Yesterday in Silicon Valley I met with a serial entrepreneur from Asia and some of his fresh core team. The lunch was at an Asian bistro frequented by startup people. I noted a solo guy at a nearby table kept looking our way. That's typical: the best are always looking for the best (to recruit or invest in). And everyone listens for rumors of the next great idea.
We finished a pleasant and tasty lunch, agreed on our next steps, and then I headed off to do a bit of grandpa duty at my daughter's place. After a delightful time holding my granddaughter and then finishing the tasks requested, I fired up the Porsche for the two hour return home to Carmel . I reluctantly eased my way into rush hour traffic (I only do rush hour traffic for grandchildren and settled down to crawling along the highway. After an hour of slow and go, I finally found open road in the Salinas Valley. I checked for the CHP, downshifted three gears, stepped on the gas and the Porsche roared to life. I was home faster than an F-16 pilot on Saturday night.
During the slow and go period, I reflected on our lunch discussion. What stood out was what were the things the leader found important to discuss with me and his new guys (all first timer startup techies, all new to Silicon Valley).
Here is what I saw and suggest you reflect on:
- Openness. The founder (I'll call him Lee) was comfortable talking with me about sensitive things in front of the new guys: legal tasks to set up the new enterprise, issues with investors, technical hurdles facing the new enterprise, risks that could kill the startup, and so on. He was never hesitant, never awkwardly trying to cover over delicate problems (as have many before him with whom I have met). Just an open discussion of what to do next, with whom.
- Frankness. Lee discussed the general idea and recent good news about corporate business partners. He also talked about the very dangerous water that has to be crossed in coming weeks to get the new business funded and started. He pulled no punches, just said it like he saw it. That gave me information that helps me get ready to supply some tips that can ease the burden and reduce the risk of doing this startup. It also gave the new guys a sense for the level of risk they will be taking, thus keeping them from one day suddenly getting very surprised and very scared.
- Sober. Enthusiastic, yes, yet calm and measured. That is what I mean by sober. Lee displayed clear confidence in what he was going to do, yet he also was not naively optimistic. He was aware of the big opportunity he intended to pursue: a chance to create a gorilla of a new space. Yet he was realistic that even he might not execute the vision with success. This balanced viewpoint gave psychological permission to the rest of us to openly ask questions of each other and make express thoughts about the future. Enthusiasm grew at this point and the monologue turned into a dialogue.
- Street smart. Lee had me explain to his new guys what Silicon Valley's ecosystem was about and how it contributed to increasing the chances of success for a high tech startup. I also discussed the dangers therein. Lee also described to them how he had felt the first time about Silicon Valley people, how they worked, and what they thought about newcomers. The new guys relaxed at this point, you could see it in their faces. They began asking me tougher questions and were not hesitant to continue probing. They are quick learners, very intelligent and quite determined to figure out what this startup can become.
- Sympathetic. It was clear that Lee was emotionally in touch with his new guys. And he appreciated how they felt, new to the daunting Silicon Valley, and soon to be living away from their home country. He would expect world-class results from them, that was clear to me and the new guys. Yet he was not cold or trying to be tough nosed about communicating that. I could sense the camaraderie increasing among the group, a clear feeling of a close team forming.
The lunch revealed a lot to me about the people doing this startup. The founder displayed the special characteristics noted above. His newcomers became increasingly knowledgeable about what they were committing to. I saw who I was going to work with and left feeling optimistic that we could all help each other succeed.
BOTTOM LINE: Startup founders are in the people business. Serial entrepreneurs know that very well. Recruiting the best talent gives the best chances of success. How the founder interacts with the key early employees lays the foundation for the company culture. It will be built on the values of the early core team. As noted above, winning startup leaders do things differently than people from large corporations and very differently than people from large companies in Asia. This is part of what has made Silicon Valley such a great place to build great startups. It is part of their unfair advantage. But this can and has been done in many other places in the world. I suggest youtudy the notes above and test them on how you behave. That will tell you a lot about who you are and how much of an entrepreneur you are, Silicon Valley style. Make adjustments accordingly and boost your unfair advantage!
I wish you The Best on your Adventure!