VC:VC 12 Angry Men

Our friends Daniel and Claudia treated us to a trip to the Colonial Theater last night, to see "12 Angry Men" starring George Wendt (Norm from Cheers) as the jury forman and Richard Thomas (John-Boy from The Waltons) as juror #8. The production is every bit as riveting for me, someone who knew the story, as the rest of us, who did not. If you are in Boston and able to see this, I recommend it highly.

Written for TV and then adapted for the big screen in the 1950s, "12 Angry Men" is a remarkable story of how personal psyche can color decisions as important as a capital murder case, and as impersonal as someone else's tragedy. The ancient Greek dramas and Shakespeare remind us that this is not a modern phenomenon, and it certainly makes for a good story.

Twelve angry men can sometimes describe the board of a young startup (although hopefully it is fewer than 12). Something has gone awry in the business plan. Executives and directors are at loggerheads as to what to do next. Just at the time when rational thinking is called for, everyone brings their own biases and prejudices: "I never thought the VP Sales was up to this", "the VP Services is blaming the customers again", "the CFO has no clue who are the most profitable customers", "can the CEO really hack it"... and worse, everyone gets to tell you so: "I told you we shouldn't have expanded so fast", "I told you we should have expanded faster" and so on.

In each case we hope the comments are drawn logically from the facts at hand. Sometimes, unfortunately, they are drawn from personal antipathies, replaying previous patterns from previous companies, or defensiveness to cover insecurity and self-doubt. When an entrepreneur is considering Venture Capital investors, making calls to some existing portfolio company CEOs and asking how the VCs behave in such situations is a very wise part of your due diligence. Of course, the VCs are doing the same about the founders.

In my Venture Cycling world, on the board of Hazon or JCDS for example, it is never 12 angry men - not least because there are women on the board. I think there is room for another entire post on the low participation of women in the startup world (on either side of the table). However, although women are just as susceptible as men to bring outside (or inside) reactions to a board issue, there is generally less anger at the table when women are present. Women seem to be a civilising force (no news here), even if only because of men's vanity (no news there either). This sounds like a setup for a Greek tragedy... but, precisely, that is where I started.

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