Guest Author · December 7th, 2009
This post is by Mark Suster, a partner at GRP Partners. If you like it, check out Mark’s blog with startup advice and his tweets @msuster. And if you want an intro to Mark, send me an email. I’ll put you in touch if there’s a fit. Thanks. – Nivi
One of the questions I’m most often asked as a VC is what I’m looking for in an investment. For me I’ve stated publicly that 70% of my investment decision is the team and most of this is skewed toward the founders. I’ve watched people who went to the top schools, got the best grades and worked for all the right companies flame out.
So what skills does it take to be a successful entrepreneur? What attributes am I looking for during the process? Having been through the experience as an entrepreneur twice myself, I have developed a list of what I think it takes.
Tenacity is probably the most important attribute in an entrepreneur. It’s the person who never gives up — who never accepts “no” for an answer. The world is filled with doubters who say that things can’t be done and then pronounce after the fact that they “knew it all along.” Look at Google. You think that anybody really believed 1999 that two young kids out of Stanford had a shot at unseating Yahoo!, Excite, Ask Jeeves and Lycos? Yeah, right. Trust me, whatever you want to build you’ll be told by most VC’s something like, “Social networking has already been done,” “You’ll never get a telecom carrier deal done,” or “Google already has a product in this area.” You’ll be told by the people you want to recruit that they’re not sure about joining, by a landlord that you’ll need a year’s deposit or by a potential business development partner that they’re too busy to work with you, “come back in 6 months.”
If you’re already running a startup you know all this. But some founders have that extra quality that makes them never give up. At times it goes as far as being chutzpah. And I see this extra dose of tenacity in only about 1 of 10 entrepreneurs that I see. And if you’re not naturally one of these people you probably know it, too. You see that peer who always pushes things further than you normally would. What are you going to get further out of your comfort zone and be more tenacious? It is really what separates the wheat from the chaff.
I once had a debate with a prominent VC on a panel. The moderator asked the question, “if an entrepreneur writes an email to a VC and doesn’t hear back what should they do?” This VC responded, “Move on. Next on the checklist. He’s not interested.” Without much thought I shot back, “That’s the worst advice I’ve ever heard someone give an entrepreneur.” Doh. I almost couldn’t believe I had blurted it out, but what came out of my mouth was so heartfelt that it just rolled out.
If you fold at the first un-returned email what hope do you have as an entrepreneur? As an entrepreneur, people aren’t going to respond to you and it’s your responsibility to politely and assertively stay on people’s radar screen. You no longer work for Google, Oracle, Salesforce.com or McKinsey where everybody calls you back. You had no idea how important that brand name was until you left it behind. Your customers don’t care that you went to Standford, Harvard or MIT. It’s just you now. And frankly if you went to a state college in Florida you’re at no disadvantage in the tenacity column. Persistence will pay off.
2. Street Smarts
OK, so you’re a tenacious person — you never give up. Well obviously that’s meaningless if your startup idea sucks. I don’t think it takes book smart people to build great companies — sometimes it’s a hindrance. But you do have to be a smart person and I personally prefer street smarts. I’m looking for the person that just “gets it.” They know instinctively how customers buy and how to excite them. They have a sixth sense for the competitors’ weaknesses. They spot opportunities that aren’t being met and the design products to meet these needs.
Because they’re street smart, most great entrepreneurs tend to prefer getting out and talking with real customers rather than sitting in a cubicle all day doing beautiful PowerPoint slides. And when they walk in my office and present you can tell that they know what they’re talking about. You can practically hear the “voice of the customer” when they’re presenting their concept.
I often tell people that I’m looking for people who weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths. I like people who aren’t worried about the social consequences of doing something they’re not supposed to. That’s why I personally believe many immigrants or children of immigrants fare well in business. It never occurs to them to play by the same rules as everybody else; in fact, I’m not sure if they even know what the “rules” are. It leads many of these people to be more street smart than those defined by convention.
3. Ability to Pivot
I don’t like to invest in people that I’ve never met before who come through my office wanting to have a term sheet within 30 days. I don’t think most VC’s do. Yes, there is the mythical company you all heard about that walked into Sequoia and had a term sheet 24 hours later. I’m sure that happens. But in most situations a VC will want to be able to judge how you perform over time. It’s what prompted my post on how to build relationships with VCs.
