The Generalist - Modern Meditations: Kirsten Green
The Forerunner Ventures founder on vulnerability, patience, and human psychology.
Consumer investing is a kind of alchemy. Determining which product or app is set to take over the world while another is slated for the scrapheap requires a rare blend of talents: an equity analyst’s understanding of the market and its particular dynamics; a marketer’s nous for assessing a brand’s particular charms; a psychologist’s reading of the founder in front of them; and an anthropologist’s grasp on the motives and machinations of our species.
Why do we like this cosmetics company and not that one? Why do we trust one bank over another? What explains our loyalty to something as prosaic as a razor, a multivitamin, a suitcase, or a pair of sneakers?
Over the past fourteen years, few investors have been as skilled at reading the vagaries of consumer desire as Kirsten Green. As the founder of Forerunner Ventures, Kirsten has backed many of the most successful startups of the past couple of decades, including Glossier, Chime, Dollar Shave Club, Oura, Jet, Bonobos, The Farmer’s Dog, and Hims & Hers. (Forerunner has also made strong B2B investments, notably Faire.) That track record has helped establish Forerunner as a major player in the venture landscape, with more than $2 billion under management. It also made Kirsten a mainstay of Forbes’ Midas List, which highlights venture’s most successful practitioners.
Given the style of Kirsten’s success, it is perhaps unsurprising to learn that Forerunner’s founder is someone with uncommon emotional depth, an open mind, and endless curiosity. That she has been so talented at deciphering what tomorrow’s society will want, need, and care about stems from the earnestness with which she has asked herself such questions – and had the courage to discover unusual, original answers.
As you will see in today’s piece, Kirsten is willing to reflect on herself and her strengths and weaknesses in a way that suggests an uncommon wisdom. That profundity is allied with an investor’s savvy and a former accountant’s thirst for precision. These are her meditations.
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If you only have a few minutes to spare, here’s what investors, operators, and founders should know about Kirsten Green’s meditations.
What would you be doing if you didn’t work in tech?
My earliest ambition (and maybe still my secret ambition) was to be an architect. It’s a field that fuses analytical structures and creativity to create a whole greater than the sum of the parts. I actually think there are some similarities to my work today – it was the combination of math and people that drew me to venture capital in the first place.
Those two forces – the quantitative and creative – are part of who I am. As a former accountant, math is my safe space. There are days when I need to be quiet, convening with a financial model, using it to try and understand something, or to pick apart an investment opportunity. Doing that can be a bit therapeutic.
If you focus too much on the analytical side, though, you take away space for creativity. That’s essential, too. A part of me would like to be talented enough to be an artist full-time. There’s something about the freedom of the blank page and the emotion required to put something out there, to share your work with the world.
If I could design anything as an architect? Homes are so tangible, but I think working on public spaces would be amazing. Building a space where you’re looking to convene people and inspire all kinds of interactions and experiences would be a real challenge but rewarding.
Which current or historical figure has most impacted your thinking?
If I’m being honest, I would highlight the energy healer and clairvoyant I work with. I might regret sharing that publicly!
I’ve read a lot of research-backed resources on personal growth, and I’ve worked on and off with therapists and coaches. I’ve often emphasized traditional approaches to understanding yourself and the situations you encounter. But there’s something unique about the impact of a clairvoyant. The prompts raised in our sessions often unlock new explorations – things I wouldn’t have come up with working in a more structured format.
To make the most of that kind of work, you have to leave judgment behind. My willingness to try alternative approaches doesn’t come from a place of “Oh, I’m itching to figure this thing out, and someone else is going to do it for me.” It comes from curiosity and the feeling of “why not?” I’ve discovered that some practices are not for me, but I have learned something. I think of it as a “mosaic” approach to personal growth.
And, of course, working with my clairvoyant is not about looking at a crystal ball to see the future. If it was, I might be a better venture capitalist!
What is the most significant thing you’ve changed your mind about over the past decade?
