The “We” Pronoun

Generally, it’s a good sign when a founder describes her work and accomplishments with a bias toward the “We” pronoun as opposed to the “I” pronoun. Startups are team pursuits, and erring on the side of “We achieved X” signals recognition of that fact. Some of the most impressive entrepreneurs I know use “We” in lieu of “I” religiously, to a point where it’s almost comical…. Recently I was backstage at a conference with a founder I respect. When it came time for him (not me) to go on stage, he turned to me and said, “We’ve got to get out there now, see you later.” No, this founder doesn’t have multiple personality disorder. He has simply trained himself to think and speak in terms of “We”, by default. That’s a good thing. Indeed, now that I’m an investor, the excessive use of “I” by a founder in conversation is actually a bit of a red flag. 

 But “We” becomes problematic when used by VCs to talk about their portfolio companies. Over the hundreds of conversations with VCs I’ve had over the past few years, I’ve noticed a concerning dynamic. Oftentimes, when referring to a portfolio company that is doing well, the VC will say something like “We’re now expanding into such and such vertical” or “We’re recruiting a killer product manager from Facebook.” This is all good if the VC in question is an active board member of said company. It’s less good if the VC is a random partner, principal, or associate who happens to be employed by a fund that put money into a particular company. The optimistic view of motivations here is that the VC wants to show solidarity and kinship with the company. The more pessimistic view is that they’re trying to self-actualize on the backs of the company’s founders and team. Regardless, to my mind, the cavalier use of “We” undermines the incredibly hard work of the team. I cringe a little inside each time I hear a non-board member VC use it when referring to a company. Words do matter.

The corollary here is that when a portfolio company is not faring well, the VC will invariably utilize “They” in lieu of “We”…e.g. “They screwed up the UX” or “They aren’t growing fast enough.” How fascinating…

On a lighter note, our Founders Fund portfolio company SpaceX is absolutely killing it right now. I had absolutely nothing to do with it. I’m proud of them.

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