Founders Are Getting Dinged Because of Terminology Mix-up Around Vision
Great founders have a compelling vision. Unfortunately, though, many early founders don’t do great job of articulating it. I think that asking early founders what their vision is trips up many of them. I suspect it’s because “vision” means different things to different people. Investors are thinking X, while an inexperienced early founder thinks it means Y. This disconnect causes people to think some founders don’t have a vision, or it isn’t compelling, when that’s not so.
Today I was reviewing the application for Sequoia’s Arc Catalyst that seed-stage companies have to fill out. The application doesn’t ask for the company vision. Instead, it asks this: How is the world transformed if your company achieves its mission?
Companies exist to do a specific thing (i.e., solve a problem). If they accomplish that mission, they will have an impact on the world.
I love the way Sequoia framed this question. It’s clear and goes straight to the point, so it avoids terminological confusion.
If you’re an early founder, be prepared to articulate your answer to “How is the world transformed if your company achieves its mission?” That’s your vision!
Reflect as You Build
Talking to an investor, I asked what he’d learned during his journey to raise his fund. He was honest. He said he hasn’t had time to reflect but probably should. He’s been in build mode, getting his firm off the ground. He’s moving fast and has a lot on his plate. As we discussed some of the hurdles he overcame, he uncovered some great insights that will inform his journey going forward. He mentioned that he might have changed course while he was building if he’d stopped to reflect earlier.
When you’re building something, it’s natural to be heads-down executing. I did this myself as an early founder. But every so often, it’s helpful to spend time thinking about what’s worked and what hasn’t worked, and why. You’ll connect dots and uncover insights that improve your decision-making and allow you to course correct and refocus your execution on the most impactful activities. This practice will improve your chances of being successful.
Ten-Year-Long Overnight Success
Today I had a chance to get to know the entire team at a venture capital fund. I had a great chat with the founding partners, who shared their origin story with me. One of the things that stood out was that it took almost a decade for them to refine their investment strategy and begin to gain material traction. Today the firm has a strong, growing team and strong investment returns.
This firm’s history is another data point reinforcing the fact that overnight successes don’t exist. A lot of time and energy precedes success. Unfortunately, most people aren’t paying attention to the groundwork. The attention usually comes when all the hard work pays off.
If you’re building something great, be ready to spend a material amount of time building it without attention or accolades.
I spent part of today talking through—in depth—some complex ideas with a friend. These were ideas I’ve been thinking about on my own. I shared what I believe, and why. He challenged some of my thinking, which I appreciated. And he gave me his perspective, based on his experiences. All this led to some insights neither of us anticipated. I walked away with some great insights, more clarity of thought, and increased conviction.
Looking back, some of my greatest breakthroughs weren’t the result of my thinking about something in isolation. They came from using sounding boards—that is, from sharing my thoughts with people I consider strategic thinkers. We fed off each other in those conversations, and the result was something better than I could have come up with on my own.
If you’re trying to do something great, make sure you have sounding boards. Two heads (or more!) are usually better than one.
This weekend, I’ve listened to friends discuss the macro environment. One of my big takeaways is that there’s an aversion to risk right now. Everyone is focused on the downside and avoiding losses. This happened fast. Eight months or so ago we were at all-time highs in public markets. Many were leaning into risk as valuations continued to rise. They were focused on the upside.
It's fascinating to watch risk tolerance change so quickly. For many, it took years to warm up to embracing risk and upside. But it was only a matter of months before the focus shifted to risk avoidance.
I can’t predict what’s going to happen with the macro market, but I’ll be watching closely. I’m curious to see when people will begin to lean into risk again. I suspect that those who take a contrarian position and embrace risk before the masses will set themselves up for outsize returns.
Weekly Reflection: Week One Hundred Seventeen
Today marks the end of my one-hundred-seventeenth week of working from home (mostly). Here are my takeaways from week one hundred seventeen:
- Differing perspectives – This week was a reminder that there’s value in hearing differing perspectives. Hearing someone else’s perspective helped me think about something differently and slightly adjust a strongly held opinion.