I’ve changed my mind about what a successful person looks like. My v1 framework for a successful person focused on external achievements. Is this person leading a company? Are they operating at the top of their field? Are they leading movements and creating change? Those were the questions that decided whether someone was a success or not. It created a picture of someone well-educated, well-read, and well-traveled, with an aspirational lifestyle.
Though this is a common view of success, I’ve come to appreciate how myopic it is. Today, success looks very different to me. For my v2 definition of success, I think about things like: Do you have a genuine sense of self and purpose? Do you have an openness to evolve? Can you be at peace alone in a quiet room? It’s a broader definition but also a higher bar. I don’t want to judge, but I think it can be tougher to be at peace with yourself than to be hard-charging and get a promotion.
One of the things I like about the v2 definition is that in this framework, it’s never too late to be successful. It’s not dependent on finding the right career and rising through the ranks in your 30s. This is much more personally driven.
What craft are you spending a lifetime honing?
Patience. By nature, I’m impatient – with myself, sometimes with others. I like to move forward. I like to get things done. When there’s a problem, I prefer to fix it now. That’s true both professionally and when it comes to interpersonal relationships. When I’m trying to close a deal, I’ll find myself thinking, “What can I do to make it happen faster?” When I have a conflict with someone, I’m impatient to get to a resolution and hug and makeup.
Though there’s value in speed, I’ve come to appreciate how important it is to cultivate patience. Most of the best things in life take time to reveal themselves. They take time to unfold and play out. That process often makes the takeaways richer, the learnings deeper, and the rewards that much better. And sometimes, sitting in discomfort along that path is essential to finding the truth.
Kids require patience, taking care of your aging parents requires patience, bringing people along professionally requires patience, building a company requires patience, and often finding answers requires patience. I know these things; I know that patience often leads to better outcomes. But putting that knowledge into practice isn’t always easy.
Over the years, I’ve implemented all kinds of hacks to help slow me down. My colleagues at Forerunner joke about how I have two different folders in my email: a six-hour folder and a 24-hour folder. If I shouldn’t respond to a message for six hours, I’ll file it in the first folder. If I should give it a day, I’ll put in the second. It’s my way of reminding myself, “Just don’t. Let it sit.”
What is your most contrarian, high-conviction opinion?
I’ll make it short and sweet: I think people are inherently good.
That might sound especially contrarian given what the world has been through in recent years. Ultimately, though, I believe people are oriented toward the good. I think it’s primarily fueled by insecurity and feeling threatened when we act contrary to that.
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What are you obsessed with that others rarely talk about?
Human psychology. I’m fascinated by the socioeconomic, behavioral, trend-driven, often unexplainable reasons people do what they do. Why do we like the things we like? Why do we buy what we buy? Why do we pursue certain goals over others? That is my big curiosity, and it’s fun that it ties into my work as an investor.
As with personal growth, I take a mosaic approach to studying psychology, learning from all kinds of people and blogs and newsletters. There are a lot of authors covering topics across modern culture, Gen Z behavior, relationships, and new trends. There’s a lot of fodder to engage with.
The human mind is just endlessly fascinating. I could spend more hours in the day than I have, dissecting it with people and learning about it.
What will the next generation do or use that is unimaginable to us today?
I have an optimistic take: our addiction to our devices will wane substantively. Our generation got a new toy and indulged in it, and we haven’t yet formed social norms around it in productive ways.
We’ve only started questioning whether devices are good for you in the last few years. We’ve begun to say: “This is bad for you,” or “This isn’t the right way to take in information.”
But I’ve noticed that kids who grew up with technology at their fingertips aren’t as turned on by the novelty of it. Phones aren’t this special treat – it’s a tool. For example, my son wanted to use Snapchat. I said, “My instinctive answer is to say ‘no.’ But why don’t you make your case? Put together a 10-slide deck outlining why you should have it, what I’m likely concerned about, and how you will mitigate it.” Now that he has it, he doesn’t spend much time on it. He uses it to figure out if people are going to the park to play basketball, not to doom scroll. I think part of the reason that’s the case is because it’s not the snack hidden in a drawer.
