Whenever I run, I select a playlist to match my mood, the weather, and my level of training. Each soundtrack immerses me in my exercise, forcing me to feel where I am in that minute while also surfacing romantic memories of moments past. Today, I tried a “fast pop run,” which at 180 bpm I’ve always considered to be too fast for my natural pace. The result: I ran my fastest time in years. It’s funny — I always thought I controlled the music. Could it be, perhaps, that the music controls me?
One bad song — or coworker — can ruin your rhythm
Over my career, I have had the privilege of spending time in a wide variety of cultures not just as a casual observer, but as someone actually immersed in everyday symphonies. From Midwestern suburbia to Wall Street to traditional corporate Japan and now Silicon Valley, I have always been influenced by my surroundings, often in ways never anticipated.
When I raised my first venture fund, I was so eager to close my first limited partners that I didn’t take the time to carefully consider the kind of people we were soliciting for capital. I had one particular investor who was extremely friendly at first — eagerly promising to “add value” and commit additional capital in following funds. After weeks of endless data requests and unnecessarily nitpicky negotiation of investment terms, he changed his commitment at the last minute. After we closed, he was critical of my every action, demanding control over my decisions as a manager, and constantly demeaning my investments in spite of their strong performance. It didn’t take long for this attitude to trickle into the language I used with my founders and my direct reports, until one day I noticed just how negative and skeptical I had become.
As investors, entrepreneurs, and colleagues, we must create our soundtrack with care
For entrepreneurs, choosing the right investors is critical to determining the tone, pace, and pitch for building their businesses. What might seem like small notes of dissonance can easily crescendo into a toxic tone that will infect their team, product, and, ultimately, their customers. Some people call this “culture.” I’ll call it “choosing the right playlist.”
In some ways, identifying the right playlist — or rather the wrong one — is easier when things are clearly misaligned. When things are going well, it can be harder to hear the real music behind the sweet serenades from investors. When faced with the luxury of choosing one’s investors, it’s easy to be dazzled by brand name funds, well known partners, value added services, or the mystery of exclusive groups. However, it’s important for entrepreneurs to remember that their lead investors, and by extension their board, should and will be the music playing in their ears as they navigate critical choices about the race ahead of them.
Founders should carefully assess how potential investors calibrate their life algorithms before handing over the keys. How do they treat their families, their staff, other entrepreneurs, and each other? What soundtrack have they curated for themselves?
Similarly, entrepreneurs (and all leaders, for that matter) need to realize that they, too, are contributing artists on their soundtrack. How they treat investors and other key partners is how those partners are trained to treat them. Just as there are VCs who deem themselves too important to prepare for a pitch, I hear many founders replaying that same tune. Plenty of entrepreneurs show up late, dismiss difficult questions, window dress metrics, or refuse to build relationships outside of their narrow funding windows. Respect, integrity, and accountability are equally valued on both sides of the table.
We all need to remember that these behaviors build patterns over time, weaving together a collective melody that plays in the background of a shared ecosystem. How we act affects those around us — it’s in our wiring. Rene Girard, a world renowned Stanford professor and French philosopher, first introduced mimetic theory, the concept that humans inevitably adopt the desires of those around them, over 50 years ago. This is true at the cellular level, too. When placed next to each other, two heart cells of different origins will begin to beat together. We are all just algorithms finely tuned to our environment. When viewed through this lens, it is no wonder the cadence of the music seeped so strongly down to my feet.
When it comes to running towards our goals, our surroundings greatly impact our outcome. For me, my friends, colleagues and partners; the content I read and watch; and the landscape of my city du jour have all served to build the beat of my everyday life, subconsciously setting my stride. It’s easy to forget that none of this is a given — we each have the ability to curate our own soundtrack.
Whether it’s on a run or in life, it’s ultimately impossible to know if our music is controlling us, or we are the ones controlling it, but perhaps it goes both ways. We’re all part of the same song, so why not make it a good one?
Allison Baum is a principal at Trinity Ventures where she invests in technology for the future of work. Previously, she was a co-founder and managing partner at Fresco Capital, an early employee at General Assembly, and worked in sales and trading at Goldman Sachs.