The Team Turnover Paradox

I recently had the pleasure of attending a presentation by a very successful Wisconsin-based high impact entrepreneur. His talk included some thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of building a high impact start-up in “between the coasts” locales with limited access to venture capital. One big advantage, he suggested, was lower employee turnover, which led to lower recruiting, training, and administrative expenses.

He is certainly right about the cost savings of lower team turnover, and thus likely right about the overall positive impact of low turnover on his business. In terms of the regional economy, though, I think his conclusion points more to a problem – low levels of high impact entrepreneurship and investing – than any sort of regional advantage.

I’ve always been intrigued by paradoxes, business and otherwise. So, for example, most venture investors favor jurisdictions, like California, that don’t enforce non-compete agreements. At the same time, when they do a deal in a jurisdiction, like Massachusetts, that does enforce non-competes, they are more than happy to employ them.

Team turnover is another business paradox. On the one hand, pretty much everyone agrees that high employee turnover is a bad thing for any particular business. On the other hand, places with the most dynamic high impact entrepreneurial and investing sectors – Silicon Valley being the obvious example – generally “suffer” from very high turnover rates. What’s not so good for any given tree, it seems, can be pretty good for the forest.

Or, at least, forests where new growth is constantly crowding out the old growth. Places where the “creative destruction” that Joseph Schumpeter said was the distinguishing virtue of capitalism, was most active, as a plethora of “next big things” is always nipping at the heels of yesterday’s headliners.

When you look at turnover in places with substantial high impact start-up sectors, what you see is a lot of folks looking for new opportunities to change the world, as opposed to folks looking for some marginally greener grass in the next break room over. Sure, folks at Apple may move over to Facebook or Google for a better salary, but the real allure for hot-shot employees with outsized ambitions to create wealth and change the world is the opportunity to latch on with what just might be the next Apple, or Facebook or Google. It’s about taking big risks for big payoffs, not chasing the marginal dollar.

And so, as I see it, while the high employee turnover in places like Silicon Valley surely poses tactical challenges for individual businesses, be they start-ups or tech titans, it is a clear strategic advantage for the region taken as a whole. The data, in terms of rates of economic growth, wealth creation and innovation, pretty clearly suggest that the costs of higher team turnover, while no doubt real, are more than compensated for by the benefits. That having a workforce always on the lookout for the next big opportunity – and willing to jump at it despite the risks – is the stuff of outsized innovation and economic performance.

And thus the paradox of high employee turnover. It may be bad for you and me, but it can be very good indeed for us.

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Sorry, But Who You Know Still Matters

We live in an age where “democratization” is all the rage in the world of startup investing. An age where rent-seeking gatekeepers such as venture capitalists are going to be put out of business by Crowdfunding, ICOs, and more generally the mass dissemination of information across the world via the internet. Pretty soon, so the narrative reads, everyone will have access to the best deals, and a new entrepreneurial golden age will emerge. The only thing that will matter is what you know, and John and Jane Doe will be driving the Tesla’s previously consigned to the folks on Sand Hill Road.

Baloney.

The problem with the notions that “everyone will have access to the best deals” and “everyone will be empowered to make the best deals” is that neither assertion is true.

On the first score, the people with the best deals will continue to seek out the investors with the best track records and value-add. I mean, if you are really good and have a really good idea, who would you rather have financing your start-up, Sequoia or some guy named Barney and his pals at the country club in Podunk?

As for the second point, evaluating, making, and managing the best deals is about more than having access to them: it is about having the skills, experience, and networks to recognize them and turn opportunity into achievement. Good venture investors are in fact good at something that is very hard to be good at, not something any old Jane Doe could master if only she had access to the same raw material (most if it garbage in any event). Seriously, pick a name out of the phone book and the chances you’ll find a really good high impact venture investing talent is probably about the same as your finding someone who can hit a major league curveball.

I am not arguing that Crowdfunding and ICOs and the internet generally have not changed and will not continue to change the venture capital business. What I am arguing is that those changes will be evolutionary more than revolutionary; that the fundamentals, including the curation of deal flow, will still be very much in play. And that curation will continue to be one of those “guilt by association” situations driven by relationships, not algorithms.