To be clear, I don’t think connectivity and digital access are going away – people will still need their phones. But I think we’ll put more guardrails around how we let it seep into our lives.
What trait do you value highly in other people?
I respect people who show up. People who stand for something and follow through.
It’s such a cliche, but life is short. There is so much to do and explore. You can go wide, you can go deep – but don’t do nothing. It doesn’t mean the answer is to be hyper-ambitious and become an entrepreneur. It’s just about being engaged, supporting people, finding causes you connect with, making commitments, setting goals – and following through on them. I respect people who put that effort forward.
What risk are we radically underestimating? What are we radically overestimating?
We’re underestimating the loss of spirituality and overestimating the Fed’s ability to get us out of all of our problems.
Spirituality helps us understand there’s something bigger than ourselves. That we’re just a piece of a puzzle that extends beyond us. It’s an incredible context in which to live your life. To be reminded that it’s about more than just what one person is doing – because it’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day, the ins and outs. Spirituality encourages us to be thoughtful about how we spend our time and influence. It helps create a sense of purpose.
As for the Fed, we tend to get so focused on its decisions. A lot of effort goes into thinking things like, “Oh, if the Fed raises rates, it’s going to mean this,” or “If it lowers them, it will mean that.” Unfortunately, the world is not that simple.
What do you consider your greatest achievement so far?
I’m proud of the distance I’ve come as a person.
I focused on playing into other people’s needs and expectations for a long time. That was a necessity for me when I was younger, but that childhood imprinting created a pattern I held onto into adulthood. It had advantages: I was, and still am, good at reading a room and feeling other people’s energy. And I would use that reading to determine how I showed up at a given moment. What could I do to make someone else’s experience better? How can I optimize this situation for them? There’s a place for some of this, but it sometimes went beyond empathy into abandoning myself.
In my early thirties, I realized I didn’t know who Kirsten was. I didn’t know what I wanted or needed. I was living more to meet other people’s needs, and that left me feeling really lonely, unknown, and insecure. I don’t think people saw that on the outside, but that was my world.
Thankfully, I found the courage to tear myself down and rebuild. I don’t think I had another choice. I questioned my priorities, career choices, marriage, hobbies, and friends. That kicked off an interim period in my life where I forced myself into uncomfortable places, and I dropped a lot of things – things I’d worked really hard for. But I needed to free up space for exploration.
Ultimately, I came through that period with the ability to stand in my space and be mostly comfortable with that – it’s an ongoing effort. I had more clarity on who I was: I recommitted to my marriage, I became a mother, I let go of some friends and doubled down on others, I judged myself less, and I allowed my instincts to guide my days.
All of that led me to venture capital, which was a second-act career for me. It led me to my journey as a founder, launching Forerunner. If you’d asked the old me, I would never have imagined I’d have the risk appetite, the confidence, or the conviction to do that.
How will future historians describe our era?
We’re the guinea pig generation when it comes to technology. We’re at the cusp of this transformation that, in the grand scheme of things, has only just started.
It has already reshaped everything, from social norms to how we navigate our careers. We’ve embraced technology in such an unbridled way. That’s great in one respect – it’s what you need to move things forward. But it’s a big experiment. And we’re still just at the advent of it.
In the fullness of time, I hope we’ll be forgiven for how we operated in this nascent period because we’re operating in the dark.
Respond to this email for a hint.
Winners of our last round include Michael S, Krishna N, Jeff L, Kelly O, Gary J, John G, Michael O, Sunil S, Jennifer T, Faheem K, Emin H, Andrew S, Mark B, Divyanshu S, and Michael O. All provided the apposite response to this conundrum:
The answer? “Are you asleep?” Other good answers included: “Have you lost your voice?” and, more bleakly, “Are you dead?”
Until next time,
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