How Venture Capital Firms Are Like Colleges

College application essays? They’re all the same. That’s according to Rick Clark, the head of admissions at Georgia Tech, who kicks off this past weekend’s episode of This American Life by, in part, mocking the tired trope of “idealistic teenager goes to Central America to help the people there but becomes transformed by the experience.” Clark, however, is self-aware enough to realize that the colleges are equally bad: the glossy brochures they send out to high school students, trying to attract their application fees if not their tuition checks, are all exactly the same in virtually every respect.

This reminded me of what it’s like trying to raise money from venture capitalists. The number one thing they care about is your sustainable competitive advantage (unless you’ve already started a successful company, in which case they’ll write you a check to deliver peanut butter sandwiches by text message, but you don’t need their money anyway). Why, if your idea is so good, won’t big company X (in our case, SAP or Oracle) just copy you and crush you? It’s like they all took the same class in business school and only paid attention for the first fifteen minutes.

Then, at the end of the meeting (occasionally at the beginning), they talk about themselves and why you should want their money as opposed to the equally green money of the identical-looking, khakis-wearing, bicycle-riding people on the other side of Sand Hill Road. They really focus on improving operations; they sit on a small number of boards; they care about developing entrepreneurs; blah blah blah. They all have exactly the same pitch. But they can get away with it because they have the thing that matters: money. The one VC I liked the most was the only one who said, “Basically, we’re the money, and we try not to mess things up too much.”

(The rest of that TAL episode is a fantastic story about Emir Kamenica and how he made it from being shot at in Bosnia to going to Harvard—so good I almost took the wrong exit on the way to work yesterday.)

This piece is cross-posted from The Baseline Scenario with permission.