Believe in yourself beyond reason

And do the work

Ha Nguyen
Ha Nguyen
May 20, 2020 · 6 min read
Jessica Herrin giving a keynote address to Stella & Dot Stylists

“You have to believe in yourself beyond reason — otherwise, who else will?”

My former boss, Jessica Herrin, Founder & CEO of Stella & Dot, used to say this onstage during keynotes. It was also, I think, her personal mantra.

I always thought this quote was reserved for delusional founders. It is the belief in themselves that keeps founders grinding each day and managing through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. The very act of starting a company is often reserved for the dreamers and the believers, the founders who have a singular mission of what they want to create in the world, and who believe that they alone are the only ones who can will their company into existence and build something great.

Most startup journeys however end in failure, and by most, we’re talking 90%. Why? If you ask most failed startup founders why they went out of business, #1 on the list is that they ran out of money. But I believe that’s a byproduct of something bigger. It’s because founders stop believing in themselves and discover that it is easier to quit. The startup journey was too difficult. There was too much pain. It was too embarrassing to build a product that customers didn’t care about. It’s life-sucking to hear “No” at every turn from customers, investors, potential employees — but that’s inevitable. All the while, you’re collecting a small paycheck or no paycheck, and your family and friends wonder if what you’re doing is the best thing for you or for them. And when you get punched in the gut over and over, you start thinking it’s not going to work, and eventually you stop believing in yourself.

Quitting is the logical outcome after the belief stops.

And yet time and time again, I’ve seen the resilience of founders who never stopped believing in themselves and the team around them. Their startups are the ones that almost died multiple times, but they were able to make it to the other side to both survive and thrive.

Jessica Herrin of Stella & Dot

In 2004, Jessica Herrin started Stella & Dot by making jewelry in her home to sell to customers. Her Stanford friends must have thought she was utterly insane to sacrifice a big fat paycheck at Google or Facebook to make her own jewelry and start a direct sales company. But she wouldn’t let anyone tell her that success wasn’t possible. Less than 10 years later, Jessica was able to turn her little home jewelry business into a $200M+ direct sales empire. She never stopped believing in herself. She also did the work — day in and day out. And you know what? Ten years in, she was still the hardest working person at the company, and certainly the hardest working person I’ve ever worked for.

Pete Kazanjy and Jason Heidema in the early days of Unvarnished/Honestly

My friends Jason Heidema and Pete Kazanjy started a company called Unvarnished, a social networking site built around reputations, back in 2010. The concept didn’t work. But they kept believing and grinding. Unvarnished pivoted to Honestly, a professional reputation clearing house, which also didn’t work. With more belief and grind, they pivoted Honestly into TalentBin in the online talent search space where they did find some early market success. This ultimately led to a sizable acquisition by Monster in 2014. Jason and Pete were never well funded to begin with, and their startup almost died multiple times. Yet, they kept believing, kept doing the work, kept pivoting, until they found something that worked. They never gave up.

Sonny Mayugba speaking at LAUNCH Scale about Requested

Spero Ventures’ EIR Sonny Mayugba started Requested in 2014, a “name your own price” restaurant app, which almost failed a year after launch. But his belief and his “never give up” attitude resulted in a great outcome for himself and his team. Sonny did whatever he could to stay alive, which led to Requested merging with Waitr with Sonny as founding CMO. In late 2018, Waitr went public on Nasdaq, and Sonny and his original founding team rang the opening bell during listing day.

What did these founders have in common? They believed in themselves beyond reason. They just wouldn’t give up. And they did the work.

When the product wasn’t working, they kept trying new things (based on what customers and the market told them), and they kept evolving (sometimes pivoting) until they got signals. They built their product, sold their product, and sometimes couldn’t sell their product. And even though the No’s bothered them, they wouldn’t let the No’s break them or their mission.

When a small group of us, including my partner Shripriya Mahesh and I, founded Spero Ventures two years ago, we were a bit delusional in thinking that we could build a unique and valuable venture firm to compete in a sea of 1,000 other venture capital firms competing for the same founder mindshare. I’ll be the first to admit that it was hard, really really hard. We’re two years in, and it still is. When we started out, we were nobodies in the venture world. While we had operational experience as senior leaders in successful companies, we weren’t founders who had started our own companies. We were not “players” in the venture world and we did not matter to anyone who was a player. Finding good deal flow was hard, really hard. And getting a founder “No” on that first term sheet hurt deeply.

But the one thing that keeps us going is always believing in our mission: to “invest in founders building the things that make life worth living.”

We believe this new type of venture firm has to exist — a venture firm that invests in founders building the next great generational companies, like eBay and Tesla, that are both purpose-driven and could scale to become billion dollar companies.

So we do the work — developing our investment thesis, writing, speaking, building relationships in the startup ecosystem, reaching out to founders, going to events, and yes, even hosting our own events. Lots of them! And in one of our early Spero events, we met a really authentic and values-aligned serial founder. When he learned more about Spero and our firm’s thesis, and got to know our team, he knew he wanted to join. That person was Marc Tarpenning, co-founder of Tesla, and now Venture Partner at Spero Ventures.

Our Spero Ventures founding team (L to R): Marc Tarpenning, Sara Eshelman, Shripriya Mahesh, Ha Nguyen, Rob Veres

There were days early in our journey (and yes, we are still very early in our journey) when I questioned whether Spero would make it. Could we build a great differentiated brand? Would we see proprietary deal flow? Would the very best founders take our money?

But then, I stopped questioning and started believing.

I know that this firm has to exist. I know that we are the team who needs to build it. And I know we are going to do the work. I’m proud of what we’re building — at the same time, our journey is still just beginning.

Spero is Latin for Hope. I remain hopeful that we are indeed building a great venture firm. One that is investing in the very best mission-driven founders building a brighter tomorrow and changing the world for the better. And who knows, maybe Spero will even outlast us all one day. Maybe our vision gets realized, or maybe it doesn’t. But either way, we’ll continue to do the work. And I’m going to continue to believe in us — and our founders — beyond reason, because if not us, who else will?

If you also believe in changing the world for the better and want to partner with us in our journey, I encourage you to reach out: ha@spero.vc

I turned this blog post into a virtual talk for the ExpatWomen’s Empowered Leadership conference. Hope this inspires you!

My virtual talk at the ExpatWomen’s Empowered Leadership conference

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