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  •   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.

    The VC Comic Strip (c) 1998 Red Howard and Kathryn Siegler. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
    In this Q&A, meet The VC Comic co-authors Robert von Goeben and Kathryn Siegler. As a founding partner of Redleaf Venture Management, von Goeben is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and 15-year veteran of the technology industry. A writer and humorist, von Goeben has contributed to various print and Web publications under the pen name Red Howard – including The VC Comic. Co-author Siegler is a designer and illustrator of children's books, with over 30 titles to her name, including "Tell Me About When I Was A Baby" and "Making Faces." She is president of Siegler Design and Illustration.

    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.

    Q: How did you get this gig?

    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.

    I had just finished writing a book on cigars and was sitting in the living room one day, trying to come up with some ideas for a book on the wacky world of VCs. I started scribbling a cartoon, but I'm not much of an artist, so I didn't draw the people, just the word bubbles and some props (like a business plan). I had already sat through so many pitches, I quickly came up with five cartoons. And I was laughing my ass off. I then asked Kathryn to help me with the art, and her designs really made the stories come alive.

    A few nights later I was sitting at a Giants game with my buddy Andy, who had just gone through the painful process of trying to get his company funded. During the seventh inning, I pulled out the comics and said, "Hey Andy, take a look at these." I nervously chomped on a hot dog and waited for his response. I thought the old boy was going to fall out of his chair, he laughed so hard.

    Seemed we were onto something. So we whipped up a few cartoons and sent them to about five publications, and Upside magazine decided to pick it up. It now runs monthly in Upside and bi-weekly on the Web site.

    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!

    In December 1997 the San Jose Mercury News ran an article on us and the mask was off. But a lot of people still don't know it's me. Last week, I was being pitched by a company, and the subject of The VC comic came around, and I mentioned that I write it. The company got up and started applauding! I was embarrassed as hell.

    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.

    Siegler: No kidding. When Robert started coming home using this language, it sounded so foreign to me that I thought he was making up words. The one that really got me was "bandwidth." I've come to understand it means the amount of throughput in a computer connection, but when I started hearing people use it to refer to the craziness of everyday life, I thought it was really strange. Like Robert would say, "I was going to pick up the laundry, but it was a crazy day and I didn't have the bandwidth." I thought, "Robert, speak English, please!"

    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.

    Second lesson: Lighten up. Life is just way too short. In Silicon Valley, there is constant flux. People are frequently starting companies (and closing them), changing jobs and moving around. Do what's fun and closest to your heart. You will never go wrong. When I was deciding whether or not to do the comic in fear of pissing off the industry, the best advice I got was, "What do you care? The people who would be offended aren't people you'd want to work with, anyway." The other piece of good advice was, "You have to do this. It's who you are. It's what you do." Follow your heart. Always.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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