Guest Author · January 5th, 2010
This post is by Mark Suster, a serial entrepreneur turned VC at GRP Partners. If you like it, check out Mark’s startup advice blog 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
There are 10 skills I look for in an entrepreneur before writing a check. They are not things that a VC can pick up on in 3 meetings spread out over 6 weeks, which is why I believe that raising VC is something you do over a long period of time, rather than just 2 months of the year. It’s best to meet VCs when you don’t need their money, so they can really get to know you.
In Part 1, I published the first five skills I look for in an entrepreneurs: tenacity, street smarts, resiliency, ability to pivot, and inspiration. I then elaborated on each of the topics in my blog series on VC startup advice.
You need the whole package
Through comment conversations with many of you I tried to emphasize that it isn’t enough to just have one attribute. Being tenacious without the mental flexibility to pivot based on market feedback is a disaster. Having street smarts with no inspirational ability to build teams can yield a great small business but will be difficult to scale into a large VC-backed business.
So we as VCs search for entrepreneurs/founders who have the whole package or as much of it as possible. Few people have it.
These are often amazingly talented people who are really strong in some of the skill areas and there is no shame in this. They often make great team members such as head of products, CTO, head of sales, CFO, etc. Great companies are comprised of great individual point people or functional leaders.
But when I’m looking to write my check I need to look in the eyes of the captain — the maestro who brings the whole orchestra together. And this is where the last post left off — inspiration.
Inspiration alone is not enough. We’ve all met inspirational leaders who talk the great talk. They get you all jazzed up after a company meeting but fail to get people to take action or to get things done themselves. Inspiration without perspiration is the equivalent of being a coach — not a CEO. Inspiration is part of what a VC provides, including goal setting, cheerleading, and challenging you. But the CEO needs to move the ball forward a few inches every day. Your VC can’t do that for you.
As a VC, I also see the apparently great leader who is a great public speaker and networker. He does the conference circuit but is somehow missing from running his company. Someone else is left back at the ranch minding the shop. Worse yet, internal company decisions often aren’t made without the CEO around and in-fighting amongst the direct reports is not uncommon. Talk to any management team with a “celebrity seeking” CEO and you’ll see what I mean.
If you’re the guy at every conference don’t think that people don’t notice. I notice. I love hanging out with you. I’ll gladly drink a few beers with you. But when it comes time to cut checks I’m backing the guy who’s back at the office getting stuff done. I believe great leaders eschew the limelight in favor of building their companies. (before I get attacked in the comments section I’m not saying ZERO conferences — but you need to be selective.)
I would also say that I found some VCs can’t tell the difference because they haven’t been inside an early-stage company so these CEO’s are usually able to raise money. VC money does not equal success.
The most poignant quote about perspiration comes from Thomas Edison, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” For entrepreneurs it’s probably a healthy dose of both. I know you think a VC would take for granted that all entrepreneurs work hard but you can tell the difference between those that see their startup as merely a slightly longer version of their last big job and those that are maniacal and focused about what they’re doing.
My favorite example is Jason Nazar, the CEO of DocStoc. There’s no ‘off button’ on this guy. He’s always open for business. If I’m up super late trying to crank out work, I often get IM messages from Jason at 1am. He attends many social events in the LA scene but he seems to always go back to the office afterward. He’s at TechCrunch50 but he knows why he’s there, who he wants to meet, and what he wants out of those meetings. It’s not a boondoggle. It’s all part of his DocStoc obsession.
Starting a company isn’t a job
There was a recent TechCrunch UK article by an anonymous VC (yes, I think posting anonymously is chicken shit) that talked about the work ethic of European tech companies versus those Silicon Valley. I retweeted this article and got some people in Europe telling me it was unfair to stereotype this way. It’s not. The reality is that many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs/companies are more obsessive and maniacal about their businesses in a way that many others around the world are not. The local culture breeds it. I’m not saying it’s good or bad — it just IS. Europe isn’t the only place to garner criticism for not being driven enough. We get the same criticism in Los Angeles.
But that doesn’t have to be you. If you want a “job”, don’t be an entrepreneur. It’s not a job — it’s your life. I recently posted some VC startup advice about the need for entrepreneurs to have a bias toward action or JFDI (a play on the Nike slogan). Well the second sign I had on the wall of my first startup was SITE. Ask anybody who worked with me how seriously I took it. Sleep is the Enemy.
Success breeds competition — from around the world
For every person who comes into my office with a good idea I respond, “Don’t worry about your failure, worry about your success. If you fail, you move on. But if your good idea pops big time then, trust me, there will be three Ph.D.’s from Stanford sharing a cheap apartment in San Jose working around the clock to beat you. They’ll be eating Ramen or Taco Bell every night and saving their pennies to pour into the company.”
