: When we decided to do a comic strip, Robert had recently started as a VC and was coming home with these bizarre sayings, like "owning a space" and "multitasking." I thought it was so weird. So I decided to concentrate on the dialogue, along with some props, like a business plan or a cup of coffee. The layout is always the same: The entrepreneur comes from the left and the VC comes from the right. I really wanted to capture that across-the-conference-table feel. The art is really in the details for example, the entrepreneur is represented by a Styrofoam cup while the VC has a china cup or when someone says something disturbing and the coffee cup spills. Little things like that show the mood and emotion.
Q: How close to the real thing are these situations?
Von Goeben: Oh, sometimes they're just a little too close. I would say 70 percent of the comics are from meetings I've attended, 10 percent come from stories people have told me, and another 10 percent are based on truth but embellished a bit. A recent comic we did dealt with a VC falling asleep at a meeting (The VC 21.0). That really happened to a friend of mine. And the debates about valuation, capitalization, etc., are legendary in the valley.
Q: Does it require a certain vocabulary to appreciate the humor?
Von Goeben: Well, kind of. But we really try to balance the need for authenticity with a need for people outside the industry to get it. For example, a favorite saying around the valley is to refer to a company that's doing well as "being on the hockey stick." (If you draw a graph going down and quickly going up, it looks like a hockey stick.) The first time I said that to Kathryn, she gave me this little sideways looks that said, "Where did you come up with that one?!" Kathryn has always gotten a kick out of the lingo and thought the vocabulary was a little over the top.
Q: What lessons might entrepreneurs cull from a regular read?
Von Goeben: Two lessons: First, choose your business partners carefully. It's not about money, especially in this strong economy. We have a saying, "Everyone's money is just as green." Look for more than just money. I don't want this to sound like a pitch, but we started Redleaf because we were hands-on managers of technology, and we believed that companies need more than just money from their venture capitalist. They could also use some help.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company