Team, Team, Team…not Idea, Idea, Idea
As a serial entrepreneur and CEO, I frequent circles with many aspiring founders of “earth-shattering” and “world-changing” ideas. Mike Maples refers to these as potential “Thunder Lizards”.
I wanted to write briefly about a past experience I had with one founder in particular…a story which I believe every entrepreneur needs to hear.
With names changed to protect the innocent (or guilty as the case may be), I’ll refer to this founder as Roy (as in Roy Hinkley, “the Professor” – one of the seven castaways from the television series Gilligan’s Island), and his company, Ripply, which was still in stealth mode, of course.
Roy invented a new mixture of nano-aluminum powder and frozen water which could make environmentally friendly fuel which promised to be several orders of magnitude cheaper than conventional fuels and could be used for all vehicles worldwide (and even rocket fuel for spacecraft)….a potentially game-changing technology.
Now a little about Roy. He is a child prodigy in mathematics, having graduated from Columbia University at the age of 15. So he came with a little “street cred” to say the least. He even had started another company with game-changing tech, but that company had failed due to reasons beyond the technology itself.
Roy approached me with the “next big thing” and somewhat of a dilemma – he couldn’t risk telling anyone any details about his idea. Not even after “idea insurance” in the form of a nondisclosure agreement. In fact, he couldn’t even talk about the idea at a high level….for risk of someone “stealing it”.
Now, I must admit that I’m not a big believer in NDAs in terms of their protective value. I do; however, believe you can file your intellectual property with the USPTO and obtain some IP protection, but that’s a whole other discussion. You’re probably thinking that there are many ways to overcome this dilemma, but I want to focus our attention on Roy, rather than his “dilemma”.
Roy, like most other would-be entrepreneurs who have contacted me with their “game-changing news”, clearly overvalues his idea and therefore, almost by definition, undervalues team and execution.
When you are looking to buy a new home, most have come to understand the three most important things in making your purchase…that being “location, location, and location.” I believe that in the startup world, starting a new company needs to value three important things as well….yeap, those are “team, team, and also team.”
To me, overvaluing the idea is a red flag, particularly in the absence of tangible progress (in this case, all we had was a thesis with no prototype). Now, I’m sure I’ll miss out on a few “big ideas”. But I’d rather bet on team…especially given the fact that many companies live and die mainly because of team…not technology.
In my humble opinion, it’s about team, and then execution….not the technology.
Its all about the rocks
There was a professor who walked into his class on the first day. He stood before his class with some items on the table in front of him.
When the class began, wordlessly he picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with rocks, about 2″ in diameter. He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.
The people (executive team, staff, board, advisers) at your company are like the rocks
So the professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles, of course, rolled into the open areas between the rocks. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They laughed and agreed it was.
Your target market, go-to-market strategy, competitive positioning, customer value proposition, product roadmap, etc. are like the pebbles
The professor then picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He then asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with a unanimous “Yes.”
Your IP, your technology, your hundreds of thousands of lines of code are like the grains of sand
With the jar representing the company, and the rocks representing your people, think about this…if everything but your people were lost, your company would still be extremely valuable, capable, and most likely successful.
The pebbles also matter…embodying your ability to execute, your ability to reach your customers and convince them of your value.
The sand completes the picture, providing you something to actually sell. I argue that good people can and will obtain the sand and pebbles for your company.
If Roy focuses on putting the sand into the jar first, spending all his energy to gather it, protect it, and trust no one with it, there will be no room for the pebbles or the rocks….the market window will pass him, the good people will lack leadership and begin to challenge his priorities.
If Roy spends all his time and energy on his idea, not prioritizing good people, good investors, good advisers, he may have the best idea in the world…..but his idea will never see the light of day.
Set your priorities…..it’s all about team, and team, and team.
I recently spoke to a class of 30 founders, talking about co-founders and team. The main message was that this was probably the most important topic as entrepreneurs.