Agility: The quality or state of being agile: Nimbleness, Dexterity.
Anyone who has been involved with startups for the last 20 years has been steeped in the culture of what it means to build Agile software. Agile development has become so accepted as the best practice in software development that it’s hard to imagine startups doing software development any other way. It’s easy to understand why: The Lean Startup, MVP, and Product/Market-fit would be nearly impossible to achieve using any other approach to software development.
But reading the Agile Manifesto and the supporting 12 Principles of Agile Software, it quickly becomes apparent that agile can be applied in startups much more broadly than just software development. It should be considered the modern Startup Manifesto. From the Wikipedia article on Agile:
[Agile] promotes adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, continuous improvement, and encourages rapid and flexible response to change.
That sounds like the way the best startups are managed for every functional area. The best startups are able to attract great people, empower those people and iterate quickly in every functional area. They refine, they adapt and they are agile. At Jackson Square Ventures (JSV) we look for founders who have demonstrated these qualities.
Agile principles can, and should, also be applied to the way a venture firm works. Having seen first-hand the benefits of an Agile approach to startups it only makes sense that many of the aforementioned 12 Principles can be applied to making a venture firm function better, and in so doing, improve performance. At JSV we operate by many of these principles. Our highest priority is to satisfy the entrepreneur through early and continuous delivery of value. We welcome change and adaptation throughout each company’s journey and we work closely with our entrepreneurs to identify where changes need to be made. We know building a great company requires persistence, patience and lots of iteration.
Similar to the Agile principles, our most important job as venture capitalists is to support the motivated entrepreneurs we back and give them the support they need to get the job done. The most efficient and effective method of providing input and feedback to our entrepreneurs, both positive and negative, is face-to-face. Board meetings are important, but are just a starting point. Yet we know that what we are doing is providing feedback, not running the company. The only thing worse than a VC that isn’t engaged is one that keeps trying to grab the wheel. At JSV we support our entrepreneurs while allowing them to drive the car.
Another Agile principle states, “Simplicity – the art of maximizing the amount of work not done – is essential.” Complexity creates more work; simplicity reduces unnecessary cycles. Yet, counter-intuitively, complexity is much easier to achieve than simplicity. Whether it’s in UI design, system architecture, messaging, or dialing in a sales process, it’s always easier for startups to do more than to cut away to the bare essentials and get it right.
Venture capitalists suffer from the same challenge, but for VCs it’s about doing more deals, investing in many different stages, and investing in every “hot” sector. The trade-off between simplicity and complexity is a trade-off between focus – doing less – and not. We preach focus to our entrepreneurs and we live it as a firm. When we spun JSV out of our predecessor firm, we had first-hand experience of the sclerotic effects of having a relatively large team of partners with a large portfolio and a broad investment mandate.
The final Agile principle states that for a team to continue to be effective, it must continually evaluate what’s working and what’s not and adjust accordingly. That process of reflection is what led us to start JSV. We evolved and adapted over 14 years in the venture industry. We dropped the previous name that wasn't working. We dropped investment areas such as semiconductor and clean tech. We dropped Menlo Park in favor of San Francisco. We chose to focus on what worked -- early stage investments in software companies. We are very happy with what we have achieved so far and are committed to continuing to reflect and evaluate to make us a firm that our entrepreneurs are proud to call their partner.