So simple, my mom gets it

Screaming About Mother, after Munch and Whistler

“Can you explain it so my mom would get it?” — I often heard that phrase during VC presentations.  Sometimes addressed to me, sometimes addressed to the poor engineer who is forced to reduce his life’s passion to a few simplistic sentences.  I didn’t like it then and I still don’t like it.

There is nothing wrong with moms.  I have one.  My mother is not a technical whiz by any means, though we have been iChatting on a Mac I bought her several years ago.  We have a good relationship.  But, I am not at all embarrassed by the fact that I have never built a product or a company that I could explain to her.  I’ve done three startups:  relational OLAP, corporate portal, and cloud-based application infrastructure automation.  Not exactly “mom” material.  

Yet, over and over again, I have been asked to reduce the technology and business model of my companies to something so simple that some VC’s “mom” could grok it.  Let me tell you…  umm, no… it doesn’t have to be that way.  I am all for simplifying and streamlining one’s thinking.  I am all for having a clear business model, a technology that makes sense to the appropriate customer who cares about technology, and a simple interface to one’s software.  But, I refuse to build products for my mom or to explain things in terms that she (a musician from St. Petersburg, Russia) can understand.  She has never been my target market and will never buy or care about the products I am building (except as a means of keeping her grown-up son out of trouble).

So, why do VCs do this?  

Good reason: Asking an entrepreneur to simplify his exaplanation of what the product or company does forces him to step back from the morass of technical geekery in which he has spent the last few months or years and take a hard look at what he is doing, why he is doing it, and who really cares about it.  Simple is good.  Short sentences.  Simple value proposition.

*Bad reason: * They have no clue about the technology and are trying to “wing it.”  Being a VC requires a level of polyglot sophistication and encyclopedic knowledge few can muster.  You are confronted by technical experts in their respective fields trying to sell you ideas that they have been incubating for years.  They live and breathe the stuff.  They are up on the latest papers and the latest technologies.  As a VC it is really hard to keep up with everything, considering how diverse typical portfolios and how broadly focused most funds are.  ”We invest in early-stage internet software” — OK, turn on the fire hose.  That’s a borad, multi-faceted space.  ”We invest in consumer software” — yes, but your mom is not necessarily the consumer.

My advice?  

Entrepreneurs: slow down.  Explain what your technology is all about in a methodical, calculated rhythm, the way a good professor did in college.  Pretend you are teaching a class, start with the fundamentals, and let the class tell you what to skip and what to dig into.  

VCs: speed up.  During the technology part of the pitch, don’t let your eyes glaze over because you are ” a business guy” that has a fetish for playing with his Blackberry.  You have to understand the technology behind the product in which you’re investing.  You have to or DON’T INVEST.  You don’t need to be an expert, you don’t need to see the code,  but you have to understand it without reducing it to a bunch of “my mom, wouldn’t get it” platitudes.  If you can’t do that, stop investing in tech and tell your LPs you want to focus on restaurant chains.  Their mom gets those.

Moms:  be proud.  You have raised smart kids that are working on technology that will, hopefully, benefit someone (even if it’s not you).  They are happy working on something you may not understand nor ever need to understand.

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