Christopher Robin: I wonder which way? Winnie the Pooh: I always get to where I'm going by walking away from where I've been. Christopher Robin: Do you? Winnie the Pooh: That's the way I do it.
I posted the above exchange on LinkedIn this week and it was by far the most read thing I have ever posted on that site. I find that incredibly interesting, I guess because it speaks to everyone’s deep-rooted ideal to control their own destiny. If you didn’t see it, I posted it because I decided to make a change in my current career situation. Despite a wonderful experience at GE Ventures, it was just time, as I have said to others, to find my next adventure. I made some incredibly great friends at GE Ventures and I will miss them. In my nearly two years there, we made some really great healthcare investments and forged an investment practice that I am very proud to have led. I had a kick-ass team and an awesome peer group. I got to experience some very new things in the large corporate environment, which was an entirely new one for me. Some of you may roll your eyes at that, but the power of a large platform is hard to argue. See Amazon. See Google. See Walmart (and hear Marcus Osborne talk about this HERE).
This is the first time I have ever left a job without having a plan for what comes next. That’s so very me: one foot on the brake, one foot on the gas. Leave no question unanswered! Life is black and white so allow no signs of gray. Uncertainty? Never! In all of my previous job moves over the years, I always knew where I was going because the answer showed up before I ever left. But this time has been different and interestingly so.
As the great philosopher Nelly once said in that immortal song N Dey Say:
“I used to think that life had a plan for me, Until I realized life had to be planned by me, see that's the key.”
So off I go to start my planning.
When I was talking with my friend Susannah about my new transition, she suggested I write something here that is more than an announcement about leaving; she suggested I should use this space to talk about what the experience is like and what I’ve been learning and what others might find useful as they contemplate their own journeys. So I decided to rise to that occasion and make her proud.
I have historically had a pretty good idea of what I was going to be next in every transition. I set out to find particular roles and that was the focus of my endeavor. In my last version of this, my plan was specifically to move from being a consultant back to venture capital. It was just a question of finding the right place to land. This time is really different for me. I am not at all focused on WHAT I want to be, but rather how I want to FEEL. It may seem subtle, but it’s not, at least not for me. For most of my “adult” life I have asked myself the usual “What am I going to be when (and if) I grow up? Now I’m asking myself the following question: What are the qualities I want to find in an organization? What do I want to learn? How do I want to feel at the end of the day?
Here’s the answer: great people who welcome me at the table; some new things to learn, maybe even beyond the healthcare sector; the ability to actively grow things, whether they be programs, revenues, or organizations; a great culture where I can be exactly who I am and be appreciated for it. That’s basically my list. I’d love some global travel as the sprinkles on top, but the core is that list above. What I’ve learned about myself is that it’s ok to be very open about the kinds of opportunities I will consider and still be entirely rigid about getting what’s on my list. That’s my plan in a nutshell. Making a list of what matters to me has been very helpful. I put it on my phone so I can refer to it when I see shiny objects. Note to self: objects in rear view mirror are often not so shiny as they once appeared when viewed close up, list in hand.
I have also learned that the entrepreneurial/venture capital milieu, as it is currently operating, needs some real therapy. The crazy drive to maximize valuations and use hundreds of millions (nay, billions!) in cash to achieve “greatness” is perilous at best. It’s become a badge of honor to garner these zillions of dollars (in both funds and valuations) and a sign of bravado to participate in them on the investor side, revenue and profitability be damned. All I have to say about that is “caveat emptor.” It’s hard to perform when you are swinging for the fences 120% of the time. Remember: the average baseball player, even the very best ones, would kill to have a hit, any hit not just a home run, 40% of the time.
The pressure to perform under the current financing environment leads to unhealthy behavior on the part of both entrepreneur and investor and will put a real damper on returns when and if—nope, let’s go with when—the day of market reckoning comes. I’d love to see a return to rational thinking in this sector, particularly in healthcare where everything takes longer than you think it will. If I hear one more entrepreneur say, “all we need to get is to rapidly get 1% of the market and we are golden!” I will melt like that guy in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the Ark gets opened. If you haven’t seen that movie, you have a gap in your pop culture education that you must remedy immediately.
And to my fellow investors I say this, “Math people. Math. Whatever happened to math?” And by that I mean this: if you want to make say, 3-5 times your money, and you invest in a company at a post-money valuation of $500 million dollars, you need to sell it for $1.5-3 billion to achieve your goal. Now go count how many $1.5-3 billion exit transactions there are in healthcare in the average year. Now go find a corner where you can cry in private. Fleece vests make excellent Kleenex substitutes.
And another thing I’ve learned. People are pretty awesome. As word of my transition has spread, I have received hundreds and hundreds of notes, emails, suggestions, opportunities, encouragements, and all manner of positive feedback. I have received these from people I know and people I have never met or even crossed Twitter paths with. It has been kind of shocking and also so lovely and affirming. Everyone, and I do mean EVERYONE, has those moments of self-doubt or insecurity or imposter syndrome freak out, even when they know they are making good decisions. Those moments are easily spackled over by these warm and welcoming words of encouragement and entreaties of interest in working together. Thank you for that, those of you who have tendered them. If I have been slow to respond to you, please forgive me; it is only because I have been so fortunate to have many wonderful people to whom to respond. For that I am extremely grateful and it makes me confident that my current shade of gray will ultimately sharpen in a great way and that time is my friend.
I’ve also learned that saying “I don’t know yet” is a liberating, not scary thing. I am not sure this would have been true when I was in my 20s or 30s, but now I am finding it kind of pleasing in a way that I would not have predicted. Everyone is predictably asking me “What are you going to do now/next/tomorrow?” and I have been answering everyone with “I don’t know yet…got any great ideas?” It has led to some fascinating conversations. Those conversations are educational and creativity-producing in and of themselves and way more fun than anxiety-provoking. Maybe it’s a sign of age or maybe it’s a sign of denial, I don’t really care. Either way, I’m rather enjoying it. Wallowing in the not knowing turns out to be kind of inspirational rather than terrifying. Who knew? Not having a label that is widely recognized, like “venture capitalist” or “entrepreneur” or any of the others I have worn over the years is a fine state of being for the moment. It won’t be my long term destiny, I’m sure, but today it it’s fitting fine.
I’m definitely excited to figure out what comes next for me and excited to be diligent about adhering to my list of must-haves. I have been so fortunate in my career to find myself around great people and great ideas and I’m planning to double down on that, Nelly style. I look forward to seeing you all around. If you’re worried you’ll miss me, I can assure you I will be out and about as I have speaking engagements all over the place the next few months to keep me on my toes and on the circuit. If you’re now worried you won’t miss me, what can I tell you?
What I can tell all of you is this: watch this space – construction zone: plan in progress.
And thanks, Susannah, for being not just a great friend, but also a wise one.