It may be unfair, but it’s the reality of capitalism. It’s the dynamic that drives innovation. In the future, the competition won’t only be in San Jose, but also in Shanghai, Seoul, and Bangalore. I only wish more people in the US Congress understood this as well as Brad Feld does. The Startup Visa is one of our most important innovation movements. You think China can’t build great Internet companies? Have you heard of TenCent? It’s more valuable than Facebook.
In conclusion, if you’re not prepared to be “all in”, then you’re not prepared to build a huge company. You think Marc Benioff built Salesforce.com into a multi-billion company by having a good idea? I can tell you from having been on the inside that even now this guy never shuts off. He’s driven. He creates the success at Salesforce.com. He’s a billionaire and he still works harder than many startups. Are you willing to go that hard for that long?
7. Appetite for risk
Entrepreneurs are risk takers. Not wild speculators, but pragmatic risk takers who have a blind belief that they will find a way to make things work. If you put on paper what it would take to be successful in your company, you’d never take the first step, which is why most people don’t. It is often called a “leap of faith” because you jump from safety into the abyss with only the blind faith that you’ll find a way.
If you won’t take the risk, why should I?
I know it sounds trite to say that entrepreneurs are risk takers so let me describe the normal, rational person who I meet on a regular basis. I was recently on TWiST with Jason Calacanis. A caller dialed in to ask us questions about his startup. He was from South America but living in Switzerland and had launched a startup while holding down a day job at a consulting firm (McKinsey if memory serves). He wanted to raise angel money. I told him to quit his job first. If he wasn’t prepared to do that he wasn’t a real entrepreneur.
I know that 80+% of the people listening to me must have thought that was the wrong advice. But to me if you’re not willing to quit and take a risk on yourself, then you’re not confident enough in your own idea and skills. Why should I be? If you’re idea is so amazing that it warrants my hard-earned angel money then why should I take a risk on you if you won’t take a risk on yourself?
The locked-up entrepreneur who wouldn’t jump
About a year ago I had lunch with a guy who I believe is an amazing entrepreneur. He had built and sold his first company and had good ideas for his second company. He gave me the 50,000 foot idea and he was convinced that this idea would be a monster. The problem was that he was still working out the lock-up period in his big company.
He and his partner told me about this new idea over the course of nearly a year. I finally called bullshit. If this idea was so big then why would they risk not being first to market, not building defensible IP for the sake of a few hundred thousand dollars extra in lock-up money at a big company? I think the mind of an entrepreneur would be far more paranoid about yielding his great next idea than protecting his last 20% payout on the last one. They finally quit. I’m enjoying watching their progress.
The MBA who wouldn’t jump
I run recruiting for my VC firm, GRP Partners. About 18 months ago in early 2008 we hired an analyst (pre-MBA), but wanted to wait until after Summer to hire a post-MBA associate. It was May. I received an unsolicited resume from a second-year MBA student at Stanford. He had exactly the skills I was looking for in an associate. I interviewed him on the phone and in person. I introduced him to my partners who liked him. But we weren’t ready to hire an associate yet so I offered him a summer internship. He told me that, as a second-year student, he could only accept a summer internship if I would guarantee him the job in the fall if he performed well. He wanted an assurance that if he performed well, we wouldn’t go through a recruiting process.
I told him I couldn’t guarantee that. If he was confident in his skills he should take the internship. I told him I couldn’t imagine that a guy performing really well on the inside had anything to worry about from a great resume and interview from somebody we didn’t really know. I told him to join and “become part of the furniture.” Without the guarantee, he turned me down. A few months later he called me back and said he would take the internship. I told him, “Sorry mate, it was a one-time offer. You had the door cracked open and should have taken it.”
Was I too harsh? I don’t think so. I want our associate to have empathy for the customers we serve — our portfolio companies. If the person I hired wasn’t cut from the same cloth as an entrepreneur, then how could I expect him to be able to see inside the mind of entrepreneurs?
My leap into venture capital
I joined GRP Partners in 2007 before they raised their current fund (we closed a $200 million fund in March 2009). They told me not to join until after the fund-raising was done. I told them it was now or never. “Once you’re done raising a fund you’ll hire anybody you want! I want to join now while there’s risk. I’ll help you raise the fund. And I’ll take the risk. Pay me half salary until the fund is closed. I’ll pay my own moving costs and if we don’t raise the fund you owe me nothing.”
I figured that the alternative was that I start my third company with no salary and all risk. I had nothing to lose! And so it was. If I was willing to take risks to get into VC then how could I accept an associate who had no cojones? And how can I fund you if you don’t?
To be continued in Part 3 with competitiveness, 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