“Sure, I can do that. I’d be happy to.”
That’s been my standard response to getting involved in speaking engagements lately — knowing full well that the topic I’m being asked to speak on is highly personal and will leave me feeling very vulnerable. At first, I found this incredibly hard to do and often would hear my voice break, wobbling, narrowly avoiding a public onslaught of tears. Not that there’s anything wrong with crying, as everyone keeps telling me, but I know that once I start it’s hard to speak and deliver the message. And that’s what I’m here to do. I’ve finally figured it out, that’s my job.
But over time it’s got…. easier. It’s an odd choice of word, because stripping myself naked (metaphorically) and standing on a stage in front of my peers, colleagues or other, is terrifying most of the time. Somehow though I’ve managed to work my way through that and come out of the other side and enter a new zone of comfort, that has a strong purpose to it. Now I find I can flip the switch in my mind and get into the groove.
I needed that entirely last week, having agreed to turn up to the Angel Association conference in Blenheim to address the crowd on founder wellbeing (a current hot topic). Having a particularly crammed schedule of travel right now, I didn’t really spend too much time asking about the “who” was involved and it wasn’t until I got to the airport and walked into a Koru Lounge full of VC’s, PE’s, high-net worth investors, early stage seed investors, fellow founders and other industry stalwarts mingling about that it dawned on me. The reality then fully hit home when I arrived at the conference venue, perused the list and recognised 80% of the names. Ah, I was going to be doing this raw stuff extra hard this time! Gulp.
And I did it. And I did what I do. And it felt pretty good and the feedback was…interesting. This would be the first time where I could tell that I had made a lot of people really uncomfortable. I think that my content resonated, but perhaps just a little too much for some. My pick — hey and this is just me guessing — is that there were a lot of people in that room with way too much to lose right now to even consider the possibility of admitting that they don’t have it “all under control”.
And that, my friends, is where we’re going wrong. We still fundamentally believe that we “back winners” and that we must “give it our all” in order to succeed.
Post-event, the magnificently insightful Randy Komisar (my heart sung at his on-point commentary around what is fundamentally wrong with the NZ eco-system — including that we setup our start-ups for failure) and I sat outside, and he posed a question to me…
“Jenene, I have a dilemma and I hope you can help me with it.”
“I’ll try, hit me with it”
“Every success I’ve been involved with, the founder has been a bit…crazy. They’re not normal. They don’t do what normal people do, they don’t want to. They have some type of chip on their shoulder. It’s their driver. It’s what makes them special. They all eventually burn out, and our job is to — before that happens — surround them with a back-up crew who can pick up the pieces and carry on. If we take away the crazy, how do we possibly get the kind of innovation we need?”
I’m slightly paraphrasing, but that was the gist of what Randy was asking me.
I love serendipity and my belief in it has grown stronger these last six months as I’ve traversed my vulnerability path. Randy and I conversing in this moment felt meant to be. And that’s what he echoed to me. Here I have one of Silicon Valley’s most respected VC’s in front of me and I’M NOT PITCHING HIM FOR MONEY. Oh, how I LOL’d — clearly, I’ve changed.
“Randy, you know the saying “I gave it my all?” It’s everything that’s wrong with our industry. What I worked out over the last few months is that my business needs the 1% of me that is special, not 100% of my life. The moment I stepped back and empowered myself to have freedom of thought, free from the pressure of failure, was the moment I finally could see what we had and what we could be. I started fighting for the right things. Giving it our all is what was killing me and it’s what’s killing our entrepreneurs around the world. A hundred years ago our entrepreneurs were given freedom to be creative (or I like to believe they were), today they have access to Twitter and they create shit storms for themselves and we lose faith in them — because they’re not normal, they’re not mainstream. Elon Musk is a prime example of that — step away from the media attention and give him some space, and he’ll get back to what he does best. But the entire world has put too much pressure on him to be everything (hey dude, just save our planet will ya? I can’t even…)
The moment I gave up the ego I had to build to try and be everything, who thought she had to be great at everything and handed over responsibility for the operations, and parts of the business that others can do better than me, was the moment we started to get on a better track.
I use a tennis player analogy. I’m the tennis player in this scenario, who naturally has a killer forearm and can whack it over the net like few others can. I’m also nuts enough to be okay with hitting it again and again and again, most wouldn’t. But I’m not alone on that court. I have a physio, a trainer, a masseuse, a nutritionist, a bio-mechanic…etc. They all play a role in ensuring I’m going out match-fit and focusing on my forearm.