Look at it this way. Most venture investors see far more entrepreneurs and deals than they can possibly give serious attention to, much less invest in. Further, the best venture investors not only see the most deals generally, but the most good deals as well. There is an awful lot of noise in the system. And for pretty much every venture pro out there, the most logical and effective first noise reduction filter is… who that I respect thought this deal was worth my time to look at?

Deals where the answer to that question is “no one,” aka “over the transom” deals, seldom get more than the most cursory review, and as any honest VC with a solid track record will tell you almost never get done.

Will adding more over the transom deal flow – for example via web solicitation or on public Crowdfunding sites – change that? Of course not. An experienced VC will be no more likely to seriously investigate a deal that comes in over a digital transom than a deal that comes in over a traditional transom.

 

None of this means that Crowdfunding and ICOs and the internet generally are not changing the venture business. But the changes are around the margins – more efficient ways to distribute, access and process information. And these changes are lowering transaction costs, which is great for everyone. But as much as there is more noise in the system, the value of getting a curated introduction to a good investor is if anything more, not less, valuable than it was in the past.

And so, discounting the hype and the bad actors in the Crowdfunding and ICO worlds, the large majority of the good deals are mostly being done by professional investors in closed – even if online – syndicates. And by teams that meet their lead investors via an introduction (likely as not a digital one), not the online equivalent of a billboard.

The point, then, is this: if you are serious about getting your start-up funded by investors that know what they are doing, start talking to folks – other entrepreneurs, service providers, other investors – that are known and respected by those folks. Because no matter how much you know, who you know still matters.

Should You Take Your Startup To Silicon Valley?

I’ve advised many flyover country entrepreneurs that if their sole goal in life is to raise the most money for their startup, at the best price and in the shortest period of time, they should move to Silicon Valley. That is where good entrepreneurs raise the most money in the shortest order and at the best price on a pretty consistent basis.

Lately, I’ve been thinking more about that advice, and while I generally stand by it, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is an important exception: a class of startup entrepreneur that, in fact, is usually better off launching in flyover country than Silicon Valley. The idea of an exception to the “move to Silicon Valley to get the best deal” advice came to me as I started thinking more closely about a corollary to that advice, to wit that if, having moved to Silicon Valley you can’t raise capital, at least you will have found out faster that your startup is not VC-worthy.

It’s that last word, “worthy,” that hit me as needing more thought. Over the last couple of days, it gelled that some entrepreneurs might fail to raise capital in Silicon Valley – not because their startup is not worthy of investment, but because they are not ready to play on that particular stage. In which case, going to Silicon Valley may result in failing to get a startup financed not because it was a bad idea, but because venture capital’s Broadway was not where it should have started out.

Here’s the deal. For entrepreneurs that know how the venture capital business works (in reality, not just in theory); have a track record that suggests real knowledge of what makes the best startups tick; and have meaningful entrepreneur, investor, and service provider networks that include a few solid Silicon Valley contacts, taking their startup to Silicon Valley makes sense. (Again, with the qualification that getting the best deal as fast as possible is the only factor in the decision.) For other flyover country entrepreneurs, maybe not so much.

My thinking in this area was kick started a couple of weeks back when I met with a 20 years-old-ish Northeast Wisconsin entrepreneur who had what seemed like a pretty good idea for an app. With less than $50k, he had taken it as far as 10,000+ users and some very good press. He had pretty much everything you look for in an entrepreneur: vision, passion, integrity, flexibility, an ability to make things happen with minimal resources, and a desire to learn. But, when we talked about the possibility that he should pick up and move to Silicon Valley, it occurred to me that if he did he would most likely be eaten alive.

What this entrepreneur lacks that would be a huge problem for him in Silicon Valley won’t be hard for him to learn here in Wisconsin if (as I am sure he will) he puts his mind to it. He doesn’t know either the substance of the venture capital business or the lingo (which is surprisingly important, particularly when a VC knows you are from the sticks). While he has great entrepreneurial instincts, he has not lived, even vicariously, in the high impact entrepreneurship world. Right now, the number of folks in his network who do have that knowledge and experience, and those connections, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

These may seem like small things, but they are important things and things that pretty much every entrepreneur who gets funded in Silicon Valley has. They are things that folks like gener8tor have made a business out of providing to their portfolio entrepreneurs (and in fact lots of other entrepreneurs). And things that a small but real cadre of Badger folks with that kind of experience and those kinds of networks are eager to share with folks who are otherwise as compelling as the young man I met with several weeks back.

