Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, February 11, 2019
I am always looking for the skeleton keys to unlock the kingdom of entrepreneurship. I am not proud and will shamelessly “lift” from the best of the best when I find them — (ideas only and I always give credit). So please meet James Currier, managing partner at NFX, a venture firm in Silicon Valley. Currier has synthesized what he thinks are the core habits of world class startups, and I would like to share some of them with you.
Currier starts simple. “Nail the basics and cultivate the right habits.” As to the basics, I am always astounded when entrepreneurs come in to meet with me, and the most rudimentary elements (corporate structure, stock, vesting, options, financing, lawyer etc.) are wrong. I recently had this experience (no names). What angered me is this. In our little burg, there are 397 mentors, advisers, incubators, lawyers and consultants available ad nauseam. How is it that these decent and good entrepreneurs never got the correct basic advice?
Currier talks about having “flexible curiosity,” and then being willing to morph and marry it to “flexible passion.” We all know about the pivot — embrace it early, don’t wait for it to be imposed on you. Always keep testing and looking and probing. You know what you know, but it is what you don’t know that you don’t know that might prove to be the most profitable.
Recently, I was on a board and I told the management team in June 2018 that a hurricane was coming in December and that they should buy some lumber immediately to board up the windows in their house. They disagreed and thought it would be sunny in December. It turned out that they were wrong, and the rain is now coming in buckets. The CEO told me, “You know, you were right.” Hey, a board member does not want to be “right.” He wants to be listened to. There is no benefit in having to get a bucket and bail.
Currier talks about “finding the white-hot center.” What he means by that is in every market you are targeting, there will be an “irregularity.” That is where you can find early, hungry customers, whom Currier calls “non-utilizers” — people who weren’t using anything before to solve their problem and now find that your stuff is transformative for their needs. Instead of trying to unseat a competitor, take a look in the pond where no one is fishing. There are hungry fish in that pond. Catch those first and then head out to the ocean and catch even bigger ones.
Currier tells his CEOs to learn how to “tell a compelling story.” I love this, I believe this and I teach this. You are an actor on a stage. Learn to be Laurence Olivier (I know this dates me). Further, a great story also drives up your own motivation. You can change the story. It is the Knute Rockne effect. Currier says “storytelling should be your No. 1 superpower as a CEO.”
I have a client who is brilliant. He can tell his story, and he can move the room, making simple the most complex biotechnical whoop de do. What he cannot do is “close.” So I am going to modify Currier a bit by adding that the next skill right behind telling the story is “show me the money.”
Currier quotes a lesson from Dennis Hightower, at that time the head of Disney International. Hightower is quizzing Currier about why he wasn’t doing something in particular, and Currier launches into the pros and cons of the various permutations and combinations available that might influence the decision. Hightower replied “You know there are 13 ways of doing anything, 11 of them will work. Just pick one and do it.” I believe in Occam’s razor, which says the simplest answer is usually the correct answer. Don’t over analyze it; just hit the putt.
Finally, I love Currier’s embrace of speed. He sees a startup as an X-wing fighter from Star Wars. Speed is your No. 1 advantage, full throttle. “You could beat a grandmaster at chess if you could move twice every time he moved once.”
There is no magic bullet for success, but there are lots of weapons you can use.
Rule No. 595
“Never tell me the odds”
— Han Solo