Basically nothing, other than it’s not founder-CEOs who make the best investors.
Everyone tries to find the best practices that ensure success in a given line of work. This is no less true for venture capital, where success is easy to measure (investment returns) yet impossible to stack rank (venture firms let alone individual investors do not publish their results).
So, every year, the industry opines on what makes for a great investor — at least when it comes to the criteria of the Forbes Midas List and ‘hits’ over the past five years, making some big assumptions regarding the actual financial returns.
There have been many prognostications over the last 25 years since I got started in VC:
First, it was all about having a financial background and understanding venture deals and putting capital to work (Arthur Rock).
No, wait, operators make better investors: they know how to manage people, and people are the most important part of any startup (Don Valentine).
Actually, it’s the product execs who really know how to identify product-market fit — they do the best job creating the right product and understanding customer needs. Can’t have a hit without a killer product, right?
Nope! Engineers are the ones who understand how hard it is to build something from the ground up and then scale it, so they’re the ones who can pick scalable companies (Eugene Kleiner).
And, the best one of all: founder CEOs really know what it’s like to start a company, so they will identify and help build the best ones. And then, finally, there are the stars that don’t fall into any easy bucket (Mike Moritz, Jim Breyer, and John Doerr, to name a few).
But what does the actual data tell us?
I looked at the 2017 and 2018 Midas Lists to find that CEO experience is not a requirement and, in fact, seems to be the exception: There was only one previous CEO in 2017 (Peter Thiel) across the top 30 investors and only two previous CEOs in 2018 (Eric Paley, Byron Deeter) across the top 30 investors.
Having an engineering background is also not necessary to be a successful investor. Mary Meeker, for example, has a BA in Psychology, while Peter Fenton has a BA in Philosophy. Countless others have non-engineering, and even non-technical degrees. Across the top 20 ranked investors in 2017, only 20% had engineering degrees and only 25% had engineering degrees in 2018.
For fun, here are the backgrounds of the Top 10 Midas list investors in 2018:
- Equity research analyst (3)
- Mid-level operating execs (3)
- Investment banker turned CFO turned VC (2)
- Start-up co-founder (1)
- Career VC (1)
Then, to the disappointment of many who deride degrees, an MBA is shockingly common: 60% of the top 20 investors, across both the 2017 and 2018 Midas Lists, hold an MBA. Moreover, in general, post-graduate education is very high among the List’s top performers. 80% of top 20 performers in 2017 and 95% of top 20 performers in 2018 have a post-graduate degree.
So what can we learn from all this? It’s pretty simple:
Like just about anything, there are multiple paths that lead to the top.