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The (Venture) Hippocratic Oath

I was incredibly fortunate to have had a teacher in high school that took time during the summer to teach me how to translate ancient Greek texts. While I never actually translated the original text, I have a great appreciation for the history (and the gift my teacher gave me). Interestingly, like so many things in history, our modern culture has taken the meaning to put it to its own use and the actual translation so far as I can tell doesn’t contain the phase “Do no harm” which we all generally associate with the oath.

For many years I have told entrepreneurs and other investors, that like physicians, venture investors should take some kind of venture equivalent of the hippocratic oath. While I know many associate venture more with the word hypocrisy (the two words are of completely different origins), when I was first getting started 13 years ago I didn’t appreciate the significance. As a venture investor, I try to help companies succeed in any way that I can.  Its all the usual things like hiring and recruiting, strategy, financing etc. But sometimes I have found it means getting out of the way. The relevance of the oath is that I believe my first job is to not screw anything up that is working at a company. I am not nearly as skilled as a physician (and the consequences including death don’t apply) so the analogy only works to some extent. Venture investors can kill companies however and entrepreneurs invest everything they have in terms of time and energy trying to make these ventures succeed. Often venture investors will walk into a situation thinking they know the answers. It can be disastrous. Each company has a cadence, a personality and a lot of things that are working to build success.

I am sure I am better at it today than I was when I started, but I try hard to bend myself around companies as opposed to pushing companies into some other mold of success. I have seen many venture investors that have “been there done that” with a successful company dispense advice on what and how to do things with authority without regard to what is working at the company and the impact. They are usually great at talking and poor at listening. Venture investors don’t run companies – management teams do – but a vocal, opinionated, investor can cause a lot of damage if they don’t respect what is working. I understand that sometimes things have to be broken to be rebuilt and made better. Those are tough choices but made usually with the team.  For me, however, since the goal is to build success and value for the company, doing no harm is a basic oath I try to make foundational with how I work with entrepreneurs and teams.