Interview the interviewer (part one):
Angel investor Adam Quinton talks hiring, bias, and one surprising conclusion
with Adam Quinton // @adamquinton
Adam Quinton is a former investment banker, current Adjunct Professor at Columbia, and angel investor. We’re thrilled that he was able to sit down with our staff sociologist Liz Kofman for a discussion on hiring and bias so wide-ranging, we are publishing it in three parts!
LK: Can you tell us a little about your career and how you got to your current role of angel investor?
AQ: I spent most of my regular paid employment time in the financial services industry. I started off as a sell side research analyst doing public company investment analysis. I did that in the UK for seven or so years; then in Asia for seven or so years where I ended up running quite a big investment research team of about 100 people in 9 countries, then moved the US and continued in that vein—analyzing companies, public companies again and also managing teams, including at one point a fairly large global team of 175 people in 12 countries. I left that world in 2010, and somewhat serendipitously, on the advice of a friend and former colleague, found myself exploring angel investing in late 2011. I got more and more involved subsequent to that and am now in a position where I’m invested in 15 companies, on the board of one, the advisory board of a couple others. I’m also involved in a number of groups supporting particularly female founders from across the country. And that’s where I’m at.
LK: In your current role as an angel investor, you spend time conducting what I’d call the ultimate interview. What do you look for when you’re interviewing a founder? You’ve said before that you think the most significant factor to whether a startup is successful or not has to do with the founder or the founding team. Can you elaborate?
AQ: From the point of view of what I’m looking for when I listen to a pitch, at a very high level I’m looking for three things: Number one is do I think the opportunity being presented can be big? Can it be a big enough operation to generate adequate investment returns? Two is the team and I’ll come back to that. And number three is how much traction have you got at your stage of development.
On the importance of the team—what I tend to find in a company that I’ve invested in is that the team is especially important; though I still stick to my rule that the “can you be big thing” is a fundamental gatekeeping factor. But the team REALLY matters. What I look for in a team is … Is there a team!? Is it just a one-person band or are there at least a number of people, whether they’re co-founders or just initial team members around that person that seem to be complementary, the right folks with the right kind of skills depending on what the company is doing? And then the tough part is the identification of the things that aren’t visible on any resume: how committed are these folks, how passionate are they, how much energy or drive do they have? Are they the sort of people who are going to be able to keep going when things get tough? Because they always get tough. Are they going to be people who, when presented with a brick wall, will be the sort of folks who will drill their way through the wall, around the wall, whatever the right way of attacking the wall is? And very importantly, are they ethical people?
Those intangible attributes can be tough to assess, because they typically only come out in challenging circumstances. You’re going to find someone who’s been there and done that and you can make some assessment—but oftentimes your talking to a first-time founder who’s never come up against the existential challenges that all founders face at some point. So it becomes a gut-feel situation when there’s limited prior experience to go on.
LK: Do you observe the ‘confidence gap’ that research has described in women versus men pitching to you? If so, how do you find other ways to find evidence of women’s ability to drill through that wall, if they’re not great at boasting about it?
AQ: Personally I think that, though to your point that there’s research behind it, the idea that women are more risk-averse is basically stereotyping and I generally don’t find it to be true.
Somebody put it in a way that matches my observation: that women as a group—and generalizing is hard because not all women are the same and not all men are the same—generally speaking women are not necessarily more “risk-averse” but they may be more “risk aware”. Which is a different and I think more subtle perspective on a similar mindset.
Maybe women are not necessarily more “risk-averse” but more “risk aware”
“Risk aware” doesn’t mean you’re not bold or ambitious. You can be bold and ambitious and willing to take risks. But to the extent that you’re more willing to assess and articulate the risks of an opportunity or course of action, you’re going to communicate your understanding of that problem in a different way. I find that women entrepreneurs are often more objective (and to be frank honest) in their risk assessment. But being more willing to acknowledge what could go wrong in a given situation is NOT the same as being risk averse in my view!
If the stereotypical male perspective may be to focus on the ten upsides and overlook the five downsides, and then they present their investment pitch in a way that focuses on those ten upsides, then I guess to many they will come across as less risk averse—when in fact they just may not be very risk aware. So yes, I push back on that female stereotype of risk aversion. I think if you’re conscious of those different ways of presenting opportunities and you’re thinking about risk then you can filter through those presentations and start calling those guys on: What are the risks here? So I would push back on this idea that this group is more risk averse because if you look at ambition and drive and commitment, I don’t see any difference.
LK: That’s a really interesting way to frame the issue. I think if the media and investors talked more about women being more ‘risk aware’ instead of that word ‘risk-averse’ we may see attitudes change toward women entrepreneurs.