Chest-thumpers vs. executors: The difference between Seattle and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, according to this VC

DFJ Partner Bill Bryant speaks at an Alliance of Angels event in Seattle last week. (GeekWire photo / Taylor Soper)

There’s a difference between entrepreneurs from Seattle and those from Silicon Valley and it goes beyond stereotypes about hairstyles, clothing, and choice of gadgets.

Speaking at a pitch clinic hosted by the Alliance of Angels in Seattle last week, venture capitalist Bill Bryant was asked about how investors evaluate startup pitches from founders.

“There is a mix of storytelling that’s required, plus execution,” he said.

Bryant, a partner at DFJ and longtime Seattle-area investor, said it’s rare to find people who do both well. Entrepreneurs in the Bay Area do a better job of “chest-bumping” while those up north tend to be quieter but often better at executing, he said.

“What we see in the Valley are people who are great at fundraising but really shitty at building anything that gets to market, connects with a consumer, builds sales motions, hires salespeople, and what-not,” Bryant said. “Here in Seattle, it’s a little bit reversed. We are not as good on the storytelling side. For whatever reason, we don’t have that genetic makeup to say ‘I’m the greatest entrepreneur in the world.’ But we see a lot of great execution.”

Bryant later noted that Seattle entrepreneurs have trouble articulating what their companies look like at scale.

“They can describe a problem and how they’d go about addressing that problem, but often miss the vision and the ‘why’ behind the company,” he said in an email.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. John Connors, managing partner at Ignition Partners, made similar comments in 2014. Asked about what Seattle can learn from Silicon Valley, he noted that Bay Area companies have “a very rich history of dreaming big, and telling great stories.”

“It doesn’t matter what your product is, if it is going to be a big thing, you’ve got to dream big and you’ve got to tell a great story,” Connors said.

Bryant pointed to used goods marketplace OfferUp and trucking startup Convoy as good examples of vision meeting execution.

“Conversely, I would argue that DocuSign and Avalara both took simple ideas and have executed superbly, but from the outside I don’t see the big vision driving either,” he added.

(GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Seattle-area companies like Tableau, Concur, Smartsheet, Apptio, and others have grown into giants over long periods of time, demonstrating excellent execution. But they perhaps did not tout a grandiose vision early on compared to companies like Zillow or Redfin, which leaned on storytelling from the start.

That’s not to say Seattle entrepreneurs need to hire an entertainment consultant to help craft their pitch. An audience member at the event last week asked Bryant about the impact of shows like Shark Tank that promote more hook and dazzle in startup pitches.

Bryant said it’s more about building a relationship with a founder well before a 3-minute pitch. But it’s also good to think about your company’s ethos and larger vision when trying to raise money from investors.

“We want to understand where you come from and why you’re picking this particular opportunity,” he said. “We want to understand the mission behind the company.”

Perhaps Seattle folks just need to take more big swings or have BHAGs — Big Hairy Audacious Goals, a mantra that Zillow and Expedia co-founder Rich Barton has long touted.

“When I pitched the idea to Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, Expedia’s BHAG was to become the largest seller of travel in the world,” he sad in 2015. “Well, it turns out that just this past year, Expedia did become the biggest seller of travel in the world with something like $70 billion worth of travel a year now.”

Maybe it’s just something that runs deep in Seattle, established well before the tech industry boom, dating back to the stereotype of the city as a region of reserved Scandinavians.

Speaking at an event in Seattle last year, former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire said the city itself can do a better job with its storytelling.

“Everybody says Silicon Valley when asked about the country’s top technology hub,” she said. “When asked who might be No. 2 to that, they name every place you can imagine, except Seattle. What we’ve realized is that if we are not understood for all that we have going here, we can’t recruit talent, we can’t recruit companies, we can’t share in solutions, and so on.”

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