Burned Relationships Burn Down Companies

TL;DR Nutshell:  Success in building a company most often requires a founder team who can not only find great investors, advisors, employees, and other stakeholders, but build deep relationships with those people in a way that leads them to be emotionally, not just financially, invested in the success of the company.  Short-sighted founders focus on the costs of those relationships, ‘transactionalizing’ them in a way that weakens loyalty. The smarter ones realize that those costs are an investment in an invaluable safety net that will support the company when it hits rough waters.

A brilliant phrase that I learned a while back, and which I’ve often used in suggesting to founder CEOs how they should approach building their “roster” (not just employees, but investors, advisors, lawyers, and other stakeholders) is to never be the person who “knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.”

If you approach every relationship from the perspective of maximizing your gains and minimizing your costs – get the highest valuation possible, keep as much control as you can, minimize the equity package, minimize the salary, discount the bill –  you may think you are doing what’s best for yourself and your company, but in reality you’re just isolating yourself from the people whom you should most want on your team. 

Talent cares about relationships. 

The most successful and talented people in any market/industry – venture capital, angel investing, design, programming, law, sales, PR, etc. – very very rarely get to where they are because they were chasing money. They often do what they do because they, in some sense, enjoy it. It may not be fun in the same way that going fishing or on a great vacation is fun, but work is something much deeper to them than just work. This is not at all, however, to say that money is irrelevant to them, but getting paid well is often more about respect for their talent – a moral acknowledgement of the value they provide – than about their actually needing the dollars themselves.

Put slightly differently, the highly talented people whom you want supporting your company’s success will very often have “F.U. Money” or “F.U. Skills” or both. They’ve already mastered the bottom rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and are looking for respect, involvement, trust, engagement, etc in their work and investments. They are looking for real relationships. Build and nurture those relationships, and the long-term returns will be massive, either for your company or you individually. Burn those relationships, and you’re fu**ed. 

Don’t Transactionalize People

Obsessed with maximizing your valuation/control and minimizing dilution? You’re going to end up with shitty VCs; the kind who add no value, are always whining about performance, and will replace you in a heartbeat for not producing the results that they can’t help you achieve. Insisting on keeping equity packages as small as possible? You’ll end up with shitty employees who will drive you insane with the amount of oversight, correction, and overall time sucking they require. Focused on keeping those legal bills to an absolute minimum? You’ll end up with shitty lawyers who are unresponsive, incompetent, and accruing legal technical debt that you’ll pay for later. The examples go on and on.

Watch the bottom line and the cap table intelligently, but let good people make good money. When you push too hard against talent, they will either (i) pass  entirely on you for someone who values them more, or (ii) register in their mind that their relationship with you is purely transactional. The qualitative difference between a transactional relationship and a deeper one sounds small, but in a high-risk, low resource business it can be everything.

If you hit a funding snag and need a bridge to get to your next round, investors with whom you’ve built real relationships may put in some money to keep you going. Investors who view you as just another number in their portfolio will not. Need to cut compensation temporarily, or stretch payments on a bill, to get through that bridge period? You better hope your employees and service providers actually give a damn about your business for reasons beyond their paycheck.

Healthy long-term business relationships are built on a mutual sense of fairness; that it’s OK to take into account leverage and context in negotiations, but that everyone should in the end leave a little on the table as a statement that the relationship is there for something bigger than just money.

Mistrust Burns Money

Trust – meaning a feeling that you have a solid understanding of a person’s authentic character and that they’ll treat you fairly and respectfully – is not just some teddy bear “kumbayah” lets-all-love-each-other buzz word. It is currency that makes doing business long-term significantly, dramatically, more stable and less costly. If you frame it purely in terms of a risk-reward analysis, if I feel like I can trust someone, I automatically feel like working with them is less risky. And if it’s less risky, the threshold of reward that I need (my compensation) to make the relationship worthwhile goes down significantly. Mistrust is spectacularly expensive.  As a startup, you can’t afford for people to not trust you.

The end-conclusion here is a straightforward one: all of the data on business executives confirms that emotional intelligence – the kind of ‘people skills’ that enable you to connect and build trusting relationships with others – is a foundational trait for successful founders, particularly founder CEOs. People are born with varying degrees of those skills, but everyone should work on improving them.

Very very very few teams succeed purely on the momentum of their business. Study the histories of successful teams, and you’ll see a network of valued relationships being built and nurtured over time, propelling founders forward and often protecting them from hitting rock-bottom.  Don’t be the guy who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. He’s lonely, unsuccessful, and poor.

Bad Advisors: The Problem with Localism

TL;DR Nutshell: One hour with an advisor who has exactly the domain expertise your company needs could be infinitely more valuable than 100 hours with someone who doesn’t. Yet, unless you live in a large ecosystem, that all-star may not be in your city. So go find her. Time is precious and mistakes are costly. Never put localism before competence and results.

