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Can We Talk?

February 24, 2011

Brad Svrluga

Fred Wilson wrote a post the other day that was inspired by a real live conversation he had over breakfast with my friend and sometimes-mentor Alan Patricof.  They had been back and forth in the blogosphere on the issue of the IPO markets, and had differing points of view on this very important issue for our industry. In an all-too-uncommon move these days, they decided to sit down and talk about it. A real live, in-person conversation. My money says they each learned 10x from that discussion than they would have by continuing the discussion electronically.

I love the internet.  Its very existence is the reason I have this job that I love. I spend more time online, one way or another, than any other activity in my life outside of sleeping. And like many, there’s a lot of days where the web hours easily beat out the z’s. Increasingly, services like Twitter and Quora are opening up ever-more powerful and efficient ways to communicate and learn, upping those hours ever further. But like many of us, I can get way too dependent on my web-based life. It’s important to remember to get out from behind my browser and my inbox and actually talk to people once in awhile, as Fred and Alan did.

I’m reminded of this frequently, yet perplexed by my and others’ need to continually relearn this lesson. For example, in a simple, ten minute phone conversation last weekend I diffused an extremely awkward, sticky disagreement amongst the principals and lawyers involved in a deal I’m negotiating right now. The dialogue (and I use that term very loosely) had gotten to a totally unproductive stalemate, with each side pissed off at the other as emails and documents passed back and forth through the ether. The documents flew, yet nobody was actually talking. In ten minutes of human-to-human interaction, complete with those unique features of real conversation like the ability to hear tone of voice, probe for clarity, and allow for thought and follow-up, we realized we had been “talking” completely past each other. A total waste of time (and legal expense). We got on the phone, restored respect and trust, and found common ground in no time.

I ran into a very successful and widely respected VC as I was doing a breakfast meeting a few weeks ago. My companion said “hey, [Joe], I left you a voicemail the other day, you didn’t get back to me.” To which [Joe] replied “yeah, I’m sorry. . .my phone’s broken. . .it just works for email and the web, the voice part’s been broken for awhile.” Of course it hadn’t. And of course Joe was joking. . .sort of. But I’m sure he was partly serious, too.

Like Joe, I sometimes feel like I wish my phone was broken, too. I hardly ever answer it anymore unless it’s one of my partners, the CEO of one of our companies, or a family member. On the whole, I suspect that actually does make me more efficient – there are a lot of things that can be more quickly handled in a few back and forth sentences over email rather than through a phone call and its attendant obligatory small talk. But it’s a pretty self-centered way of interacting with the world, as well as frequently creating some collateral damage. So I’m trying to be a little more mindful these days of those times when something really is better suited for a real conversation.

What are the rules of thumb for that? I’m not sure yet, but I do know that, like that situation last weekend, if it’s a complex, nuanced, and in any way adversarial situation, email just doesn’t cut it. Even though we may think that email’s better because we can take the time to carefully construct an argument and lay it out for someone in a way that they have no ability to interject until you’re done, more often than not those emails are only going to end up pissing the audience off. To develop trust in a dialogue like that, it has to truly be a dialogue – there has to be give-and-take, you have to be willing to listen, and you have to genuinely show empathy. All of them hard to do over email. (Ask me to tell you sometime about my friend who tried to manage 100% via email his relationship with the contractor building his new home. Yikes!)

It’s stuff like this that makes me value my relationship with Alan Patricof so much. The guy’s been in the venture business for 40 years, and I think he’s evolved beautifully, finding a balance of old and new that works perfectly for him. He’s on email and Twitter constantly, he’s blogging, and he’s out mixing it up with entrepreneurs. But he doesn’t hide behind his computer. If he wants to talk to me about something important, he picks up the phone. And if it’s really important, he asks me to breakfast or lunch. In those meetings I consistently get more out of the core discussion while also picking up a few bonus pearls of wisdom in the process.

Those pearls don’t travel well when they need to be converted into 0’s and 1’s. So I’ll continue to think about picking up the phone more often, and hope the folks I collaborate with will, too.




Post a comment
  1. Steve #
    February 24, 2011

    I experience this all the time – I have to fight the urge to hide behind email. It is so much easier, but simply picking up the phone can make a peeved customer a happy customer in a short time.

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