Entrepreneurship is the same. I’m really good at insights. It’s my special sauce, it’s what I thrive on. And I’m a messenger, I have a communication capability. But it dies when I put the pressure on myself to be it all and give it all 100% of my life, 100% of the time. So, I take back my time and I find a way to deliver my 1% and everything works better.
But it is VERY hard to do that. It requires admitting you don’t have it all. We don’t know how to do that as entrepreneurs because we frequently have sold into others that we’re the best thing ever and asked them to invest their hard-earned dollars into US — because we know that they invest in people. So, we give it our all. We try to live up to the impression, the version of ourselves that we believe is expected.”
All of this made up my response to Randy and I love the discussion we had after, which really got to the crux of how we can begin to fix that here in little old NZ. And he posed me another question, “so what happens next, Jenene? I believe you have the power to contribute to this, it’s the entrepreneurs who can make this change — so that’s my homework for you. You need to call it out”.
Ya. Okay. So, in order to get out of the corner we’re in (not just me as an individual, but the hundreds of fellow founders I’ve met and conversed with who have told me their pain, their addictions, their affairs, their burnouts, their 3am worries), I’ve got to go one step further and not just talk about what has happened to me, but what I think we can do next.
1) Our seed capital is made up largely of individuals who have some “spare change” — they have made money out of property, or corporate roles mostly (though we’re now starting to see more exited founders reinvest into the eco system too). But the common denominator is usually emotive, they want to give back. That’s amazing and to Randy’s point it means that we have support for a fantastic seed environment and it’s thriving full of individuals giving things a go.
2) BUT. Yup, there’s a but. We don’t follow on. We don’t give them a next step, we have no natural way to keep the business on the trajectory. We put in token sums. We have a nation of seed funders who do one round and don’t follow up. I LOVE that he called this out and I was the lone slow clapper in the room, finally hearing someone back up what I’ve felt and experienced for years. We have several networks of Angels, but not a collective ability to muster that money and make it work harder and be more supportive / go further.
3) We therefore set founders up for failure. As the fantastic John O’Hara has pointed out, you have a higher chance of surviving cancer than a start-up within five years (*source of data unknown), but aside from being an entirely grim view point, it does pose a stark reality. We’re not doing everything we can to deal with the outcome, we’re setting up hundreds of people from day one to lose their homes, their dignity, their egos, their confidence. Investors lose their money, lose interest in the eco system, get frustrated and founders have life changing experiences, that hopefully only ends in the aforementioned lessons. For many it will be a pathway to a better life, but shit peeps, there’s got to be a better way to get enlightenment?
4) The boards of these businesses start on a path that is difficult to correct. Early seed investors demand seats in order to “protect shareholdings” and, regardless of their capability or experience, are then directly in the path and way of the founder. Here’s the first step in trying to “shape the crazy” and I’d be willing to bet where most go wrong. It certainly has been the case for me. I’m a pain in the ass, I know that, but stop trying to smooth out my grooves. Embrace my crazy and push it in the right direction. If you’re investing in founders, mean it. It’s high risk already, you’re not lowering the risk by “getting around them” on the board, you’re increasing it. Figure out how to give them the support they need that focuses on their blind spots and gives them the freedom / support to be their brand of crazy — that might just be able to pull off the ludicrous and bold plan / vision they have. Boards MUST become strategic only.
5) Reward the investors for being bold. The UK does this brilliantly with the EIS and such tax schemes to attract the investment and lower the investor risk. Help those who’ve done well give back and give them a way to go about it, without having to worry as much about losing their money. The most common ROI NZ investors want is “just their money back” — that’s a pretty sad state of affairs.
Finally, how do we bring together our network of people — like we had at the conference this week — and instead of just standing around talking to and at each other, we bring ourselves together under more funds, united in a genuine belief to stimulate, and continue to invest in entrepreneurship and innovation? Answer: More managed funds, take out the worry of one person being the lead investor— let’s create more experience (and diversity!!) in this space — and invest not for a short term, but a longer game plan. Let’s do more than tokenism in incubation (12 weeks is….a joke, and is not a set up), but understand how we can continuously support these ventures to morph, evolve, change, fuck it up, fast pivot and keep moving forward. Without every learning moment being terminal.
We keep trying to emulate Silicon Valley, thinking that’s what we’re supposed to do. Hell no, we’re New Zealand. Let’s be THAT.