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My wife loves farmers markets.  I love healthy, delicious fresh food, as well as supporting decentralized agriculture over conventional mega farms.  But I also personally have a ‘thing’ against rewarding inefficiency and mediocrity. I dislike the way in which a lot of the pro-local ethos appears to almost celebrate how badly businesses can be run – hand-made, hand-picked, artisanal, small batch, etc. etc. If it doesn’t actually produce a tangible benefit to the consumer (better taste, as an example), why should I wake up early on a Saturday morning just to reward your bad business skills?

Funny thing is that there’s one local farm here in Austin that has begun to just dominate farmers markets. More variety, more staff, consistent quality, better pricing, even better branding. They’re everywhere. I love it, and whenever I have to go to a farmers market, I usually just end up shopping at that one booth. And when I’m not at a farmers market, I’m probably shopping at Whole Foods, which is the farmers market fully self-actualized. Say what you want about its prices, but John Mackey and WF took the pro-local, pro-environment, humane food value structure and scaled it (out of Austin) like no one else has since. And it is spectacular.

Touchdowns; Not Pep Rallies. 

Now back to tech. Celebrating your local business / startup ecosystem is a great thing. There’s deep value in the close, repeat relationships and networks that develop through working with people within your city. But with that being said, there is still a completely unavoidable fact: nothing comes even close to supporting a local startup ecosystem as much as the building of scaled, successful tech companies. All the meet-ups, startup crawls, networking events, hackathons, pitch contests, publications, parties, etc. are great and important in their own way, but, to repeat, nothing matters more than the building of great companies. Touchdowns. Wins.  Pep rallies do not attract the kind of deep talent that ignites a local economy; awesome companies do.

Once you accept that building successful companies trumps all else, there’s another unavoidable fact: working with highly competent, experienced advisors with truly valuable insight for your specific company, whether they’re in Silicon Valley, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, Austin, Houston, Boston, London, Dallas, or wherever, comes first, second, and third before working with someone who may be more accessible to you locally, but can’t deliver nearly as much value. 

If it’s my company, my capital, and my employees on the line, I ain’t got time for the guy selling his tiny backyard tomatoes across the street, even if he knows everyone in town. I need that big, juicy peak game stuff, and if I have to go to the coasts to get it, so be it. Hit your goals with quality, imported help (if necessary), and you’ll sow a dozen A+ farmers in your city for the next entrepreneur to reap. THAT’s how to support your ecosystem.

Bad Advisors <> Influencers. 

Bad advisors are usually influential, well-known people in a local economy. They aren’t bad people. They just don’t have very useful advice, and often give bad advice, to early-stage founders. 

If you want to start a startup-oriented business – let’s use an incubator as an example – and generate a lot of buzz around town, you are going to want to work with the influencers in your community. They know whom to call, what strings to pull, and can even usually put in some cash, to help establish your incubator’s brand around town. What do all of those influencers expect in return? Profit? Perhaps. But more often than not, they want access. They want to be involved. How can they get involved? As mentors /advisors.

So it should not surprise you that when a new incubator, accelerator, co-working space, or other startup-oriented org launches in your town, a significant portion of the people involved will be there not because of the value they can bring to startups, but because of the value they brought to the person starting the incubator, accelerator, or what not. They may be C-suite executives at a prominent local company who have never worked anywhere with fewer than 200 employees. They may be wealthy businessmen in industries totally unrelated to your own. Sometimes it’s just a guy who is really F’ing good at networking.

It’s an unfortunate fact of reality that many business referrals, even in tech ecosystems, are made more with an eye toward perpetuating the influence of the person making the referral (reward people who refer back, are part of your ‘circle’) than the value that the recipient of the referral will receive. Finding people who care more about merit than about rewarding their BFFs is extremely important for a founder CEO. Those people will be honest with you when there simply isn’t anyone in town worth working with. I find myself saying that often about lawyers in specific niche specialties needed by tech companies, although increasingly less so each year.

Widen your network. 

The take home here should be to (i) understand why those influential (but sometimes clueless) local people are being pitched to you as advisors, even when they don’t really have very good advice (but they may have money, and it’s green), and (ii) go find the advisors you really need, wherever they are. But please save your equity for the people actually delivering the goods. Vesting schedules with cliffs. Use them.

Videoconferencing is pretty damn good and cheap these days.  I use it with clients all the time. LinkedIn and Twitter make it 100x easier today to expand your network than even 10 years ago. Hustle. Every founder team does not need to fit the super extroverted, Type A entrepreneur stereotype, but I’ll be damned if any company can succeed without someone who can get out there and shake the right hands.

Interestingly, some people are working on building curated (important, get rid of LinkedIn’s noise) marketplaces to help founders find well-matched advisors, hopefully at some point across geographic boundaries. Bad Ass Advisors appears to be the best example I’ve seen thus far. If BAA doesn’t become a hit, something like it will. The value prop is obvious.

 Most startup ecosystems have some awesome people to work with. Find them. Local can be valuable.  But as your company grows and evolves, don’t let the geographic boundaries of your city force you to settle for influential, but not very useful advisors. Customers > Community. All day. Every day. Never forget: you’ll help your local economy and ecosystem far more by going big and going far than by going local.