The Big Nuance of Changing Others’ Perceptions
I went to a seminar a few years ago. My goal was to become a better public speaker and writer. One of the presenters told his story. I remember him saying, "While I was talking to her, she asked me, ‘What do you do?’ I hesitated but then answered, ‘I'm a writer.’"
It was awkward for him to answer that way. After all, he was a customer support representative up to that point in his life.
Changing occupations mid-life is brutal. It isn't easy to make a decision. But surprisingly, it is even more difficult to tell others.
When I was thirty-four, I seriously thought about changing occupations and becoming a venture capitalist.
I shared this desire with a then-famous, tech-focused investment banker at an industry conference. I figured he would have the connections necessary to get me started on this new path. I was also interested in what he might think of me doing this.
Boy, was I surprised!
He said, "You're crazy thinking that way. You are a tech executive and an excellent operator. You're not a VC. Go back to work."
It wasn't even a discussion. For him, I was what I was doing. I led management teams and built valuable companies. I was a tech executive in his eyes. And that was the end of it. That was my career bucket, and he wasn't willing to entertain me moving to a different career bucket.
His answer shook my confidence. I took his advice and went back to work. But I was never happy with my career after that conversation. Maybe he thought I was testing the water, and perhaps I was. But the thought of becoming a VC never left me.
At thirty-nine, it all changed. I became unemployed.
The first place I went was to a VC conference in San Francisco. I wanted to pursue this new career. I wanted to do this.
But at the conference, I chickened out.
When asked why I was attending the conference, I gave answers to the VCs like:
"As a tech exec, I want to become better acquainted with the challenges of your industry."
"As a tech exec, I'm looking to expand my network of venture capitalists."
I was afraid to tell them the real reason I was there. I was interested in better understanding the venture capital industry's culture, people, and opportunities. I wanted to know if I would be a fit. I wanted to see if they would see me, an experienced tech exec, as an attractive addition to their VC firm partnership.
But because I was afraid to tell them the truth, my conversations were more minor than beneficial for them and me. I was a red-headed stepchild in a family of blondes. I stood out like a sore thumb. I wasn't supposed to be there. They had no idea what to do with me. It wasn't very good.
But the next plan was to put together my insights from the conference.
What were VCs thinking?
What returns were they promising?
How were the institutional investors viewing VC investments?
This was fresh market G2. I figured it would be a door opener for me with local VCs. And it was. I met with all the VCs in town. They appreciated the report. They didn't understand that I wanted to be one of them.
They all said pretty much the same thing when I would bring it up.
"You are a tech exec. You are not a VC. Keep doing what you are doing."
This was so frustrating.
That's when I realized people don't see me for what I want to do. They see me for what I did. In other words, the market does not believe what I say I want to do until I start doing it.
That's when I became an angel investor. I started saying “No” to running companies. But to be honest, I didn't say no to everyone. I allowed some people outside of Atlanta to believe I was still open to tech exec operating roles. After all, I had a wife and four kids to support. I didn't know if this angel investor career would pay off. And, if it did, how long it would take. I wasn't sure I had the wealth to invest in new businesses and sustain negative cash flow.
Then one day, I realized that being something different to different people wasn't working. I needed to be all-in on this new occupation.
Here's how it happened.
I met with a former boss who was the CEO of a public company. He was visiting Atlanta on business and called me to have dinner. What he didn't know was that he was my secret life-line for a great job as an operator in case this angel investing thing didn't work.
During our conversation, it all became clear. I thought to myself, "I can't go back. This angel investing has to work. I am no longer a tech exec." And that was the day I burned the ships and became a full-time angel investor in the marketplace. It didn't matter who I was talking to, that's what I told them.
"I'm an angel investor, and I am doing it as my profession."
It took a while for the market to see me this way. In fact, it took over two years. What changed their minds was the investments I made. They came to realize that what I was saying was, in fact, what I was doing week in and week out. I was behaving like an investor. I talked like an investor. I was seeking new network as an investor. It all matched.
By year three, they called me an angel investor. The change was official.
And now I am going through another career change.
I now want to be a creator and a writer. But guess what? Everyone I know sees me as an angel investor.
Here I go again!