VCs often tell entrepreneurs that they want to see “traction” before they’re ready to invest. What I believe they really want is longer to get to know you. And part of what they’re looking for is how you adapt to the business you’re building over time. Every entrepreneur starts with an idea that they believe makes sense. But then your customers start using your products, your competitors come out with new offerings and your business partners decide to launch a similar product rather than working with you. You’re forced to “pivot” on a regular basis. The best entrepreneurs get market feedback regularly and change their approach based on the latest information. The best entrepreneurs seek advice from everybody they need, learn lessons and make minor adjustments on a monthly basis.
This is the reason that I’m personally not that anal about your financial model. I’ve stated publicly that you MUST have a financial model because it serves as your ongoing compass and strategy but it will change on a regular basis during your first 2 years. So much so that your financial model 2 years out won’t resemble your starting model at all!
So, for me, seeing how you respond to market challenges, what you learn and how you adapt is one of the most critical pieces of information I can collect about whether or not I want to invest in your company.
I like to say that “being an entrepreneur is really sexy… for those who have never done it.” The reality is that it’s lonely, hard work, high pressure and filled with mundane tasks. It’s a gritty existence. In the grand scheme of things no matter how hard you work and despite your appearance on the TechCrunch50 stage, no one seems to really care. That next round of investment is proving difficult. Customers are harder to sign than you want. Journalists have just written an article that wasn’t favorable. Your competitors just announced positive news. You’ve got 8 weeks of cash left and one of your employees just asked you to fill out a form so she can buy a house.
Every day you go home and face self-doubt but you’ve got to come back in the morning strong. Your employees are looking in your eyes for signs of weakness and self-doubt. They believe in you and they draw strength from you. You’ve got to be able to come out of unsuccessful VC meetings, pull your socks up, and go into the next pitch. You’ve got to accept customer losses as learning experiences and see how you can improve next time. You’ve got to see your product weaknesses and plug them. You’ve got to hear all of the doubters, and the world is FILLED with doubters, and still not give up. Resilience is one of the tell tale signs of an entrepreneur.
As a VC, if I can tell that you’ve survived tough times and you don’t appear beaten down that’s a huge plus. People always think that the big, successful brands they know were huge success stories from day one. GRP Partners funded Starbucks and Costco. I can tell you both were less than 30 days from bankruptcy early in their lives. They were survivors. One of the most famous case of resiliency in the US history is Abe Lincoln. If you haven’t seen how many setbacks Abe had before becoming president check out the link.
Or, more succinctly, from Sir Winston Churchill, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” (quote via David Fishman)
As an entrepreneur you’re always under-resourced. You want to hire a crack team of developers but you haven’t raised enough money yet. You want that key marketing resource from Google but he’s on a fat salary that you can’t match. You’re trying to get your contacts to get you that introduction to Ron Conway to sprinkle his legitimacy on your company through an angel investment. All of these things are nearly impossible for most entrepreneurs. And tenacity alone won’t yield positive results.
Often entrepreneurs show me their management team slides with the names of the people who are going to join him once they’re funded. I usually jokingly respond, “maybe you’re not an entrepreneur?” This always gets people to sit up straight 😉 I say, “listen, nearly every successful entrepreneur I’ve ever met has a certain ‘X-Factor’ about them that makes people take notice. I know that these people who you want to join you are in comfortable positions at brand name companies and don’t want to take the risk of joining you. But when the right entrepreneur comes along they think, ‘I’ve got to join this person now. I think this is going to be hugely successful and I don’t want to miss the opportunity.'”
The best entrepreneurs are like that. When you’re around them it’s almost contagious. They are passionate about what they’re doing, they’re confident about their success and they’re driven to make it happen. Sure, they have self doubt when they’re alone looking in the mirror, but you’d never know it from seeing them in the office. And what you need to know is that for every chart you put up with the people who are going to join you when you’re funded, I see companies that have actually gotten the team on board with no more cash in the bank than you have.
Whenever I’m watching someone present to me I’m often thinking to myself, “Can this person inspire others?” And inspiration is so important because not only is it required to hire and lead your team, but it’s required to get customers to work with you when, by all means, they should not. You’ve got less than 6 months cash in the bank and your product isn’t really fully baked. But they have confidence that you’ll get there even if they don’t acknowledge this to themselves. TechCrunch is going to cover you. They probably shouldn’t because you’re a bit more hype than reality right now. But they sense your trajectory. They get a sixth sense that you’re going to pull this thing off. Inspiration goes a long way in business.
To be continued in Part 2 with perspiration, detail orientation, decisiveness, and more. If you like this post, check out Mark’s blog and his tweets @msuster. If you want an intro to Mark, send me an email. I’ll put you in touch if there’s a fit. – Nivi