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Bryan Roberts of Venrock on Seeing Problems as Opportunities

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I loved problem solving as a kid. That’s probably the thread through most of my life. How do you build this? How do I get from here to there? The actual content of the problem matters less than the need to puzzle through something.

Tell me more about your parents.

My dad is an infectious-disease doctor, and my mom is in theater. They’re the two most polar-opposite people in the universe. My mom’s broadly intelligent, and my dad is just deeply awesome at diagnosing diseases.

How have they influenced your leadership style?

The biggest thing is thinking about others more than yourself. In my line of work, if you put your company ahead of you, you’re going to do fine. And I try to always interact with people who put other people front and center, rather than themselves.

People who are self-directed generally gather accomplishments and accolades and are very happy to tell you about them. When people are company- or mission-directed, it manifests as humility, and they generally push credit off onto other people.

Before you went to college, did you have an idea of what you wanted to do?

I applied to four colleges. I did all the applications on New Year’s Day watching college football bowl games, which fits into a bit theme in my life — lack of planning. I ended up majoring in chemistry. But I also took constitutional law. I’m intellectually selfish and reasonably dilettantish in my intellectual pursuits.

Which means?

I like doing things that interest me, and I don’t have a whole lot of patience for stuff that’s not intellectually stimulating. In a wonderful twist of fate, my job is to help people solve problems, so my intellectual selfishness can come into full form while keeping me employed.

What were you doing outside of class?

I ran a business that did work in the surrounding community. We painted. We trimmed trees. We cleaned some restaurants. We did anything. I didn’t know what I was doing, but at that point in life, you don’t fall hard or far. You can mess something up and figure out how to own it and get yourself out of it.

You also learn that life is not about avoiding problems; it’s about how you deal with them. That is a core tenet for me now. If you spend your life trying to avoid problems, you will never get anything done. You’ll just be trying to mitigate risk all day long.

You’re going to make some wrong decisions. The question is how well and quickly do you deal with them?

You’ve been at Venrock for 20 years. How many pitches have you heard from entrepreneurs over the years?

Probably about 25,000. I hate getting pitched, by the way. The part of the job I love is when you and I have decided to work together to go solve a problem that the world thinks can’t be solved.

I don’t like sitting on one side of the table trying to discern the problems you’re leaving out while you give me the world-is-a-bed-of-roses version of what you’re trying to do.

The pitches are just a means to a small number of relationships where we can go do something extraordinary.

I imagine you interview executives for your portfolio companies. How do you hire?

I start off most interviews with, “What can I answer for you?” It tells me a lot, including how knowledgeable they are about the company, how much they’ve thought about the interview and what they care about. I leave it very open-ended and listen to where they go. I can tell an enormous amount from that.

Then I say to them, “If we take the next step, I’m going to do a bunch of reference checks. I’ll find 10 people who know you, including names you won’t give me. How will they describe you?”

I find that makes people much more honest, because it’s no longer about what they think of themselves or how they want to project themselves.

I’m looking for passion for excellence, crossed with humility, crossed with putting others first. Humility and putting others first are interlocked. But passion for excellence can mean that sometimes they don’t get along that well with other people.

That can lead to friction, but it’s worth it. To some degree, I’m looking for people who are an A+ in one or two things, and they can be Ds in a couple of other things.

What career and life advice do you give to new college grads?

I tell them that the willingness to do really hard work is in much shorter supply than talent in the universe today.

Another is that everything you do before you’re 30 essentially doesn’t count on your resume. At some point you’re likely to have a family and a house and a whole bunch of responsibilities. But today you can get by on anything.

So take this time to figure out what you really like and what you’re really passionate about. The only thing that’s worse than really hard work is really hard work on something you don’t love.

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