Staying Focused in the Shifting World of VC

The Gated Team
August 9, 2022

Released on August 9th, 2022, Episode 03 of Finding Focus (a podcast from Gated) features CEO Andy Mowat sitting down to talk with Managing Partner for Precursor Ventures, Charles Hudson.

Being an investor, a big part of my day is unexpected interruptions and sort of a rebalancing of priorities, based on things that happened to hit my inbox, things that have hit my phone, or thing that happened with a portfolio company. I can have the best plan for that day ...and that plan can get blown up.

In this episode, you'll hear about: 

  • the ever-shifting priorities of a VC leader
  • how VCs can have many portfolio companies - and still find time to focus on each one
  • the importance of communication
  • finding time for deep work... and how it can come in the most unexpected places
  • the challenge of async work

Read on for some of the episode's best takeaways - and a full transcript at the end.

Giving each portfolio company a piece of your time.

Despite having over 300 portfolio companies, Charles and Precursor Ventures are committed to giving their focus and attention to each company, when needed. Here are three ways that Charles makes that happen: 

- He creates space for the emergencies, leaving open time on his calendar to deal with critical issues

- He gives each issue a small amount of time, to assess the urgency before diving in or dedicating an hour + 

- He leans on a strong, talented team - it's not a one-man show.

So, you know, we've invested in over 300 companies. If you think about that, statistically, every day one of them is probably going to have an emergency that's incredibly time-sensitive. Statistically, it's going to happen.

Communication is critically important.

One of the foundational ways to foster focus - for Charles and his team - comes from communicating well. What goes into that? 

- Setting a common language of his priorities - so his team can immediately know if something is priority for Charles... or not.

- Writing a handbook for founders at their portfolio companies, that goes into what to expect and how to connect with the firm.

- Being clear about how he himself is best able to be reached.

We've developed a common language around my priorities that really allows my team to make autonomous decisions on my behalf.

Finding time for deep work is constantly a challenge.

With so much going on, it's an ongoing challenge (and goal) for Charles to find chunks of time in which he can get deep work done. He's found that blocks of time on his calendar... often just get scheduled over. The best solution, for Charles?  To set deep work in the time when he has a natural tendency to be more focused already.

What I realized is that I have sort of natural times of day when my mind is in the state of being ready for deep work. And rather than trying to  force my brain to go into that mode on 3:00 PM on a Friday, which is hard to do, it's better to say: When do I feel like I have the most energy and focus to do deep work?

A bonus tactic that works wonders for Charles? 

There's one other thing that my performance coach got me in the habit of doing that kind of changed the way I think about deep work: I do a lot of voice dictation.

He goes on to explain:  "I find sometimes  I'll have a thorny problem at Precursor that's kind of running in the background. And then I'll find myself out on a walk for 10 minutes and it'll all come together. And rather than try to write it down, I just fire up my recorder and I just word-vomit into my recorder. I can ship that off to my Chief of Staff and she will take that mess and turn it into something manageable. With deep work what I often need is just enough time to let something process in the background... until I hit the breakthrough."

Asynchronous work can pose a challenge.

It's not easy to find focus with all of the ongoing communication required for this world of asynchronous work. To that end, here are two tricks that Charles relies on: 

- Delayed send for his slack and email messages (leaders often work on the weekends, but don't want others to be bothered by it)

- When you're missing the visual cues of people in the workplace, you have to work harder to understand what people are feeling and why they are motivated.

In a physical office, you get visual cues.  Someone's in their office with the door closed. Probably doesn't want to be disturbed. Someone's at their cube with headphones on ...they're signaling to you: this is probably not an ideal time to interrupt me. And we don't have that right now in our digital communications.

One final thought...

The most important thing during a meeting is to be present and be engaged. It's been hugely transformative for like my personal and my professional life.

Watch the full episode...

---- FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT ----

Andy Mowat

0:13

Welcome to finding photos. This is a series of short, actionable conversations that uncover why and how people focus in today's increasingly distracted world pull up a chair as we examine the obstacles, the aha moments and the strategies that each unique guest uses to find focus. So today I'm joined by Charles Hudson. Charles is somebody I've known for a long time, has been insanely passionate about productivity tools has been an early gated user and is always kind of pushing my thinking on some of this Charles has described to me in the past some of his amazing, amazing tactics for amplifying himself and focusing so really excited to have you on the podcast today. Page.

Charles Hudson

0:52

Thanks so much for having me.

Andy Mowat

0:53

That's terrific. Well, I think the first question you and I were going back and forth on was on a scale of one to 10, how would you rate your ability to focus?

