Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, August 2, 2021
by Neil Senturia
How to pick a winner?
Now this is a fairly wide-ranging topic. People, deals, horses, sports, products, companies — you get my drift. I am fascinated by the concept of “winner,” and just what the hell that word means.
What prompted this topic was receiving the “life notes” from my high school chums, on the occasion of a particular age-related reunion. In our class, there were about 57 who stuck together, more or less, for eight years, from fifth grade to 12th grade and graduation.
Two enterprising members of the class asked each of us to write in less than 1,000 words what happened to us after graduation up to now. It turns out that lots of the boomer generation are now beginning to look back, trying to remember and capture the past before the final curtain. But here is the part I love. If you had tried to pick the winners from our senior high school class, you probably would have gotten no better than a C+.
Yes, the smartest guy in the class did become a famous eye surgeon. And the finance nerd did go and conquer Wall Street and make a fortune (until he lost it all). Most of us ended up in the middle of the infamous bell-shaped curve of life.
Recently, I played golf with a couple of venture guys, and one of them had very strong feelings about backing entrepreneurs, but “only the ones that come from the best schools,” feeling that selection criteria was most important. I politely disagreed and gave him a mulligan on No. 12.
Without boring you with details, I will tell just one story. “Bob” flunked out of our school in 10th grade, then went to a military academy (he had behavior issues), got into only one college, went there to be a ski bum, barely graduated, was drafted, went to Vietnam, came back, failed at finding any job, then moved with a wife and two kids to Seattle in the mid-70s, with no prospects.
But he stumbled onto a couple of companies — Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks — and he invested a couple of dollars, and of course became a millionaire, ending up as a VP of Human Resources at one of the companies for 30 years. In high school, it was a solid 100-1 sure bet that this guy was a certain loser and would never amount to anything.
How does the idea of being a winner influence the young entrepreneur and her/his choices? As a culture, we put a lot of power in that word. And sure, I understand the whole “participation trophy” insanity, but for the majority of us, it is a long race, with stops and starts, and very little certainty. Winning can be as simple as just showing up each day with both shoes tied (not together). And never discount the power of luck and timing.
As I read the various stories of my class, one overriding theme was the power and influence that the teachers had. Almost every member gave a shout-out to one of the teachers who supported or cared or encouraged or even punished them. The value of a teacher was clear. Teachers!
One of the classic mantras for a venture capitalist is backing someone who has just come off a failure, thinking he will win next time. Maybe, but only if she/he learned something from the experience. I like to bet on discipline and desire over pedigree.
We all remember the Varsity Blues scandal, the belief by wealthy parents that if their child does not get into a select school, one of the Ivies if you will, that their life will be forever marked as a failure with no prospects for “winning” later in their life. Of course, having a parent willing to spend $500,000 to bribe a college official might also be thought of as winning the lucky sperm lottery in the first place.
I spend some time mentoring foster youth, who have transitioned out of the program and are now on their own. When I see the grit and determination that leads them to the next level of education, jobs, independent living and being productive, there is only one name for it — I call that winning.
Rule No. 675: “The first one now will later be last.”