Rational Conversation

Venture Capitalist Fred Wilson

Venture Capitalist Fred Wilson

I've never met Fred Wilson. He writes a blog, AVC. I don't read his blog regularly. But I find reason to visit once or twice every couple of months. When I do, I am always struck not only by the easiness of Fred's style, but also by the caliber and depth of the smart conversations that follow in the comments to his posts.

Fred is one of New York's most visible and successful venture capitalists. He's a champion of the New York tech community. He and his partners run Union Square Ventures, they have invested in Twitter, Etsy and Zynga, among others, and they announced a new late-stage fund in January.

I'm not in the tech space. However, I am interested in consumer facing companies, technology's influence on those companies and in building healthy ecosystems, all of which Fred touches upon regularly in his writing. He's personal, engaging, and conversational, often looping his wife, kids and travel in as part of his storytelling. And about a year ago he started a rich weekly feature--MBA Mondays. It's where I send people who are looking to learn more about the basics of starting and funding a new or growing company.

Over the weekend there was a bit of a firestorm on A VC. On Friday Fred wrote a post on marketing which he provocatively opened by stating, "I believe that marketing is what you do when your product or service sucks." The firestorm took off. When I saw the post late Saturday afternoon, alerted to it by a note on Twitter, it had well over 350 comments, maybe more (there are 475+ now).

Fred's post made sense to me--it was a crisp eight point summary of how early stage startups can acquire customers without spending a lot on marketing. I agreed with its substance. It was, however, uncharacteristically light on nuance. Many--marketers in particular--were bent out of shape. Marketing guru Seth Godin even stepped in, providing a dash of the missing nuance. In the land of internet vitriol things could have easily turned ugly.

But what I've noticed in my visits to A VC is that Fred has an extraordinary ability to deftly balance the wielding of strong, confident opinions with a quick, frank willingness to say "What do you think?", "I don't know." or "Oops, I was wrong.". Almost every time I've stopped by, I've observed some combination of these things in play, as he personally jumps in and out of the informed, challenging exchanges his posts spawn. It's the friendly touch he uses to keep the conversation in total control, and I've paid attention with more than passing interest.

By the time I visited AVC on Saturday, what I found was not only the original Friday post and comments, but also a candid follow up: Marketing Post--The Bug Report. Fred firmly stood his ground on points that mattered to him, yet identified where he'd been off base and the learnings he'd taken from the ample conversation that had ensued, including the honest assessment, delivered with characteristically dry, self-deprecating humor: "I simply disrespected marketing and then went on to talk about how to do marketing. Not a great way to have a rational conversation about marketing."

Fred takes great care to steer rational--yet impassioned--learning dialogue on his site. It's an elegant art, one to which he's clearly committed. By parking his ego at the door, staying humble (something too many conflate with weakness) and listening carefully, he benefits enormously from the community he creates, the loyalty he fosters and the fresh ideas his conversations kick off. Since I'm not a daily visitor I don't know if Fred's blog has led directly to successful investment opportunities for him, but I'd be shocked if it hadn't. At the very least it's a great first screen for him for smart thinkers from all corners of the tech and broader business community.

It’s often struck me that Twitter–at least the world of Twitter users with whom I interact–is a positive, friendly spot on the internet, essentially grounded in a spirit of openness, conversation and exchange. And I’ve also thought, on my visits to AVC, that it’s not surprising that Fred was an early investor in Twitter–that, in fact, Twitter likely is what it is today partly thanks to the ego-free, learning attitude he undoubtedly brought to the table as the company was taking shape.

For anyone looking to guide or engage in rational conversations, recognizing the enormous value that they create--professionally, personally and financially, AVC is an open classroom, led by an expert who makes it look easy. Yesterday, Fred posted one more time, nodding to two bloggers who had written relevant responses to his post, and the firestorm was dying down.

Update: This morning, after writing and publishing this article I learned that JPMorgan is either negotiating for a 10% stake in Twitter or has already acquired one--possibly in part by buying shares from Union Square Ventures. Both versions of the story report an implied valuation for Twitter of $4.5 billion.