So… What Does an EIR Actually Do?

This has been a persistent question since I started my Entrepreneur in Residence gig at Andreessen Horowitz, and one that I have had to both figure out for myself and explain over and over again. If you explicitly search for it, you can find an occasional article or Quora thread on the topic – but as people rightfully point out in those, it is a rather vague role that varies in each case and from VC firm to firm. So, once-and-for-all, here’s what it’s been like for me so far.

In many ways, an EIR is the ultimate meta-job, in the sense that the sole purpose of the job is to figure out your next job.

The objective of this entire exercise for me is to come out on the other side with a new entrepreneurial mission, either by creating a brand-new startup or joining some early stage team met along the way. I have co-founded a few companies in my early days as an entrepreneur, and more recently spent years as an executive on a true rocket ship (Skype). Comparing these experiences I have learned the inspiring substance and impact you can have matter more than if you personally are the first, second, fifth or thirtieth guy in a budding team.

I have become somewhat agnostic to the exact organizational stage of the company I join or found and to be clear, so is Andreessen Horowitz. We can both be happy if I start my own thing again, or help lead an existing startup. If to draw any lines, it is unlikely I’ll join something that has already reached triple-digit headcount.

The objective for the hosting VC firm is to keep the “family network” active and productive for everyone involved in the long run. In our setup there are no up-front agreements about any money changing hands. Should the company I end up building need financing I get to pitch the General Partners the same as any other incoming opportunity. One difference will be I have spent more time than usual getting to know the investing team, and they have had a chance to develop some opinion about me as a person. But no matter how much time we spend in the lunch line together, the firm may choose to invest or not based on thinking related to me and the business I pitch — or equally on external arguments such as the makeup of the current portfolio and the firm’s focus. Bottom line: no guarantees on anything other than that we’re very likely to remain friends on any outcome.

While I and the firm keep our ultimate end-goals in mind, here’s what I find most valuable of the kinds of things Andreessen Horowitz is providing to me during my time here:

  • Access to deal flow. In return for a set of NDAs and agreements to carefully opt out of anything potentially in conflict with my own venture ideas, I get to join incoming startup pitches as well as the internal deal reviews where decisions get made afterwards. The pace of some few thousand pitches seen a year can become mind-blowing, but then again, that means you are likely to see 90% of the coolest new things a few months before they hit TechCrunch. I’m mostly here to learn and observe, but sometimes can’t resist to speak up on things closer to my background and expertise.
  • Access to the people at the firm. a16z is special among its peers with over 90 people on staff. Just a minority of them deal directly with investment decisions. Most people on staff offer operational support to startups, and guidance to big companies. Should I ponder about digital currencies I can talk to the deal team partner who has lived and breathed bitcoin for the last years. Or, when looking into tools for people management, I am bale zero-in on the good stuff quickly thanks to in-house experts who help portfolio startups manage their HR through rapid growth. The same is true for if I have question of cracking sales in the Fortune 500, corporate development with large Valley tech companies, recruitment of tech and exec talent, marketing communications and so forth. General Partners are the most visible faces of the firm from outside, but realistically there is a limit to the time one can steal on their insane calendars – and there are ranks of super-smart people behind them.
  • Access to the existing portfolio and the partners’ broader network – all one intro away. Counting both seed and venture deals, there are already hundreds of startups where the firm has invested in its first four years, plus the other hundreds the partners already know and stay in touch with. Some of them are well-known superstars already well on their own path, and are interesting for me to learn from and extend my Valley network. Still others might be struggling with issues I’ve seen before, and then I can help out with quick advice. In this small way I can contribute back to the firm and its wider network of companies and entrepreneurs.
  • The office. Having a desk, meeting rooms and way above American average coffee machines make the days much more social than they would potentially be in solo new venture thinking. And inviting people for meetings on Sand Hill Road works very well as a time saver instead of commuting between coffee shops.
  • An email address and business card with a domain name that opens doors. The Skype story will never leave me, but @skype.net access did upon my departure. @a16z.com makes things happen faster than @gmail.com.

All these resources, and virtually no obligations outside of my own explicit choices result in quite humbling freedom but at the same time can also drive one crazy with the absolute lack of focus in the broad ideation phase I’m still in. I find it is sometimes way too easy to fall into the trap of only reacting to shiny new ideas swooshing in every day from others, and completely loosing inertia on things I proactively want to push. To bring some balance and structure into the chaos, I decided that every week I need to do at least one thing in each of these four categories:

Work on  my own ideas. That can mean taking an hour to brainstorm, and make my list of potential ideas longer. Or sometimes, it’s taking a day or two to dig deeper into a particular item already on the idea list, and  talk to potential users and industry insiders to test if anything is there.

Examine others’ ideas. By Monday morning usually the group calendars show the pitches for the week ahead from which I pick and choose. If possible, I join at least one of the internal deal reviews in between.

Connect wit the existing portfolio. This is slightly tricky to manage, because I don’t want to appear as if I’m looking for a job when I’m really not, and also to be very mindful of sucking up busy people’s time without an agenda. The most fruitful conversations thus far have been with founders who are just planning to hire some key product management people or someone to help them to scale, especially internationally – these are topics where discussing what worked and what did not at Skype can be a good use of time.

Get out of the firm. As a matter of balance and diversity, I try to fit something unrelated to a16z into every week – either catching up with some old contacts or dropping by a meetup with strangers, of which Silicon Valley has plenty. A perfect example is a dinner we recently had with EIRs from different VC firms to discuss each other’s approaches to the role.

When I started, an EIR who “graduated” the firm just this spring said that he came in with a plan to be in and out in 3 months. He eventually had the idea he is now building a company around in month-seven and was out on the day of his nine-month anniversary.

After my first three months here have passed, that pace seems about right. Every week I know better what I want and where I’m headed. I have iterated on a personal decision making framework that helps to filter and also kill ideas and requests quicker and more consistently (which could be a blog post in itself, if anyone cares). I am not quite there yet, but with some tools in place to quell the EIR chaos, how exactly my next business will change the world can become the sole focus.

Which is what an EIR fundamentally tries to do, much like any entrepreneur, in or out of residence.