Breaking through

I spend a bunch of time speaking at events, guest lecturing at friends’ classes and mentoring young people. It is something I feel passionately about and enjoy a great deal. I always try to be blunt, honest and unambiguous with my input, hoping that at least some of the take-aways will be employed by those hearing my words. But I continue to be surprised by the number of common mistakes made by start-up founders, and wanted to provide a short list of some of my hot buttons.

Post-presentation behavior: When I (or someone like me, be they an investor, a well-know start-up founder, etc.) speak at a conference, it is commonplace for a group of people to line up to say hi and chat for a minute. All good. Except what often happens is that a (most often young) founder will try to pitch me their idea. I hate this and it generally leaves a bad taste in my mouth. There are too many people and too little time for this to be successful. You do not have my undivided attention. However, the goal should be to be brief, on point and to either say something smart or ask a good question that relates to discussion. This way, you can send me an email at and you might have seeded a dialogue. But if you force a pitch on me at this moment, forget it.

Getting in touch with a VC: The number of blind emails we get with a pitch and a meeting request is extreme. This exercise is a complete waste of time as far as I’m concerned. The signal/noise ratio is simply too high to do all the calls and take all the meetings people want. But there is one way people short-circuit a meaningful part of the deal funnel – getting referred into us by a trusted person. This person can be another investor with whom we’re close and done business. It can be one of our founders. The common thread is someone whom we trust and whose judgement we value. While we don’t take every meeting requested from referrals, the likelihood of getting a close look is infinitely higher than sending in your stuff and hoping that a meeting will take place. So use that entrepreneurial intensity, passion and ingenuity to network to someone who knows me or one of my colleagues and impress them sufficiently such that they’re comfortable making the introduction.

Networking: Even with all that has been written about the importance of networking, I see way too many aspiring entrepreneurs looking for a silver bullet for how to meet domain relevant people for collaboration, recruitment and . Have you checked out relevant Meetup groups? General Assembly? Do you have specific experience where you might mentor other founders at TechStars or another accelerator program? Have you spent time doing research around events taking place at local colleges and universities? How about starting your own community around your particular area of interest? With even a little effort it is impossible not to find abundant opportunities to network, learn and grow. You’ve just got to do it. I have no simple answer. It just takes time and hard work. Kinda of like what it takes to be a startup founder.

Building your brand: If you are in the start-up world, either as an employee, founder, investor or aspiring to do any of the three, it is important to thoughtfully build your online and offline identity. The beauty is that these efforts are valuable for anything you might want to do, and, in fact, is great practice for what you’ll do when you land your dream role. Develop a thesis and take a stand. How can you add value to the community discussion? Start writing, but with a purpose. It forces clarity of thought, opens up your mind and lets people get to know you better. Create opportunities for speaking in public and sharing your ideas with others. This will help bridge the online/offline gap and build a more personal identity, as well as providing a forum for feedback and debate instead of living inside your head. And of course actively maintain a Twitter account and an up-to-date LinkedIn profile. These are table stakes for people wanting to get a quick snapshot of who you are and what you’re about.

Be passionate, be strong but be deliberate. The fact is that no matter how smart or hungry you are, it just takes time to network, acquire knowledge and experience and to feel comfortable in your own skin as a member of the start-up community. And this is a good thing. Life is a marathon, not a sprint, so be purposeful and focused without feeling like you’re behind where you should be. The worst thing you can do is be unfocused and reactive, letting the environment dictate your roadmap instead of the converse. This doesn’t mean be insular and block out external influences; it means remaining true to your mission. It’s just like my idol W. Edwards Deming used to say (paraphrasing): It’s about understanding the process. If you develop the best processes, positive results will follow. 

It’s all there within your grasp. Just be thoughtful. Listen a lot. And by all means, follow your passions.