Charles Hudson

1:02

Oh man, I don't know. I think most days I'm happy with the seven or eight, you know, as you know, Andy like being an investor a big part of my day is unexpected interruptions and sort of a rebalancing of priorities based on things that happened to hit my inbox or hit my phone or something happens with the portfolio company. I can, I can have the best plan for that day and that plan can get blown up. So I think most days, occasionally I have one of those 10 out of 10 focus days where I feel like I'm totally in control and I'm like, why can't I have more of these and just doesn't happen.

Andy Mowat

1:41

That's cool. You've got a couple of, I think we've got a couple of fun things to dive into today. What you just touched on was distractions and like the particularly unique nuance to them as an investor, which I'd love to go through, but maybe we come to that one towards the end. I think I'd be fascinated. Talk about like your operating model is really invested. Like you're, you are invested in tons of companies as a seed stage investor, but you're still available when people need them. And I think that's one of the most impressive things I've seen you. And I have talked a little bit about maybe the tools and the processes and strategies you have for your team to amplify you and you focus, but please tell us what works.

Charles Hudson

2:19

Yeah. It's first of all, thank you for saying that it's something we try really hard to make founders believe that I will make time for you if it's necessary. So a couple of things I've learned the hard way, hard won lessons, one of the, one of the big, most counterintuitive things I learned as the busier, you are, the more slack you need in your schedule, like the more sort of off-ramps or windows you need. So, you know, we've invested in over 300 companies. If you think about that, statistically every day, one of them is probably going to have an emergency. That's incredibly, time-sensitive just statistically like it's going to happen.

2:58

So you've got to have a couple of little windows in your calendar where you can handle things that require at least some level of triage. And so I'm a big believer that for most of the really time sensitive things I get from founders, the best thing to do is rather than try to book out an hour to deal with it, find 15 minutes to triage the situation and feel like fill out, fill out whether it's really as urgent and important as the person thinks rather than get an hour in a month. So that's one big thing. The other thing I will say is, you know, I've got a handful of people who work behind the scenes to make me successful.

3:33

I've got a chief of staff, I've got an EA, we have a helper for them. And we've sort of developed a common language around my priorities that really allows them to make autonomous decisions on my behalf. So for example, I've written them a document that when it comes to meeting scheduling, it's literally my priorities of the sequence in which I would like things scheduled based on priority.

3:59

So they know that the very top is emergency requests from a founder that, that trumps just about everything except for a standing meeting with one of my limited partners.

Andy Mowat

4:10

I think let's maybe dive a little bit more into that. Like, yeah, you are one of the most available people I've met, but also one of the busiest, which is one other thing I enjoyed too, was when we raised our seed, you and I had a fun shadow. Am I still valuable to you to meet on the same basis? I appreciated that. I think none of our other investors did that. And you know, some of them just disappeared in some there. So I liked the consciousness of, and I do use the same thing too. I'll say like, does this need to happen? Let's talk about it. And a lot of times people will say, well, actually it doesn't cause we could've just kept going with our sequence.

4:45

And so I, you know, a year in some of the best advice we get from any investor, but B the consciousness of I'm here, as long as it's valuable, which I think is something you told me. And I really appreciate that. So it's not just the, how do you deal with it? But I think you're also like triage and consciousness has been impressive to me too. So thank you on that. Yeah. I mean, founders, how do you, how do they have your text, your, your, your phone number and how do you even guide founders of, or have you tried to guide them? And I haven't read the handbook yet. You know, other than the emergency we had this week, I haven't had any where I've felt like I've needed to have fire drills with you, but I'm sh I hope to never have one of those, but how do founders reach you and, and how do you, have you ever tried to be able to push triaged a little bit more onto them as well?

Charles Hudson

5:37

It's, it's interesting that you mentioned that I think early on, I tried to standardize and say, Hey, just, I want everyone to contact me this way, because it's easiest for me. And what I realized was that, that wasn't working very well. So when I tell people is I have the most eyes out of my inbox. So if you email me, it will get seen and will get seen quickly because I've got a number of people helping me manage that doesn't guarantee you an instant response, but it guarantees that someone will see it. And if it needs to be elevated to me, it will be quickly. There's a certain set of funders who texted me and I'm either amazing at texting or terrible, like nothing in between.

6:14

So if you catch me on a day at a time where I happen to have a free moment, you, you might actually get a better experience on texts, but text them on my own. I don't have any support or help around text messaging and text messaging competes with all of the other random texts that I get that are non-work to that same number.

6:34

And I have some founders who email me, who slack message me cause I am on slack most of the day. And so are they, that works reasonably well. So I've just adapted and does that. I will meet people where they are, but I try to encourage people to the email channel because that's where I have the most robust set of processes and the most people.

