Almost every venture capitalist I know lists passion as one of the most important traits they look for in entrepreneurs. Most VCs, I am sure, also talk about their own commitment and passion when pitching themselves to limited partners.
My personal lessons in observing people with real passion came from my Army days as a 22 year-old lieutenant in charge of about 40 people.
On one Saturday night approaching midnight, my boss called me at home. He said, “LT (that is what we were called, especially when he was angry about something), come over to the motor-pool right now.” The motor-pool was where we kept all of our equipment such as trucks, tanks, dozers, etc. When I got there, I saw my boss standing nearby a truck with a flashlight. As he saw me approaching, he threw a maintenance book at me, and said, “We are going to go through the standard maintenance inspection of this truck…together.”
When we got done, we found the truck with only half-filled gas tank (it is supposed to be full at all times when inside the motor-pool), malfunctioning fire extinguisher, and without several items that belonged in the truck at all times. After the inspection, I was embarrassed. My boss then smiled, held up a cigarette butt, and said, “LT, I knew one of your trucks was due in around 11PM. So, I just came by and looked inside the truck. And I found several cigarette butts and empty coke cans. I knew then I had to teach you an important lesson on leadership. That is to give a damn.”
He then explained, “If a soldier does not care to clean up the truck when he reports back in, then he probably did not bother refueling. Furthermore, there is a high probability that he is not taking care of the truck every day.” At that moment, he grew very serious, and said, “You have to care. You have to make sure your soldiers care. Otherwise, you and I will be explaining to the soldier’s loved ones why his truck ran out of fuel, did not reach the destination, and got killed by enemy fire.
My second lesson came from a sergeant who was at least a decade older than me. On the first night of our field exercise, he got me up in the middle of the night. He said, “Sir, get up. You don’t have time to be sleeping. Come with me.” He then took me around every guard post, checked to see if anyone had wet boots (and when he/she did, immediately had them change socks and boots and personally applied foot powder), and talked with them about family, girlfriends/boyfriends, and football teams, etc.
After checking with every guard, he then said, “Sir, the guards change every two hours. You should get some shut-eye now. But in thirty minutes, I am going to wake you up. And you are going to do what I did with every set of guards.” My sergeant truly cared about his soldiers. He wanted to make sure I also learned to give a damn.
My Army days feel distant as I go through my days as a venture capitalist. The risks VCs take on are far from matters of life and death, but the lessons I learned in giving a damn gives me proper conviction to stick to what we call a responsible way to build companies.
I wonder ...what would all VCs do if they gave a damn?
If VCs gave a damn, they would be more interested in building special companies than flipping them, just to make money. They would pay attention and not spray and pray their investments, hoping to get lucky.
Also, they would not over-commit by taking on too much money, too many companies and too many board seats. They would capitalize companies responsibly, not according to how much money they had to invest.
Finally, they would take the time to get to know the businesses and people involved. They would focus on developing talent and not rush out to hire mercenaries looking for quick fixes. There are no short cuts. It is critical to make the proper trade-offs between growth, profitability and sustainability.