“Often, startups fail for reasons that are very human: burn out, founder conflict, inability to live with ups and downs, thrills and disappointments of your life as a founder with your staff’s paychecks resting on your shoulders. I’m an entrepreneur, I’m married to an entrepreneur, and I counsel other entrepreneurs — but mental toughness is something that almost none of us talk about. Yet it is often a “secret sauce” that separates break-through companies from average ones. I always thought that people are either mentally tough or not. But I learned that mental toughness is a skill that can be trained. I learned that by watching my teenage daughter, a nationally competitive tennis player, becoming tougher every day comes from a deliberate and disciplined process of training her mind, focusing on the “now” and staying grateful. As a result, I worked several new habits into my daily routine, which now includes meditation, writing a gratitude list, and working out. These are not complicated changes, but they require a certain amount of discipline. For your own sake, start forming some healthy habits now.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Oksana Malysheva, PhD, Venture Capitalist and CEO/Managing Partner of Sputnik ATX, an Austin-based accelerator program that funds maker-founders. The first Sputnik cohort graduated this April and applications are open for the summer cohort. She is also CEO and Managing Partner of both Linden Venture Fund and Linden Education Partners, two related VC firms that are focused on investments in Education, Education Technology and Financial Technology. Her prior investments include universities for international students and education technology.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I was born and raised in Kiev, Ukraine (at the time it was Soviet Union). I was fascinated by physics and math early on, and my dream was to become a scientist (you could also rightfully call me a nerdy child). The first huge step towards that dream was getting into the best college to study physics — Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. Then, as “perestroika” happened, funding in the USSR disappeared altogether, especially for obscure science projects. The US was the only place where my dream would have been possible, so my husband and I boarded the plane for the US with literally $100 to our names and all of our text books in our suitcase to go to graduate school to study Physics. Luckily, both of us got in into terrific schools.
As I was earning my PhD in Physics at UPenn, a phenomenal world of business opened up to me, and I found it both intriguing and exciting. I pivoted my focus to business and marketing. My journey started at McKinsey & Co where you get to see and take part in solving the most interesting problems Fortune 50 companies are facing from the first row. I continued on to Motorola, and was the Senior Director of Marketing through the company renaissance when it launched the Razr. In a span of 5 years I went from scientist to strategist to marketer. Despite being very different on the surface, they share common traits; one has to be creative, inquisitive and be adept at problem solving.
My eclectic backstory serves me well in my current role as Managing Partner/CEO of Sputnik ATX. We are a start up accelerator out of Austin, TX. We are investing in early stage start ups that we think can make it big with some coaching and funding. To put it another way, we match big-idea nerds with investment and advice. So, depending upon the task at hand I get to be technical, strategic, perhaps think about marketing challenges, figure out if the founder in front of me can go the distance, try to match an entrepreneur with the right mentor from my network, etc. Through all of this, our mission is to elevate the companies we mentor to a higher trajectory. It is tough at times, but it brings me joy to be part of an innovative ecosystem that launches new companies.
Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
The next few weeks are super fun and important. We have just completed the difficult task of choosing our winners for our next cohort, and will be beginning our 3-month curriculum!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
This is so true! I just wrote about my mentor at Motorola, Geoffrey Frost (link here) and the lessons I learned working by his side and observing him.
But, I have been fortunate to have mentors and supporters all through my life. The most important ones are those closest to me day in and day out. My dad fueled my quest for discovery early on, and demanded excellence in all I undertook. My husband has steadfastly supported me through school, work and life, and pushed me to aim higher every step of the way. My kids have made me more creative, more disciplined and joyful by simply entering my life.
What are the 5 things that most excite you about blockchain and crypto? Why?
· Crypto stands a chance to give people of developing world access to global financial markets. It does not matter to crypto if you live in the heart of London or in a remote village in Vietnam, it will treat you the same. So you can collaborate, create, sell, save, etc. without limitations or advantages due to where you were born.
· Money can be sent across the world quickly and cost effectively.
· It has the power to give monetary stability to people who live in financially unstable countries. Think back to every finance crisis the world has endured, with major currencies devalued almost overnight: Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Greece… How different would the world be if people’s savings would have, at least partially, been in crypto?
· I think crypto is already triggering massive innovation in the world of finance, and new players will emerge as a result of this.