Andy Mowat

6:54

A plus plus as well too,

6:59

I, you know, what was ranked in my mind was PagerDuty for important for, for like venture people, which is I could see a total of if no SLA and this on this channel roll to this channel. And so I think there's something there in a feature product, we build it or somebody else, but that's really neat how you've done it. The other thing I think that I've noticed that you've done well, and I haven't gone back to it since we first dad, you invest in us, but I read your here's how to work with me. And I've, I personally have done a user manual that I find works insanely well for most people, you know, some people don't read it, but the vast majority of people take the time to understand how to leverage me effectively. And you did that too. So I like what you just talked about, where the founders, I, I think those things are really powerful to educate people earlier.

7:45

How does Charles find time for deep work?

Charles Hudson

7:50

Yeah. So you're touching on, what's been honestly the biggest challenge as we've scaled precursor. Eventually what I realized, you know, I used to try to, we run every experiment in the book, my assistants, but like, Hey, I want to black out these unscheduled bull unblockable chunks of time for you to do deep work during the day. And it just didn't work for me. There would be always something that came up.

Andy Mowat

8:18

Yes.

Charles Hudson

8:19

That, that felt like it was worth just making an exception for 15 minutes. And then you built the whole block. What I realized is like I have sort of natural times of day when I, when my mind is in the state of being ready for deep work.

8:32

And rather than trying to like force my brain to go into that mode on 3:00 PM on a Friday, which is hard to do, it's better to say when, when do I feel like I have the most energy and focus to do deep work? And for me, it's actually early in the morning and in the middle part of the evening, once I feel like I've dealt with all the really urgent email things that need to be covered, those are the times that I find I can actually [inaudible] Saturday morning while my son is entertaining himself. Those are like the, those are like the three, the three times when I think I can do it. So I try to protect those times when I need them and not allow busy, or then rather than trying to force myself to do deep work when I can tell my mind is distracted or my mind is too busy to focus.

Andy Mowat

9:28

But it's really, I think one of the things I read it when you and I were going back and forth and I, and it sunk in with me is the natural times concept. I, I know best practice is blocked time and I do it, but during the day, and I'll admit it, even, even though we'd built gated, like I'll flip over to LinkedIn and see what's going on in slack. And so I found that the evenings for me, unfortunately, you know, the natural times, because there's nothing else coming in. And so I can do like you have, I can spend the first 15 minutes, I can catch up on everything and then I can, and then I can shift over.

10:00

So I think, I think that concept of don't fight don't fight too much because once it starts to break down, it'll, it'll break down pretty quickly.

Charles Hudson

10:09

There's one other thing that my performance coach got me in the habit of doing that kind of changed the way I think about deep work, which is I do a lot of voice dictation.

Andy Mowat

10:19

Yes.

Charles Hudson

10:21

And what I find sometimes is I'll have a thorny problem at precursor and I'll think about it. It's kind of running in the background and then I'll find myself out on a walk for 10 minutes and it'll all come together. And rather than try to write it down, I just fire up my recorder and I just word vomit into my recorder. And suddenly I find, and then I shipped that off to my chief of staff and she will take that word vomit and turn it into something manageable. And so sometimes whatever that's with deep work is sometimes what I really need is like enough time to let something process in the background. It's like, get the breakthrough.

10:58

And then I need a five or 10 minute space where I can get it all out of my head into some other format where I can deal with it later. And I think a lot of my breakthroughs at precursor have come that way.

Andy Mowat

11:11

I see the exact same. I have those idea breakthroughs when I'm, when I'm not distracted. I try to take walks two to three times a day. And, and, and I guess I find myself pulling out my phone and slacking myself, but, but you're right. It's like you have to separate from the busy-ness to be able to have those insightful ideas that are reflective as well. I guess that's why bill gates did the, the, the think weeks. It's, It's interesting. Like we've talked a lot of folks around, it's hard to maintain that block of time, or, you know, a lot of companies will try the no meeting Wednesdays or the no meeting Friday.

11:49

So I think I've what I've seen is they oftentimes break down people haven't don't have the norms, right? So there is, and this is all what we think about a lot for gated is future potential products is how do you tell people, Hey, I'm in this mode. And I think that's, that's a challenge because people are by nature. They're going to send you the email. They're going to LinkedIn. You they're going to text you. And none of those mediums do they know that you're in deep work mode. And so I think it's, I, you know, I might, if I'm a founder and I have a semi emergency and I send a note to Charles and it comes back, it's like, I'm in deep work. If you really need me now, text me here if you don't need me.

12:30

So I think there are some interesting ways to attack that problem over time, which is you have to be verbalized your norms externally. And if you ever thought about how can I do that and how, how can I set those norms? I mean, in your, in your docs and your notion docs, you definitely will. But, but people forget those.

