Joe Stump on Startup Founder Advice on Working With Venture Capitalists

In Chapter 11 of 14 in his 2012 interview, Internet entrepreneur Joe Stump answers "What Were the Main Learning Points From Starting and Selling a Company?"  Through starting and selling SimpleGeo, Stump gets a clear understanding of how the sausage factory works in the VC land. He first learns the Internet startup talent ecosystem - programmers/builders, luminaries/speakers, founders, and investors/venture capitalists - and, in particular, how the game is played at the top of the investing scene.  He turns a founder frustration - how venture capitalists overshare information - into a founder strength. 

Joe Stump is a serial entrepreneur based in Portland, OR. He is CEO and co-founder of, a product management software company.  Previously he founded SimpleGeo, which was sold to Urban Airship in October 2011.  He advises several startups - including and ngmoco:) - as well as VC firm Freestyle Capital.  He earned a BBA in Computer Information Systems (CIS) from Eastern Michigan University. 


Erik Michielsen: What were the main learning points from starting and selling a company?

Joe Stump: I don’t even know where to begin. The main learning points that I took away from SimpleGeo, I think, were I got a very clear understanding of how the sausage factory worked in the VC land, right? There are a few layers of sediment in the startup world. There are the implementers, the people that are banging out code, they're writing design, stuff like that. Slightly above them are the luminaries in that area, right? They are the people that go and speak at conferences about the new Java script frameworks that they're writing, and things like that.

One kind of layer above them are the founders. Those are people that go out and have a crazy idea and decide they want to build a company. And then the layer above that are the investors and VC. And you really don’t have any insight into what's going on until you kind of like move your way up. So I got a very clear, terrifying view of what that top layer is and understanding how that works was important to my long-term success. You have to know how the game is played.

Erik Michielsen: How is the game played?

Joe Stump: That game is like Lord of the Flies on steroids. I mean, it is cut throat. You know, people will -- There's so much drama that happens behind that investing scene that nobody sees. There are things like -- you talk to entrepreneurs, other founders. I call being a founder, being a part of the fraternal order of founders. You just don’t know what it's like until you’ve like actually been in it. I've had founders tell me, “I want to raise money from both of these guys but this guy won’t invest if this guy invests.”

I've had other people tell me that investors have called them and threatened them with their livelihood if they don’t do a deal in the way that they want them to do it. Investors gossip non-stop like even if you sign – even if they're a board member and they have a fiduciary responsibility to keep their mouth shut, they’ll gossip all day long. So understanding -- The biggest lesson I took away from that is like you can't trust anybody. But what you can do is leverage that.

Something that I've been doing more recently and the ways that you can kind of leverage that -- I probably shouldn’t be saying this but, is I know that if I go and tell somebody that so and so is doing really well and if I can strategically leak positive information about a company that I've invested in or I'm an adviser in to other people that are like -- and get out ahead of that company.

A good example of something that I might do is in a company that I'm advising in or invested in, I have deep insight into what's going on, right? And I usually have a strategic six to twelve-month window ahead of what they're planning on doing. And if I know that bits of data over here are going to help them six months from now and they're going to need this person or this firm or this capital in six months, I can leverage that gossip in the way that -- and that distrust and basically deploy knowledge ahead of time and just set the stage up ahead of time.

And I think one of the biggest lessons I had that I took away from -- really from all that experience is I love sausage but I hate the sausage factory. I don’t want to know how it's made, right? So I've tried to remove myself from that a little bit. And I think the other lesson that was really hard for me to swallow, you hear about really crappy things happening to good people and what's really frustrating is these people that are doing really crappy things are being exalted. These investors are being exalted on every blog, tech blog and everything as being like -- All they do is help founders. Well, I know for a fact that people that you say help founders have destroyed founders. So, don’t tell me that that’s actually how it happens.

The thing that was really difficult for me to accept was people would say “it's just business”, which is the MBA way of saying, don’t hate the player, hate the game. There are a few players that I legitimately hate because they have strayed way beyond what I think is acceptable human interaction but it has allowed me to embrace the parts of the game in a way that allows me to work with people that probably otherwise I wouldn’t want to, in a way that benefits everybody.