I had lunch recently with an investor who expressed frustration about founders of startups and scale-ups.
They are not a fund partner, nor VC or from the Private Equity world. No, they actually built a business of value and lived it for the whole journey through to an ultimate sale and cash out for a significant sum, thus giving them space and funds to invest in other businesses. Cards on the table, I prefer such investors as they’ve been through it personally, rolled the sleeves up. Experience brings empathy at a level that is irreplaceable. This gives them a powerful edge in mentoring founders, who often are sorely lacking sounding boards on the roller coaster ride.
So, why was this investor so frustrated when I met them? Could it have been that they wanted to vent along the lines of my own common frustration with founders focussed on raising round after round of funding without actually building a business that generates revenues? Not that day, though certainly something I may write about another time!
No, they were frustrated with founders pretending they are bulletproof.
What did he mean by bulletproof?
He explained that in the startup and scale-up ecosystems he sees, there is huge emphasis on such things as prizes, awards, competitive grants, places on programmes to accelerate, incubate, develop etc. So many people vested in a cycle with recognition at the core.
We both agreed that such programmes are of great value, not least in recognition and inspiration for and from lauding successes. However, all too often behind the smiles while holding trophies on the podium is a founder who is, in reality, highly stressed, anxious, struggling to build a successful business. Often founders feel somewhat helpless and even hopeless and even quite alone with nobody to talk to.
At our lunch, then, we both reflected on how prevalent such situations are, and we could have told each other story after(anonymised) story of founders in such situations and how it rarely ends well, either for the business or the founder personally.
My investor friend focussed his frustration, then, on “why do they feel they have to be bulletproof?!” One answer, they felt, was the need to keep up the smiling facade. Once fêted, lauded for their awards and successes, founders then find it hard to say to anybody: “actually, I’m having a hard time, the bullets are hitting me and they hurt”.
So, my best advice to founders is this.
None of us is bulletproof.
Share what has wounded you, ask for help, tell your investors, your team, your mentors where you are and.. ask. for. help.
As someone who has built and invested in businesses for decades, let me leave you with some of the key things I came to look for in investing in a business. You’ll see some unapologetic overlap and repetition here, these points bear repeating:
- Investors invest in the founder more than the business idea.
- A Warren Buffett maxim. Invest in management.
- Be Authentic
- All relationships are based on trust, and trust cannot be built without authenticity. Tell us your truth, your story, warts and all. We need to trust you.
- Show me you’ve failed and how you’ve learned from it
- It is empirically shown again and again that business founders are more likely to succeed if they have failed before and learned from it.
- Improve, don’t Prove
- Growth Mindset = always looking to Improve = Investable
- Fixed Mindset = need to always Prove = Bulletproof = NOT Investable
- If your first business fails and I lost all my investment, show me you made your best effort and (key) have learned from the experience and I will be highly likely to invest in you the next time.
- Bulletproof founders can’t be trusted
- If you try to convince investors you have all the answers and that you are bulletproof, you ain’t fooling us.
- Worse, we can’t trust you to tell us when things aren’t working so that we can be part of your choices, whether that is to change course or stay the course.
- There is so much talk around terms such as “agile” and “fail fast”, so let me boil it down for founders. You need to tell us when things aren’t working, and early, not later once it is too bad to hide any longer.
I hope my unsubtle sledgehammer of advice may land with some founders and help.
Now, in closing, a little more advice.
For founders in those ecosystems, perhaps you look up at highly successful leaders and may think some of them are bulletproof. Remember, though, none of us are.
Ok, some leaders wear pretty convincing masks of being bulletproof and have levels of monetary and other “success”. Others, though, are successful for different reasons.
My work with leaders is with those who are successful and are self-aware, where their confidence comes from knowing who they are, being authentic, building trust with others and more. As I put it on my #BeMoreYou page, they are Hungry, Humble, Brave and Open.
So, founders, what would it feel like to drop the bulletproof attitude and be those four characteristics for success? I can feel the sighs of relief already.