Thanks to ZhenFund 真格基金 (the world’s largest angel fund, based in Beijing), I got to participate in an EIR program called ZhenResidence 真驿站 over the past 10 days. We were led by ZhenFund founder and New Oriental (NYSE:EDU) co-founder Victor Wang on a tour of 14 portfolio companies in Beijing, chatting in earnest with CEOs and founders about their stories and businesses.
It’s been an amazing and intense experience. As the program comes to an end, I realized that despite all the complexity of a starting a business, being a founder is quite simple. It boils down to two things.
People is everything.
Throughout the program, we heard heartfelt founding stories from 14 founders across industries. Some are first time founders; some already went public. Most are in tech; some are not (e.g. restaurants). The single factor they all explicitly attributed their success to is having team of trusted co-founders and employees.
靠谱 — to be exact. That’s the personal characteristic these founders sought for in their partners. Translated loosely, it means people that are trusted, reliable. These are the people that you’re going to charge into battle with. You better be damned sure that you can count on them. One co-founder described his CEO as this: “from this day on, my life is yours; let’s get this done.”
There are different ways of finding such partners. The most obvious is people that you’ve known for a long time, whether through school, work, or as friends. Then, there is the friends-of-friends approach. The least recommended is through so-called co-founder dating service. What you’re looking for is shared values — which is built over a lifetime of experience. Values only manifest themselves through small details and over time.
I’ve always picked people first for their character, and then for their ability. Because ability can be trained.
After filtering for trust, values, and character, the next most important thing is learning ability. Many may think that industry experience, technical knowledge, or education are crucial. They’re important, sure, and may be even more important in some industries. However as attributes for co-founders, raw intelligence, genuine curiosity, and a supreme ability to learn are even more so. There are an infinite number of problems to solve throughout the journey — far more than a single person’s prior experience can support. A founding team without the ability to quickly learn and adapt will be quickly left in the dust.
So here’s my humble hierarchy of founder must-haves:
Trusted > Values / Character > Intelligence + Learning Ability > Education / Experience / Knowledge
This isn’t a secret; in fact it’s probably common knowledge. But this trip had left me with a much deeper, personal impression its importance.
Direction is about knowing what you want to do, and how you want to do it.
There are different levels of having a direction for your business. At the most basic level, it’s about deciding to work in a certain industry or on a certain technology. More specifically, it becomes solving a particular pain point. Quantified, it becomes a specific set of goals to aim for. And holistically, it’s planning out the business, in addition to the product.
Technology < Pain Point < Product < Business
While it may be daunting, every founder need to think through their chosen direction in terms of both product and business. This is something that the founders I’ve met have consistently excelled in — with an uncanny ability to structure a business, utilizing and integrating all their advantages and resources. They thought thoroughly about monetization, defensibility, competition, and future expansion — even at the idea stage.
A business is more than its product. That’s something I will never forget from these founders.
To be sure, I’m not advocating for building your vision without listening to any feedback. That’s oftentimes a recipe for disaster, because a core competitive advantage of a startup is being able to quickly iterate and pivot — think on the scale of days — to continue getting closer to solving the pain point and building a viable business.
Lastly, this direction needs to align with the founder’s personal identity. While others may disagree, I believe that the company should be a continuation of the founder’s self. Perhaps that’s too idealized, but that passion then becomes the driving force.
I was touched.
At the end of every ZhenResidence company visit, Mr. Wang gives a summary in a humorous, yet intensely wise, talk. The word he emphasized after every talk was kindness. It surprised me — China tech is such a competitive ecosystem — kindness? But it makes sense. Being kind, to yourself, to your team, to your customers, it will be rewarded at the end.
It also resonated strongly with what YC said in our first batch dinner, “be nice”; as well as Google’s motto “don’t be evil.” Perhaps that’s just an ideology, but that’s one that I’m willing to bet on and fight for in my culture.
As I’ve experienced in the past, and as I’m sure I’ll continue to face in the future, there will be innumerable challenges and difficult decisions. This trip gave me a potential solution. People and direction — if I do these well right at the start, and continue to be kind throughout, then perhaps the journey can be a little simpler.
After all, working with people you enjoy, on a business you’re passionate about — that’s a blessing.
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Also, check out my experience living in China here: Where Technology Meets Culture: Week 1 of Living in Beijing