- Contrarian viewpoints – I spent some time listening to successful people who’ve taken contrarian views that led to outsize success. It’s a very interesting approach. I’m curious about these folks and intend to study them more.
- No meetings – I blocked off a day with no meetings. It was great. I was able to go deep and be productive. I want to work in one of these days every week.
- Leveling up – I want to make sure I’m always learning and leveling myself up. I need to continue putting myself in uncomfortable situations so I can grow. This week was a reminder that discomfort leads to insights and growth.
Week one hundred seventeen was a steady and productive one. Next week will be busy. Looking forward to it.
Brutal Honesty Is a Superpower
I was listening to the author of The Founders: The Story of PayPal and the Entrepreneurs Who Shaped Silicon Valley. Jimmy Soni conducted countless hours of interviews to understand what happened at PayPal and what made it such a special place to work. One of the interesting insights from his research was that brutal honesty was a superpower. A few takeaways from his interview:
- Disharmonious – People at PayPal challenged each other regularly when they saw things differently. To this day, these people challenge things they believe are incorrect, and they’re not shy about it.
- Intensity – They believed it’s dangerous to say critical things behind each other’s backs. They shared critiques directly with the person in question, and it made the company better.
- Not personal – They didn’t take disagreements personally. Disagreements are not about the person—they’re about the flaws in the analysis or thinking around an idea. They wanted to get to the best idea.
- Respect – You want people you care about to improve. Being direct and honest is a sign of respect and care that helps them improve.
- Rare – It’s rare to find an environment where people are totally honest with one another.
I’m a fan of people being honest and direct with others in a respectful way. Debating differing perspectives leads to better outcomes overall. I personally enjoy it when people around me provide honest, direct feedback that doesn’t require interpretation.
Based on this interview, I’ve added Soni’s book to my reading list. Can’t wait to check it out.
Success Requires Leveling Up
I talked to someone today who was an early employee at a now publicly traded company. He shared an observation that stuck with me: some companies won’t ever be more than what they are today because they won’t (or can’t) level up.
He elaborated on this: Having big goals and dreams are great. But to do the impossible and enjoy outsize success, you must level up as a founder and as an organization. If you don’t level up, you will stall or struggle. As an early employee of a company that went on to be worth billions and to be publicly traded, he saw firsthand what it means to level up and how it can lead to success.
I totally agree. A buddy framed it well: the biggest throttle on your success is how fast you can improve yourself. This applies to founders and to companies.
The Future Is What You Want It to Be
I enjoy talking to founders about how they see the future because they see it differently than everyone else does. To them, it’s not predetermined. Or even filled with limiting factors. It’s white space. Meaning that whatever they can dream up, they feel they can turn it into reality. They end up working hard to create the future they envision. It’s a different mindset that has an impact because it drives innovation and change in society.
Founders, what future do you want to build?
Set Yourself Up to Work with People You Enjoy
I listened to an investor share the best pieces of advice he’s been given. The one he discussed the most was about choosing whom to work with. His mentor told him life’s too short to work with people you don’t love working with. The investor went on to describe how that piece of advice shaped his selection process across the board (LPs, founders, team members, etc.).
I agree with this investor’s mentor. Life is short. You want to spend time working with people you enjoy working with. One thing that the mentor left out, though, is that working relationships are bidirectional. As much as you may want to work with someone, they must want to work with you, too. The feeling may not be mutual—at first, at least. If you’re in this situation (and lots of people are), work to position yourself in such a way that others will want to work with you. And understand that can take time. Sometimes an interim step is working with people who aren’t your first choice so you can gain credibility to set yourself up to work with your first choice. The important thing is to have a target—to know whom you want to work with—and understand what you need to do for them to want to work with you!