· For high-risk transactions, the ability to build contract terms into a currency transaction backed by safe contracts is stupendous and unprecedented. It may redefine law in addition to finance.
What are the 5 things worry you about blockchain and crypto? Why?
· The rise of crypto coincides with the growth of the high level hacking. So, exchanges can be hacked, and they likely will be hacked. For currency that exists in the virtual world, it is a problem that will require a strong solution and vigilance.
· The rise of crypto is a bit akin to a gold rush now, and as a result there will be a number of bad players out there preying on an under-informed public pressing in to join the game. As with anything financially trendy, I implore people to apply their common sense to all investments, including crypto
· I’ve seen some reports that the energy that we spend mining for crypto is equivalent to the energy consumption of Serbia. If this is true and continues to grow, this could become a huge limitation
· Crypto-bubble? People tend to underestimate the value of new technologies long term but dramatically overvalue them short term. With aggregate market cap increases by more than 2000% , one does wonder…
· Crypto-ignorance. Most people have perfunctory knowledge of crypto, and what specifically is possible, legal, or dangerous. Yet the fear of missing out forces some to rush in. A number of ICOs will go bust, and innocent people will be hurt in the process.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share a story?
Giving back is a must for me and my family. We try to do it quietly and without fanfare, so no big story here. Our big focus is access to education and we don’t do it for publicity.
What 3 things would you advise to someone who wanted to emulate your career? Can you share an example for each idea?
1. Invest in your team
My former boss and mentor at Motorola, Geoffrey Frost, used to say, “Casting is not the most important thing, it’s the only thing.” Picking your team, developing your team and finding the right role and motivation for talented people accounts for every victory I have had. Compromising here always leads to trouble.
Be aware of the areas where you need to grow and work on finding a partner that compliments your weaknesses. Surround yourself with people who will motivate you to bring your best game.
Be deliberate when choosing your partner and team. A product can always be improved upon; you can always pivot. But without the correct people, everything else becomes unmanageable.
2. Never stop learning
Our world is constantly changing, and the only way to succeed and have fun with it, is to savor the process of learning and growing, and to build systems that help you stay on top of the process. Ponder for a second: internet, ubiquitous mobile, social networks, crypto, block chain, AI, and this list will go on. Any one of these technologies has the power to radically change how we live our lives. By staying curious and hungry to learn, you will have the knowledge to be a winner in that change.
But at the same time, do not ignore things that may seem boring, because they are equally important. A lot of startups fail because of ‘unsexy things.’ In other words, as a new entrepreneur you most likely do not understand how to structure your finances, what legal and HR pitfalls to avoid, or how to structure forward-looking statements — none of this comes naturally. The list of these items goes on and on. People make predictable and avoidable mistakes. All this can be taught and learned.
Learning these things is key to building a solid foundation for your startup. You want to nail the things that people have nailed before so you can invest your time and energy in developing your product. Once you have these things in order, you can focus on getting noticed and funded.
Learn by yourself but also seek out mentors and ask them for help and guidance. You can learn a lot from the home runs and losses of others — don’t try to reinvent the wheel.
3. Build your mental toughness muscle.
Often, startups fail for reasons that are very human: burn out, founder conflict, inability to live with ups and downs, thrills and disappointments of your life as a founder with your staff’s paychecks resting on your shoulders.
I’m an entrepreneur, I’m married to an entrepreneur, and I counsel other entrepreneurs — but mental toughness is something that almost none of us talk about. Yet it is often a “secret sauce” that separates break-through companies from average ones.
I always thought that people are either mentally tough or not. But I learned that mental toughness is a skill that can be trained. I learned that by watching my teenage daughter, a nationally competitive tennis player, becoming tougher every day comes from a deliberate and disciplined process of training her mind, focusing on the “now” and staying grateful.
As a result, I worked several new habits into my daily routine, which now includes meditation, writing a gratitude list, and working out. These are not complicated changes, but they require a certain amount of discipline. For your own sake, start forming some healthy habits now.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
Elon Musk has redefined what impossible in business means. I read that he was trained as a physicist and if he believes that the idea does not violate the laws of physics, then it can be done, and it is possible. This boldness is contagious and inspiring.
Oprah Winfrey comes across as one of the most centered and spiritual business leaders. She lives her life with intention, and her intention is often focused on helping others become better. I would love to emulate that.