So, if you are an otherwise Silicon Valley-worthy high impact entrepreneur in flyover country, but don’t have a solid understanding of the ways and lingo of the venture capital business, a well-grounded understanding of what separates the startup winners from the losers, and a decent network of folks that have those things that you can leverage all the way to Silicon Valley – don’t go to Silicon Valley. At least not yet. Learn what you need to learn here, connect with the right folks, and when you are ready to play on the Silicon Valley stage, well, decide what your priorities are then.

 

 

Ways Entrepreneurs Spook Investors

The perceived quality of the entrepreneur is, for most venture investors, the single most important factor in evaluating a startup investment opportunity. As they say, an “A” team with a “B” opportunity usually wins out over a “B” team with an “A” opportunity.

One way to approach the “what makes for an “A” entrepreneur” question is to look at what makes a good entrepreneur. Today, though, I am going to take the opposite approach. What traits can make even an otherwise compelling entrepreneur come up short in a venture capitalist’s eye. Here are some too-common entrepreneurial qualities that spook investors.

  1. The “No Competition” Entrepreneur. Few things turn off more venture investors faster than an entrepreneur who insists she has no competitors. If you are convinced you don’t have any competitors, you are wrong. Every dollar that a customer spends on your product is a dollar they didn’t spend on something else. Maybe that something else is very well defined (say, an alternative dog walking app for smart phones) or maybe it is very amorphous (say, personal entertainment). More likely closer to the former than the later, but you get the idea. If you are one of those entrepreneurs who just can’t find any competition, don’t expect to find any investors, either.
  2. The Defensive Entrepreneur. My personal (least) favorite. Ask any question and these folks perceive a personal attack on their integrity, competence or both. Most investors just don’t want to give their capital to entrepreneurs who can’t put their ego and insecurity aside to answer questions directly. Even – probably particularly – when the answer is “I don’t know.” Defensive entrepreneurs send an all-too-clear message that when the going really does get tough, they will look for excuses, not answers.
  3. The Big Business Entrepreneur. This one bit me big time fairly early in my career. Going into the second round of a deal where I was the “suit” for the seed and A rounds, we needed an industry pro to take the CEO role at the B round. We figured someone who could run a billion dollar division of a Fortune 500 competitor could surely run our little startup. Huge mistake. While there are examples of folks who have transitioned from managing big businesses to the startup world, they are outnumbered by folks who took the leap and cratered. If you are a “Big Business” manager transitioning to the entrepreneurial world, you need to make it crystal clear that you understand how managing a startup is different than managing a big established business, and that you are the kind of person who can do both. (If you don’t know the difference, you are not that person.)
  4. The “God Complex” Entrepreneur. Typically, but not always, an academic. Most often, someone in the life sciences, who has figuratively (if not literally) held life in her hands. Alas, the skills associated with saving lives, whether via brilliant surgical technique or cutting edge research, just don’t have much in common with running a high impact startup business. The few folks who have made the transition prove the rule. Pretty much the way Michael Jordan proved that exceptional basketball players don’t make even adequate minor league baseball players.
  5. The “I Can Do It All” Entrepreneur. These entrepreneurs – and they are a dime a dozen, I’m afraid – missed out on Econ 101, or at least the day they explained the law of comparative advantage. I’ve yet to find a good entrepreneur who was not better at some things than others, and who did not also know that focusing their personal efforts on the tasks where they add the most value is the best thing they can do to make their startup prosper. On the off chance that you in fact can do it all – don’t.
  6. The “It’s All About Me” Entrepreneur. I’ve followed this one down one too many rat holes. They can be hard to spot, but as soon as you conclude that an entrepreneur’s worst nightmare is not failure, but success with someone else at the helm, run, do not walk, to the nearest exit.
  7. The Uneducable Entrepreneur. Look, I get it. Entrepreneurs are often wrong, but never in doubt. But the good ones, even when reluctant to acknowledge their mistakes, are very good at learning from them. Good investors don’t generally rub their entrepreneurs’ noses in their mistakes, but they don’t write many checks for entrepreneurs who don’t learn from those mistakes.

I am sure there are other spooky entrepreneur traits, but this list covers a big piece of the territory. If you see yourself here, you might want to think about making some changes in your entrepreneurial profile. It will likely make raising capital easier. Even more to the point, it will likely improve the outlook for making something good happen with any capital you raise.

