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This first appeared in the Wall Street Journal’s Accelerator series.
A few our entrepreneurial heroes work on more that one company at a time. Steve Jobs (Pixar, Apple), Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX), Jack Dorsey (Twitter, Square), and Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn, Greylock). And we regularly hear of entrepreneurs who are working at companies that acquired their first company who are now working on new companies while still at their acquirer.
It’s takes an extraordinary talented entrepreneur to be able to do this. So, should you try to emulate this? “Mostly” no.
If you are working on your first company or you don’t have a clear track record of success, put all of your energy into your first venture. Go all in, unambiguously. Your employees will expect, and respect this. Your customers will hope for this. Your investors will require this. And, the likelihood of your success will increase.
That said, I encourage every entrepreneur to have their own equivalent of Google 20% time, where you spend 20% of your time on something other than your primary company. If you are a first time entrepreneur, invest this energy in things that directly benefit your company. Find a peer group like Entrepreneurs Organization and invest time and energy in learning from and giving to your peers. Invest some of your 20% time in your local startup community, taking lessons from my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, which will have immediate positive impacts on you and your company’s reputation in your local ecosystem. Or invest actively in your own personal development as an entrepreneur through reading, spending time with other entrepreneurs, and actively engaging with accelerators like TechStars.
Once you’ve had some success, even if you are still running your first company, start expanding the definition of what “mostly no” means. I encourage every CEO I work with to serve as a director on another entrepreneur’s board. If you’ve made some money, don’t be afraid to make some angel investments in other companies. But stay focused on your business or else you might find yourself in a position where you suddenly don’t have the success you think you do.
Once you’ve sold your first company, or taken it public, you can start diminishing the definition of the word “mostly.” Some entrepreneurs love to be involved at the inception stage but don’t want to run companies. Others like to have a portfolio of companies they are working on at the same time, with one being the primary company. An example of this is my long-time friend and entrepreneurial collaborator Rajat Bhargava. We’ve now done nine companies together, with four of them currently active. Rajat is CEO of one of them (StillSecure) and a major shareholder and board member of three others that he’s helped co-found that I’ve funded (Yesware, MobileDay, and SafeInstance.) But this is an exception, build on a collaboration between entrepreneur (Rajat) and investor (me) over almost 20 years.
While it’s often tempting to start multiple companies, especially as you start to have some early success with your first company, resist this temptation, mostly.
This post first appeared in the WSJ Accelerators series titled The $100,000 Experiment in response to the question “When should you make a substantive change to one or more parts of your business model?”
During the past few years, the word “pivot” has become one of the most overused words with regard to startups. For some, it means a tiny incremental change in the business. For others, it means killing off whatever path you are on and rebooting the business, creating something entirely different. For others, it means everything in between.
A long time ago, I realized that every successful business was a continuous process of small experiments that operated in the context of a long-term vision. When an experiment worked, you did more of it. When it didn’t, you ended it and moved on.
The magnitude of these experiments are dependent on the stage and resources of the company. If you are a three person startup with very little money in the bank, your experiments are tiny ones. As you get bigger and have more success, your experiments can get larger.
I was once on the board of a company that was cash-flow positive early in its life. The entrepreneur decided to raise more money, even though he didn’t need to. I was perplexed and asked him why he was raising the amount of money he had decided to raise. His answer was that when he had no cash in the bank, he was willing to run $1,000 experiments. When the company was cash-flow positive, he was comfortable running $10,000 experiments. He now wanted to feel comfortable running $100,000 experiments, and this financing enabled him to do this. If he ran a $100,000 experiment and it failed, it wouldn’t tank the business.
When an experiment works, do more of it. So the $10,000 experiment that pays for itself in three days by generating $4,000 of gross margin on a daily basis is worth doubling down on and running at the $20,000 level. If this generates $8,000 of gross margin on a daily basis, double down again.
But if the first $10,000 experiment generates nothing, study the data that results from it. Make sure you measure your experiment. Create a hypothesis about what a successful outcome would be. Try to control as many variables as you can while you are testing something new, so you understand what is actually going on. If you find yourself devolving into a qualitative discussion about all elements of the experiment, you won’t learn much.
If your successful experiments are pushing you in a direction that is different from your long-term vision, or from the existing core business you are running, step back and think hard about what you are learning. Are your experiments conclusive enough to cause you to change your strategy? Do they reveal surface problems in your existing business or strong suggestions about better approaches?
If your successful experiments are doing this, then consider a serious shift in your business. But in the absence of this data, be very careful about defaulting into a mode of constantly and aggressively yanking on the steering wheel of your business. Instead, do small experiments, often.
If you want another perspective on this, go read the WSJ Accelerator article by David Cohen (TechStars CEO) titled Use Your Head, But Trust Your Gut.
This first appeared in my LinkedIn Today column titled Give Before You Get. I post unique content on LinkedIn a few times a month (I ultimately reblog it here) but if you want to get it when I first publish it and you are a LinkedIn member, simply follow me on LinkedIn.
As 2013 begins, I encourage you to adopt one of my deeply held beliefs, that of “give before you get.”
I’ve lived my adult working life – first as an entrepreneur, next as an angel investor, and now as a venture capitalist and a writer – using this credo. It’s a core tenant of the Boulder Startup Community, which I discuss extensively in Startup Communities: How To Build an Entrepreneur Ecosystem in Your City. And it’s at the heart of how I live my personal life and is part of the glue that holds together the awesome relationship I have with my wife Amy Batchelor.