Charles Hudson

12:45

They forget them. And I I'm always interested. Like I occasionally will get someone to, oh, message would just like, I don't check email during the day. I'm like, okay, like that, that wouldn't work for me. But like, I get it. I think the, you would have talked about this. I think the challenge with communicating these norms is there's a couple of things. One is the power dynamic between the person expressing the Norma, the person hearing the message too, I think is just like the social convention around the language we use around these norms. And you and I have talked about this in a physical office.

13:17

Sometimes you get visual cues. Yes. Someone's in their office with the door closed. Probably doesn't want to be disturbed. Someone's at their cube with headphones on they're signaling to you. This is probably not an ideal time to interrupt me. And we don't have that right now in our digital communications.

Andy Mowat

13:37

We don't. Right. And you might even have it with your assistant in your office. You could be like, you know, some police check with somebody before they walk in on my office or whatever it is. And yeah, it's like, how do we come up with those cues and norms for people in a digital world where you don't see when your message lands, you don't understand, you don't get any response. So I think that's a, it's a fun problem that we're, you know, it's not current state of where we think about the product, but it's definitely like the quest, it's the quest I'm on. And maybe a way to, it definitely has become more acute because of, because of virtual or.

Charles Hudson

14:14

And I think the other thing I will say is I feel like in some ways a synchronous work makes this more stressful for people, because at least with synchronous synchronous work, you're like, well, we're all kind of working at the same time and then we're not working well, these are going to support you. Pub people tend to publish when they're done, right? Like, which has nothing to do with it, which was sort of destroys this normal. Like, I have no idea of like, whether this is a good time for Andy to receive this message. And I think this sort of lack of control. I see people have over their own schedule and the ability to signal, Hey, I'm not ready when stuff is coming at you, it causes a lot of people, a lot of anxiety.

Andy Mowat

14:50

How do you, that's interesting. One is the delayed send on slack and the delayed send on Google. I started to use as a leader because I want, I don't want to blow, even if I'm working late, I don't want other people to feel that sense of obligation. Do you think about how your actions impact your team and how do you, how do you approach them?

Charles Hudson

15:11

Yeah, I've thought I've learned a lot. I learned when I used to email people on Saturday, they would email me back. Even if it wasn't important. And I was like, oh, well, the simple solution here is I will just queue all of these non-important emails up and they'll go out. I used to do them all first thing on Monday that I was like, that's a little overwhelming. We will spread them out over the course of the day.

15:33

So it's not like a huge firehouse.

Andy Mowat

15:35

Yes. So people think that Charles is emailing all morning on Monday, but in reality, it's a.

Charles Hudson

15:39

It's a lot of cute, but my team, my team's kind of fair. I told him, I was like, this is, I don't want to mislead you. And it may lead you to believe I'm not working on the weekends. I'm not going to pretend that I'm not, but there's no reason that my decision to work on things on the weekend should cause you anxiety and me get. So if I ever need you for something on the weekend, you won't hear about it on email. I will let either told you on Friday, Hey, we're going to have to work on this over the weekend or I will call or text you on the weekend and say, I hate to bother you. But I, but like you don't have any email obligation to me on the weekend.

Andy Mowat

16:12

I think that's brilliant. Yeah. You've set your own norms for how people should anticipate how to work with you. I haven't done that much, but I could almost even envision a global setting, which is I'd like to turn on and I have the, I can't receive stuff on slack, but I love to turn the, I can't send stuff on slack because every single time you've got to do three extra little clicks to make sure you don't spend it right away. That's cool. This has been amazing. I, I truly enjoy how you think about this. You're one of the most deliberate thinkers about time and attention, even before we ever started talking on gated. I, I knew how well you thought about this stuff.

16:46

So thank you so much for sharing some of the wisdom, I guess last question would be, is there anybody that you've read or, or follow that has influenced your thinking about and focus?

Charles Hudson

16:57

Oh, my so many people I've like read, I think weirdly a lot of the things that have, I'd probably say, I've been wondering with Patrick beavers from mine Maven for the last four years, he's really helped me design a lot of the systems and processes we've talked about. And I would say that the reason has been so impactful for me is because I sort of know what I'm going to do with all the information I pick up in meetings. And like, I kind of know that email is being covered while I'm in a meeting. It's just allowed me to be a lot more present.

17:38

And I feel like my ability to absorb information and interactions is so much higher because I'm not thinking about quick. I got to make sure I remember what Andy said during this meeting so I can write it down right after, or I can send the unlike that I got a whole system for that we're going to be fine. The most important thing during the meeting is to be present and be engaged. It's been like hugely transformative for like my personal and my professional life.

Andy Mowat

18:01

I think that was so powerful when I was in office meetings, I would always never bring my computer. I would always take my pad. If I wrote I would be engaged. I think I've struggled to adapt personally to a virtual world where you can flip back and forth and toggle. And so I think that that's, that's really powerful. Yeah. Well, thank you, man. I, as, as both for the insights, but also just, but all the advice you've given us.