Raising Capital for Your Startup: It’s About More Than Money

Most of the time for most entrepreneurs, raising money for a startup is not a lot of fun. Absent some combination of a hot deal and a hot market, fundraising is a real chore, too often full of demoralizing turndowns and even more demoralizing walls of silence. Still, as bad as it can be, the process almost always includes some important opportunities that good entrepreneurs will seize and use to their advantage.

The first opportunity the capital chasing process offers is self-reflection. Asking other folks for risk capital forces you (at least if you expect any success) to think about your business objectively, from the perspective of an outsider. And not just any outsider, but a jaded professional investor. Vision and passion are certainly appreciated by most of these folks, but as table stakes, not closing arguments. To seal a deal, you will need to get back to the cold hard realities of your value proposition, your business model, your evolving competition, your financing plan, and your exit strategy. Mission critical stuff that can get lost in the fire drill of day-to-day startup life.

Another opportunity worth grabbing on to in the fundraising process is the learning opportunity. If you have been at all careful about qualifying your investors, you will be talking to folks who very likely know a lot about the environment – technology, competitive, financing, exit, etc. – your startup is living in. If you listen carefully, and ask good questions (you should, in all events, be vetting potential investors as much as they are vetting you), you will almost certainly learn a lot of valuable information from the fundraising process, as much or even more so from investors who turn you down.

Finally, the fundraising process will give you valuable feedback on your teams’ capabilities, collectively and independently, in an area – raising capital – that will only become more important as your capital needs grow on the road to your exit. Raising capital is a skill in its own right – indeed as mission critical a skill as there is. Getting a periodic handle on where your team measures up in that regard may not be worth the trouble in and of itself, but when you need the money you might as well get as much besides money as you can out of the process.

Approaching the fundraising process as a learning opportunity, as well as a way to generate needed capital, may not make the effort any more fun. But it can make it a lot more rewarding.

Building Your Startup Team: Complementarity and Chemistry

Most professional venture investors believe the best predictor of startup success is the quality of the team. Good teams can and do fail, but as team quality drops below “awesome,” the chances for success drop very fast. Thus the cliché that most investors will gravitate to an “A” team with a “B” opportunity over a “B” team with an “A” opportunity.

There are a lot of reasons team quality is so critical to startup success. The incredibly stressful startup environment is the biggest. Startup teams need to accomplish difficult goals with minimal resources in terms of time, capital, and people. Additional stress accrues as outside forces – competitors, markets, technologies, etc. – evolve and force teams to make significant adjustments, often including basic “pivots” (business model, for example) on the fly.

If the extraordinary stresses of the startup environment explain the importance of getting the team right, they also offer a clue to what makes a superior startup team. At the foundational level, what separates the superior startup team from the merely good startup team is complementarity and chemistry.

Complementarity is pretty straightforward in concept, if not always in execution. Within the confines of available resources (financial) and the constraints of team chemistry (more later), you need to make sure the team includes top-tier players at the mission critical startup tasks (i.e. the tasks that need accomplishing in the current round of funding), as well as the flexibility to successfully “wing it” with respect to important ancillary functions.

The trick to building a complimentary team lies in recognition of, and dealing with, the well-established HR principle that when people get to choose who they work with – or who works for them – they tend to choose people like themselves. Now, if you are a founder, and thus most likely very confident of your own near-perfection, that might not seem like a problem. If you’ve got perfection, why not clone it if you can?

Consider if Apple had been founded not by Jobs and Woz, but by Jobs and … Jobs. If you know the Apple story, you know what a catastrophe a Jobs/Jobs founding Apple team would likely have been.

The bottom line is that however perfectly suited you may be for leading your startup to fame and fortune, building a team of clones is seldom the best way to go about it. Instead, look for people with different skill sets. And as much or even more so, different personalities and perspectives on business, technology, and life. The most successful startups – even those like Apple in the years after Jobs returned from exile that were dominated by a leading personality – build leadership teams with diverse skills, experiences, perspectives, and personalities. Just ask Tim Cook.

And that leads to the second, and harder to execute, aspect of assembling a superior startup team: chemistry.

