Iterations: Collective Wisdom

Editor’s Note: Semil Shah is an EIR with Javelin Venture Partners and has been a contributor to TechCrunch since January 2011. You can follow him on Twitter at @semil.

Recently, while traveling, I came across a “traditional print business magazine” and read it on the plane. It had nothing to do with startups, so it felt novel. There was one segment in the magazine where the editors solicited a few business leaders to share the single most important advice they’ve ever received and one that they still remember today, and I found it to be unexpectedly powerful. So, I decided to try it on people that I look up to in the startup world, and below is what they wrote. I figured for folks in the startup community, the advice that stuck with others that we recognize as leaders could have a positive impact. Below is what a few folks shared with me, and I see the result as sort of an experiment. I just emailed a good handful of folks, asked for some contributions, and seven folks were kind enough to write back. Their contributions are interesting because of what they remember, and how they remember it. I hope you enjoy it. (I’m trying to experiment with new content styles to expand out from the type of posts I normally write here. I’d appreciate any suggestions you may have.)

Josh Felser, two-time entrepreneur, currently a co-founder of Freestyle VC: “Even if it takes you weeks, return every legitimate email or call you receive, even if the response is short, because it reminds you where you came from,’” says Felser. He received this advice back in 1992 from Strauss Zelnick, who was then President of FOX, where Felser, now an early-stage VC, once worked in business development. “Especially now that I am a VC,” says Felser, “I need to remember what it was like as an entrepreneur trying to build your dream in the face of rejection at every turn.”

John Lilly, former CEO of Mozilla, currently a Partner at Greylock Partners: “Figure out who your crew is, who you want to work with over the long arc of your career, and really invest in them, build relationships over a long period, help each other, stay in touch.” Lilly, at partner at Greylock Partners, received this advice from Stanford Professor Tom Kosnik. “The reasons why it’s stuck with me: (1) It’s created a wonderful context and environment to live a life in, with people I respect and learn from constantly, (2) It’s been effective in creating countless unexpected opportunities for me, and (3) After awhile, it becomes second nature, like breathing oxygen, to invest time and effort in relationships that reinforce and can grow.”

Sam Shank, serial entrepreneur, current founder/CEO of HotelTonight: “My father, an architect, who told me that tons of people will have the same idea as you, but few, if any, will ever do anything with it. He told me this when I was 10, in the context of a flooring system he decided to patent and earned royalties on. I thought about it when starting HotelTonight – an idea many had, but no one pursued (at least until we launched).”

Ross Fubini, former engineering executive, founder, and seed-stage investor, now Venture Partner at Canaan Partners: “It’s gotta be from my grandfather. After quizzing me on series of calculus fundamental, he said: ‘If you don’t know these facts, you aren’t ready to learn. Come back when you know your facts.’ While the statement was made with a grandfather’s affection — it also had the judgement of a world-class assessor of ideas. It was clear not know thing the fundamentals meant you weren’t ready to have a real conversations on a topic. It scared the bejeezus out of me and made a huge impression. It comes to mind every time whenever I formulate an opinion. What facts do I really know? My grandfather was genuinely wise (as evidenced by his opinions being sought by Presidents of CalTech, Cabinet members, etc). I think his foundational understanding of science, technology and people formed a foundation for how to see the world with insight. Which is something I aspire too.”

Manu Kumar, former entrepreneur and technologist, now runs K9 Ventures: “‘Entrepreneurship is insane perseverance in the face of complete resistance.’” This quote is from Jack Thorne, the Morgenthaler Professor of Entrepreneurship, Carnegie Mellon University. That line is what got me going and gave me the courage to never give up. The full story of the impact of that line on me is chronicled in this blog post. Thorne taught the entrepreneurship class at CMU. When I decided I wanted to do a startup, I figured I should go learn as much as I can about entrepreneurship first, so I wanted to take Jack’s class. When I approached Jack about it, he told me the class was already full and so I couldn’t take his class. I showed up on the first day of class anyway. The definition of entrepreneurship was the first topic/slide that Jack presented. Right there I knew what I had to do to get into Jack’s class — and so started my journey as an entrepreneur — one with insane perseverance. This line has stuck with me after all these years because startups are never easy and always hard, and, you need something to hold on to to get you through it all. Perseverance is what makes founders win. I should point out, however, that perseverance doesn’t mean simply mean beating your head against a brick wall, but it means being determined, resourceful and relentless. The day when I snuck into Jack’s class was a turning point for me, one I remember fondly, and, I only hope that I can have even half as much impact on the lives of the founders I get to work with.”

DJ Patil, currently a Data Scientist at Greylock Partners: “What starts as simple becomes complex. What starts as complex becomes intractable.” That quote is from one of my Ph.D. advisors, Jim Yorke, who named the field of Chaos Theory. Even though Jim gave me this feedback in context of our work on new ways to improve weather forecasting, it’s become a guiding principle for me. Whether it’s been working in national security or developing new products, I’ve found it’s a hard-learned lesson. We often love to go for the hard problem, but the hard problem starts off easy and becomes complex quickly.

Pete Skomoroch, currently a data scientist at LinkedIn: “’Character is what we do when we no one is watching.’” I’ve heard this in various forms over the years. The version which really stuck with me came from Adam Nash while he was my manager at LinkedIn. Adam took extra time to help with issues that meant a lot to me, but that most people would never hear about. I had just started reporting to him, and he was responsible for several major product areas at the company. When I asked why he was helping me out, he said ‘character is what we do when we no one is watching.’ When you have many competing demands, you focus your time and energy on high priority things that move you closer to your objectives. At the same time, it is important not to lose sight of things you should still do as a matter of principle. If you cut corners in work and life, then you will pay for it later. Adam delivered similar advice on his blog, where he said you should ‘be the type of person who paints behind the refrigerator.’ My corollary to this is that you should surround yourself with people who try to do the right thing, especially when it isn’t easy or politically expedient for them. It is hard to build something of long term value if you are on a team that takes the path of least resistance and might not back you up when things get tough.

Photo Credit: Mara 1 / Flickr Creative Commons