In order to give before you get, adopt a philosophy of helping others without an expectation of what you are going to get back. It’s not altruistic – you do expect to get things in return – but you don’t set up the relationship to be a transactional one.
In a business context, my favorite example of this is the difference between a mentor and an advisor. The word “mentor” has become very popular and trendy recently, yet few people really understand what it means, and many mentors are actually advisors. To understand the difference, here’s an example. An advisor says “I’ll help you with your company if you give me 1% of the equity” or “I’d be happy to spend up to a day a month advising you if you give me a retainer of $3,000.” A mentor says, simply, “how can I help?”
As a partner at Foundry Group, I interact with hundreds of entrepreneurs each week. I’m an investor in a few of their companies, but many of the people I intersect with are entrepreneurs whose company I’m not currently invested in. While a few of these companies are potential investments, the vast majority of them are companies I won’t end up being an investor in. Yet I try to be helpful to everyone who crosses my path, even if it’s an answer to a simple question, feedback on their product, or simply a response to their email that what they are working on isn’t something I’d be interested in investing in. Sure, I’m not perfect at this, but the number of entrepreneurs who have helped me in some unexpected way because of my approach to them dwarfs the energy I’ve “given.”
I believe that I’m playing a very long term game in business, and that my actions today will impact me in 20+ years. I feel the same way about my non-work life. My goal is to life as happy an existence on this planet as I can and, by giving before I get, I maximize my chance of this.
As you begin 2013, consider adopting a give before you get approach. It might surprise you what you’ll get!
We are sandwiched between Thanksgiving and Christmas in a country that is recovering emotionally from two disasters named Sandy – one natural (Hurricane Sandy) and one man-made (Sandy Hook). Our politicians in Washington are playing a zero-sum game around the Fiscal Cliff. The CEO of the NRA just held a press conference and said “we should be able to afford to put a police officer in every school” and he called on Congress “to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every school in this nation.”
I get 500 emails a day – sometimes more. Many of them are from people I don’t know looking for advice and funding – I try to respond to them all. Every single day at least one of them goes off the rails as a result of my simple and direct feedback, often that I’m not interested in what they are doing. Here’s an example from a few minutes ago.
well if you ever come across investors who give a fuck the business plan is there online, recently updated this morning.
I did clicked your link, it’s just internet plays, you can’t swing a cat without hitting an investor investing there. Like I said if that meant anything there would be no talks of a fiscal cliff. We been investing in the internet for decades and worst for it.
If you in a hole you stop digging but if you are an internet investor you invest in an app that digs a bigger hole.
Brad you live in the same country I do, so where ever you are on the socioeconomic ladder, you in the same fucking hole. Except you investing in shovels and telling me you an expert in that. Oy vey.
This was in response to me passing because the business was something outside software / Internet and I stated that it was outside my area of expertise and pointed the person at our themes.
If this was a once in a while thing I wouldn’t call it out. But it happens every single day. I suppose if I ignored all the random emails I got, this wouldn’t happen, but then I’d be “one of those VCs that isn’t responsive.”
Fortunately this is 1 out of 500. The vast majority of stuff I get from people I don’t know is positive. The ad hominem attacks I get – either from people I don’t know or people I try to be responsive are part of the drill. But every time I’m on the receiving end of one, I think to myself “that’s not a winning strategy.”
Everyone is allowed to feel how they want to feel. But recognize that if you are an entrepreneur, trying to create a business, raise money from investors, sell products to customers, and hire employees, that angry, hostile, and bitter is not a winning strategy. And – if it hasn’t been working for you, maybe try something different in 2013.
Along with my partner Jason Mendelson and our friends Brad Bernthal (University of Colorado Law School) and Mike Platt (partner at Cooley LLP) we have launched a series of courses in conjunction with our portfolio company Sympoz on starting a company. This is a bidirectional experiment for us – we are helping Sympoz launch their new set of programs for startups and entrepreneurs while continuing to experiment with new forms of media around education on a topic we know well.
My class, How To Light a Spark & Set Your Startup on Fire, is FREE for a limited time. It’s aimed at someone either thinking about starting a business, or just getting going. It’s a casual format – these should be easy, inspiring lessons – each of the three segments is about 30 minutes long Following is the outline of the content.
- Identifying the Right Idea: Is It a Relevant Idea? Does It Solve a Specific Problem? Is It A New Idea? Reduce Unnecessary Complexity! Are Your Great?
- Identifying the Right Idea for You: Are You Obsessed? What Do You Know? Are You an Infection Machine? Are You Consumed?
- Picking the Right Time to Start: If Not Now, When? Risk vs. Reward. The Idea Is the Easy Part! Resources for Startups.
Jason, BradB, and Mike’s class is a subset of the class that Jason and BradB teach at the CU Boulder Law School which has consistently been one of the most popular law and business school classes around startups, raising money, and venture capital. In the Sympoz course, The Nuts and Bolts of Starting a Company, they build on our book Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist to help you turn your idea into a company, who and how to partner with, how to raise money, and what to do with it when you get it. There’s plenty of practical advice for interacting with VCs during the financing process along with lots of tips about what can kill your startup before you get it off the ground. The four hour course costs $29.99.
Sympoz classes are perfect for busy people; you can watch the professionally produced, HD videos anytime, anywhere on the planet, from any Internet-connected device, as often as you want. The Sympoz learning platform seamlessly blends discussions into the class experience, enabling you to ask questions of, and participate in conversations with your class community, including your instructors.
Join us in class - and give us feedback on what you think about it.