It’s not enough to assemble a team that “covers the waterfront” in terms of skills, experience and personality. You need to make sure those folks can also form very strong bonds with each other (thus the “chemistry” analogy). Because in the constantly changing world of the startup, relationships between key players on the team are going to be under almost constant stress as company circumstances evolve and people have to adjust to changing opportunities and challenges. As anyone who studies morale in the military will tell you, folks in foxholes are motivated more by their loyalty to the folks around them than to “the cause” as such.

On that last point, one of my favorite quotes from an entrepreneur came when he was asked what he would tell his team at the beginning of his next startup journey. He replied: “Folks, we are going on a very long and difficult journey. On this journey, we will carry our wounded – and shoot the deserters.”

The quality of the team has long been the most important factor for most venture capital investors, for good reasons. As you think about assembling your team, particularly in the early days, don’t make the mistake of hiring folks because they look like you, or because they are a perfect skills fit. Look more for folks who compliment your skills and personality – and that look like the kind of people you want on your side when the going gets very tough. Because it almost certainly will, likely many times.

To Be or Not to Be: The Entrepreneur as Hamlet

Watching promising new companies fail – and a good chunk of even the most promising startups ultimately do – is not a lot of fun. It can be instructive, though. While many startup deaths are beyond the control of the startup itself – e.g. the technology doesn’t pan out, or someone else gets there first – others are variously the result of entrepreneurial mistakes. And like the rest of us, good entrepreneurs can and often do learn and ultimately profit from their mistakes.

Today, my subject is one of the most painful of entrepreneurial mistakes to watch, a mistake that is too common and (to make matters worse) by its nature tends to play out like a train wreck in slow motion. It’s what I call Hamlet syndrome. The startup that fails not on account of poor execution, but rather on account of not executing at all.

What makes Hamlet syndrome so frustrating is that after it happens you are left with the sense that the afflicted entrepreneur never even gave himself a chance to succeed. In most startup failures, even those that can be laid squarely at the feet of the entrepreneurial team, a dispassionate observer can at least come away thinking that the entrepreneur went down swinging.

Observing Hamlet syndrome, on the other hand, is like watching a batter, in the big moment of the big game, spend a lot of time fiddling with his glove, looking for signs, stretching, and stepping in and out of the box – interspersed with staring blankly at three called strikes before walking back to the dugout.

Ok, a couple of real (but disguised) examples.

Our first victim is a brilliant scientist with a long track record of good ideas, many of which have been turned into successful products. More recently, she developed some really interesting imaging technology with a broad range of potential applications, across a variety of industries from metallurgy to medical imaging to 3D printing. (Entrepreneurs with target rich ideas are particularly susceptible to Hamlet syndrome.)

A threshold question for this entrepreneur, was obvious: what application in what industry should I go after first? Obvious though the question may have been, the answer was much less so. And so … the entrepreneur did a little research. And then did a little more research. And then did a lot of research. And then … well, let’s just say after several years of waiting on a decision, I just walked away. That was two plus years ago, and I haven’t seen anything in the news to suggest that the entrepreneur ever did pick an application or a market.

Startup two had developed a really fascinating set of algorithms for manipulating data that dramatically improved the accuracy of all kinds of forecasting models. Startup two’s entrepreneur had some of the target rich marketing challenges of startup one, but even more than that could not settle on a business model. Was the business about enabling customers to make better predictions, or about making better predictions? After two plus years of debating the point, and increasingly complex analysis of the pros and cons of each approach, I am beginning to doubt there will be an answer before the window for this entrepreneurial idea closes.

I am not unsympathetic to either of the entrepreneurs in these two examples. Given all of the known, and unknown, unknowns inherent in any worthwhile startup opportunity, the possibility of making a critical mistake is a near constant source of stress. And surely picking the wrong application or market or business model is as fraught with risk and implications as any.

But as big as decisions about applications and markets and business models are, in almost every case the only decision that is certain to be wrong about any of these things is not to make any decision at all about these things. It is axiomatic that you can’t miss a target you never shoot at – but perhaps more to the point, neither can you hit a target you never shoot at either. In the startup competition, if you wait until your aim is certain, someone is almost certainly going to claim the kill before you pull the trigger.

Don’t be another victim of Hamlet syndrome. Pick a target market; spec an MVB with a compelling value proposition; decide on a business model; and pull the trigger. You may be wrong, but if you haven’t taken too much time and money to figure that out, chances are you’ll likely get at least one more shot.