The LeBron Effort

How does one put in the “LeBron Effort” as a VC? There’s “hustle” and then there’s the next level, the “LeBron Effort.”

LeBron’s performance in Game 6 & 7 against the Celtics were incredible. I’ve really never seen anything like it. I’m sure there are many people opining on this and on the irrelevant discussion of “LeBron vs. Michael as the Greatest of All Time.” We’ll never know. The two greats played in different eras and have different accomplishments. I did scrutinize MJ’s every move growing up as a hater, as I was a religious fan of Magic & the Lakers. But I don’t know if I’ve ever been as thoroughly impressed with an athletic performance as I was with LeBron’s Game 7 yesterday.

In his 15th season, playing back to back full 48 minute games in the playoffs, he absolutely carried the team on both ends of the court. His 35 points fighting through double teams, 9 assists despite mediocre shooting from teammates, meeting Rozier at the top to deny a fast break dunk, flying cross-court and into the stands on a near-miss steal that he never actually had a chance on…

What I want to opine on is that it’s his 15th season. He’s 33 years old. Sure, that doesn’t seem too old for a basketball player — Vince Carter is 41 and Manu is 40) — but to carry a below-average team to the NBA finals based on sheer athleticism in his 15th season…holy moly. My body is breaking down at age 36 in old-man rec leagues…!

There was an excellent ESPN article recently on how LeBron does it. It’s effort and investment. Investment of time and money into his prime asset, his body. Which, after Game 7, got me thinking…how do I, as a VC, put in the LeBron effort? I have no expectations or ambitions to be ‘The King,’ but in a job with KPI’s and short term goals as ambiguous as a VC, it’s often unclear how to ‘try harder’ and where to prioritize the time. This actually goes for my previous jobs as a consultant, and also as a product manager (albeit to a lesser extent).

So in an effort to determine what a LeBron effort in VC-land might look like, here are some areas where VC’s spend time:

Sourcing: The task of sourcing new deals, or finding startups to invest in, is highly intertwined with all of the categories below, as a major reason we network + build a brand and thesis, is in the hopes that it’ll create a funnel of deal sourcing introductions and discoveries. For pure sourcing efforts, there are incubator/accelerator events, conferences, angel/seed investor relationships, etc. But what is really the “LeBron Effort” here? Perhaps hitting the road to expand the horizon to the road less traveled by peer VC’s— Salt Lake City, Austin, SE Asia. Perhaps hosting curated small group dinners on a regular basis. Perhaps hitting every event up and down the peninsula. The value of spending a major chunk of my energy here, however, is unclear. Is there value in meeting every start-up out there? Or more value in spending energy to find the right one? I have a strong preference for the latter, but after watching LeBron I might muster that last bit of energy at the end of the day and start going to more events!

Due Diligence: There’s certainly a “LeBron Effort” that’s possible in due diligence, but the ROI on time spent in VC diligence diminishes much more quickly than later stage investing or PE buy-outs. Sure, you can create financial models, research the technology, do deep dives on competitors and incumbents, etc. But in early stage start-ups, there are so many variables that can create step-change effects in outcomes that a deep financial model or close scrutiny of the competitive landscape will only take you so far.

Post-Investment Support: Another important part of the job with an unlimited opportunity to work harder, but one that requires careful navigating as not all CEO’s necessarily want you to ‘work hard’ for them. There are two buckets of startup CEO’s: 1) The CEO that appreciates pro-active support from investors, whether through strategy and brainstorming sessions, inbound partnership introductions, etc. and 2) The CEO that prefers investors stay out of the way outside of board meetings, unless specific needs come up such as raising additional capital, executive hiring, etc. For the first bucket, an investor can certainly make the LeBronian effort — being 100% present at regular strategy/brainstorming sessions followed by timely execution on action items. Additionally, proactive efforts such as scouring your network for executive talent and taking the first meetings yourself, making introductions for potential sales or partnership opportunities and then flying with the CEO to attend the meeting in person, or diving deep into the financial model or pitch deck as the company prepares for the next round of financing. This is what I love doing but I know there’s more I can do as an investor — there’s more that the LeBron of VC’s would do!

Networking: Sourcing deals is the most obvious objective for VC networking, but as previously mentioned I believe it doesn’t present the highest ROI for time & energy spent. Networking is also important in meeting talent that can be a resource for your companies one day, in connecting with deep pools of capital that can support your fund and/or your companies, in meeting executives at large corporations that can be partners or customers to your portfolio, in learning from fellow VC’s what their perspectives are, etc. There is certainly a limitless amount of work that can be done here and I have seen folks put in a LeBron-esque effort.

Thesis Building: I believe there are two high level objectives for VC thesis building. One is to dive into an emerging sector, find the inefficiencies that startups have the potential to address, and identify the startups that have the highest potential to build a massive business around those inefficiencies. The second is to justify a group of investments you made to promote yourself and your companies. The job as an investor is a constant learning process and regardless of your objective, thesis building is a fantastic way to go beyond the bite sized learning gleaned through the daily routine. Thesis building is also a great way to avoid relying on your network in finding startups with great potential, as thesis driven outbound sourcing is an under-appreciated sourcing channel. The greatest learning will certainly come from our companies, but doing broader sector based research allows for an investor to connect the dots that can be helpful for both the company and for future investments. The LeBronian effort would be to spend a ton of time both behind the desk — thinking, structuring, researching — and in the field, meeting and learning from companies large and small.

Brand Building: Speaking at conferences, tweeting, writing blogs are all ways that VC’s build brands. The ultimate objective is to increase credibility in all of the aforementioned areas of effort. This is an effort that I truly question the ROI. Is time spent building a Twitter following so that you can become known, so that you can speak at conferences, so that you can network better…better than time spent directly networking? I’m sitting here writing this blog so there must be a part of me that believes that’s the case. Although the frequency of my blog posts indicate that I’m truly on the fence…or I don’t yet have the LeBron mentality!

This post turned out longer than I intended it to. Probably because this is a real debate that I deal with every morning. But also, in a job where human interactions comprise 90% of my day-to-day, I believe being well-rounded is supremely important. Being a great father and husband. Learning about friends’ lives outside of tech, whether as a restaurant owner, a dentist, a designer. Staying healthy and energetic through sports and exercise. I strongly believe all of these non-tech, non-investing activities play a key role in all of the areas discussed above. The key is to find the right balance while putting in the LeBron effort. After all, age 33 in the NBA is kind of like 55 in investing. It’s the longevity and consistency that counts. I hope I’ll be able to revisit this post in 19 years and have no regrets on effort and be in the position to be outstanding at my job for many more years after that.

p.s. Warriors! Despite my deep admiration for LeBron, I highly doubt he’ll have what it takes against the defending champions. This will take more than superhuman strength from one player!

VC Investor at D20 Capital. Formerly at Amasia, Formation 8, McKinsey, Samsung, Columbia Business School, Seoul National University, University of Illinois