A Seed VC’s Decision Tree

I continue to be on a kick towards better and more systematic decision-making.

One exercise I’ve tried is to codify my mental decision-tree for early stage investing.  Essentially, it is the internal dialog I tend to have with myself when evaluating companies.  But by charting it out, it helped me to be more explicit about what attributes I’m looking for, and how my opinion about different attributes feeds into an ultimate decision.

Rather than replicate the entire decision three, I thought I’d share just a flavor.  The first high-level questions I ask are:

1. Is this an awesome founder?

2. Is this a market I want to have an investment in?  This incorporates both the total size potential of the opportunity and the attractiveness of the market itself.

3. Is there strong founder market fit?  Is this an authentic idea, and does the capability of the founding team map well towards the needs of the market in the early stages of the business?

Here is the tree with some commentary on the different combinations below.

Screen Shot 2013-10-29 at 10.07.58 AM


So, a couple combinations:

  • If 1 = yes, 2 = no, it’s usually a no. I’m generally a believer that markets beat teams.  But that said, I’m actually typically very open minded about what markets I’d like to have an investment in.
  • If 1=yes, 2=yes, and 3=no,  I think it’s difficult to invest pre-product and before some evidence of product/market ft.  I think founder/market fit is incredibly important early on.  We have invested in some companies of this profile where we loved the founder but our perception was that founder/market fit wasn’t that strong (ThredUp is a good example).  But in those cases, very early metrics went a long way towards mitigating the risk.
  • If 1=YES YES YES then we might still move forward early on. Basically, this is the rare (0.01% of less) exception where you feel like you have HAVE to back a truly extraordinary founder.  In the case where this extraordinary founder is pursuing an unattractive market, we need to ask ourselves, is this founder wrong about the market, or could we be wrong?.  We still tend to have a bias that markets tend to win, but we will dig to figure out if we aren’t missing something.  If the market is attractive and there just isn’t great founder/market fit, we will be open minded as well.  There are just some rare entrepreneurs that you want to be in business with in almost any circumstance.  But it’s definitely a very small minority.  Jack Dorsey comes to mind here with Square. Not exactly founder/market fit, but it didn’t really matter.
    • Sub-point: Actually, in a way, Jack did have founder/market fit with square because of what the company required.  His personal brand and influence in the technology industry enabled him to raise large amounts of capital with relatively little traction and get to the very top of all major financial institutions, both pretty important advantages in starting a payments company of this sort.
  • If 1 = Yes, 2 = yes, 3=yes, then I’d seriously consider investing pre-launch.  This isn’t a formula by any means, but I find that when founders I really like are going after an authentic idea in a space I like, I’m much more willing to jump in pre-product.  This describes quite a few of our portfolio companies actually. Not all will work out, but in many cases, I feel perfectly fine about having taken the plunge.
  • If 1 = No, 2 = yes, 3=yes, then I’d need to see some evidence of product market fit or traction.  Even then, it’s really hard to get excited about an investment unless I’m really excited about the people leading the company.  But I am also congizent that how one comes off in a fundraise is not always perfectly correlated with their capabilities – and there is something about delivering results that makes you think twice about your first impressions of people.  If the reason that 1=No is because of any fear of integrity or something similar, then it is really a no-go. But if it’s more of a question about capabilities, then it’s important to stay open-minded. It’s easy to underestimate people.

Of course, there is a lot more going through my mind, plus some really important “softer” considerations that are beautifully articulated by my old colleague Bijan here.  The point of this post isn’t to say that this is the right way to do things or to say that I follow this approach strictly. But I did think it would be interesting for founders to see an attempt at simplifying what is usually the black box of an investor’s mind.

Rob Go

Thanks for reading! Here’s a quick background on who I am:
1. My name is Rob, I live in Lexington, MA
2. I’m married and have two young daughters. My wife and I met in college at Duke University – Go Blue Devils!
3. We really love our church in Arlington, MA. It’s called Highrock and it’s a wonderful and vibrant community.  Email me if you want to visit!
4. I grew up in the Philippines (ages 0-9) and Hong Kong (ages 9-17).
5. I am a cofounder of NextView Ventures, a seed stage investment firm focused on internet enabled innovation. I try to spend as much time as possible working with entrepreneurs and investing in businesses that are trying to solve important problems for everyday people.  
6. The best way to reach me is by email: rob at nextviewventures dot com

    • Andre

      How do you quantify who is an awesome founder ?

    • Yeah, this is really clean. The 2nd+3rd levels imply their way around productmarket fit nicely.

      • robchogo

        Thanks Luke!

    • Sindhya Valloppillil

      Great post! Wish more VCs thought like you. The only thing missing from your chart is the Friend category and the Former VC-turned Founder (which often is a friend) category which gets instant funding without much or any screening. These founders get funding without establishing “awesomeness”, or establishing a founder/market fit particularly with some kind of domain expertise. Many of the dumbest startups have gotten funding this way: Beachmint, DollarShaveClub, True&Co., Zady. If you ask the VCs who backed them, they all say that they were friends with the founders and not much more.

      • robchogo

        Nice observation. I think that the music does stop eventually though.

      • lolhoodrats

        I would say you are DEAD wrong on dollarshaveclub being a “stupid startup”.. It’s bloody brilliant. Razor blades are the most over priced consumer good on the market.. Right next to pizza.

        • FFounder1

          For the amount of money that they have raised they have not achieved. Are you aware of that in their 3 product portfolio includes butt wipes (which clog sewage systems and toilets) and a shave cream in addition to the razor? They have not built a cohesive brand. DSC did not even create their own razors they were merely selling Dorco razors. Only one of their videos was a hit. The other two flopped. To compete with titans like Gillette, you need a great brand and products – not just money to spend on (fleeting) customer acquisition which is very different than long-term customers value. It doesn’t stand a chance against Gillette. A lot of tech people think that consumer products is an category to tackle. They don’t understand the intricacies involved in CPG marketing.

    • Mapping out your workflow reminds me of the investors in the book Checklist Manifesto, who also added structure and process to standardize their investment criteria. It’s impressive to see a clear and repeatable workflow at the seed stage, since most investors at this level seem to thrive on unstructured coffee meetings and gut feelings.

      • robchogo

        Thanks! I love the Checklist Manifesto

    • Paul Davis

      Please define “awesome founder”.

      • robchogo

        I have a blog post coming in Jan where I’ll go into more detail, hopefully.

    • Willy

      “awesome founder” ? looks like you likely to fund sociopaths..

      • robchogo

        why would you say that?

    • Angel

      Wow, we can identify a one in ten thousand CEO eh?, no risk of overconfidence in our powers of judgement eh?, and that’s the serious point- the questions are good but the answers are highly speculative. Even “experts” with experience make huge errors- which are only clear in retrospect (indeed, based on the then available facts their assessments were probably good ones): “There is a market for five computers worldwide” (CEO of IBM), “Nobody wants a computer in their home” (Founder, Digital Equipment), “I predict the internet will … in 1996 catastrophically collapse” (Founder 3Com), “640k memory is enough for anyone” (Founder, Microsoft), “The subscription model of music is bankrupt” (Founder, Apple), “No it isn’t” (Founder, Spotify).

      I’d add “Do you feel lucky, punk?” to every leaf on your tree!

      • robchogo

        Investors have to try to identify the best founders they can. We may not always be right. But what’s the alternative? Not trying?

    • Ramesh

      what makes an awesome founder in your eyes. From the decision tree this is the most ambiguous piece of the puzzle.

    • Andrea Martins

      Brilliantly simple! Thanks so much for sharing this, Rob.