To get the most out of your investors, turn them into rubber ducks

rubber-duckIn programming there is a concept called rubber duck debugging. As an investor, my goal is the be the best rubber duck on the planet. For software it works like this (original from lists.ethernal copied below):

1) Beg, borrow, steal, buy, fabricate or otherwise obtain a rubber duck
   (bathtub variety)
2) Place rubber duck on desk and inform it you are just going to go over
   some code with it, if that's all right.
3) Explain to the duck what you code is supposed to do, and then go into
   detail and explain things line by line
4) At some point you will tell the duck what you are doing next and then
   realise that that is not in fact what you are actually doing.  The duck
   will sit there serenely, happy in the knowledge that it has helped you
   on your way.

Works every time.  Actually, if you don't have a rubber duck you could at
a pinch ask a fellow programmer or engineer to sit in.

I don’t think investors should engage in creating the application or try to come up with the bug fixes, but good ones can add a ton of value by seeing bugs and flagging them first– sometimes I can identify them based on my start-up experience (although the half-life on this is very short for most things that matter). Generally, early signs of bugs come up through experience with other founders and their companies and new ones become clear all the time through conversations with other investors, business development partners and service providers. This is the value in “pattern matching” and it helps flag the first sign of a bug in the system so the management team can properly prioritize it, put it in the cue and fix it (or teach me why it is a feature not a bug).

I choose to be a rubber duck rather than engage in a more prescriptive debugging method because I believe that for any challenge your business faces, the the best answer is in you, the founder. My job is to help draw your best answer out and then leverage all the resources available to me, to First Round and within the First Round Community to eliminate friction so you can execute against your best answer as fast as possible.

5 steps to turn your investors into rubber ducks:

  1. Frame the problem you are facing — describe the challenge in enough detail that I can understand it without being an expert (because I am probably not an expert)
  2. Create context for an answer — Explain why this problem is a priority for you and the business and why you need to solve it now (because I am not involved in the day to day operation of your company)
  3. Propose a few solutions — Describe a few paths you might take and talk through how you would choose between them (this helps me understand the outcome you want to achieve)
  4. Be patient — Be open and engage deeply in the questions that I have and explain your answers with specific detail (even if it seems obvious)
  5. Be active– The goal is to debug the system and the builder is most likely to find the bugs we seek (and to see others along the way)

An example:

Last night I called a founder to see how it was going. At the end of the call, he said, “Thanks for the call. Talking this through really helped me figure it out.”

It was a small thing, and I know that the conversation served to confirm his thinking — but even in the 30-40 minutes we were on the phone, I heard his thinking evolve and believe it got better. The company moved a little closer to behaving as expected and doing the thing it is being built to do. This is success for me. To be helpful in this way. To help a founder adjust by one or two degrees at the start and to know that it could change the outcome by a lot.

If you can get your investors to embrace their inner rubber duck, the good ones will find ways to ask the questions that no one else has asked, to come at the problem sideways — not with the answer –but with questions that push at the edges and help you find the best answer for you and your company. An investor that embraces the rubber duck approach combined with the common things (responsiveness, access to resources, dedication of time) and the stuff that really matters (be part of the ecosystem, give more than you take, be empathetic) sounds like a great VC to me.

(Thanks to Micah Baldwin for his post What Makes a Good VC as the 3 common things and the 3 things that really matter come from him)