Don’t Be Blinded By Passion
By Roy Steiner, Senior Director of Learning and Impact at Omidyar Network
Steve Spinner was the first person to use social media for fundraising at the presidential level. He worked on both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, eventually becoming one of the top fundraisers.
After Obama’s re-election, Steve recognized an opportunity to build automated fundraising software for a neglected but critical market. With RevUp, Steve’s enabling nonprofits — higher education institutions and political organizations — to do exactly what he did for Obama: leverage social media and data analytics to raise money and level the playing field.
In our discussion with Steve, he talks about the challenges of starting a company and how it’s not always right for everyone. Steve also shares insights on leveraging one’s network, what he looks for in hiring, and moving forward even when faced with self-doubt. He also shares some important career advice he received in business school.
Here’s what we learned when we spoke with Steve.
Starting a company shouldn’t be for everyone
“I got the best career advice I was ever given my first week of business school. The former head of Goldman Sachs told me, ‘Think of your career in thirds.’ The first third should be about skills development. The second third should be about wealth accumulation. The last third should be about giving back. Give back to society. Give back to something more than yourself.
There’s this unbelievable pressure to be one of the cool kids in Silicon Valley and start a company right away, but it’s okay to wait. I worked for many years before starting a company. I treated my twenties like a training ground where I was learning on someone else’s dime. For many people, including myself, going down the traditional path early in my career before becoming an entrepreneur made all the sense in the world.
I also want people to know that it’s okay to never even start a company! For some, it might not be the right thing. It’s really hard to start a company. It’s very scary. People don’t talk about how lonely it is. I’m actually an extrovert, but starting RevUp has been a very lonely thing, because at the end of the day, the buck stops with me. So my advice is do whatever you’re passionate about and able to learn from.”
Don’t be blinded by passion
“After 25 years, I’ve learned many lessons along the way. One that I’d love to share with other entrepreneurs is that it’s great to be passionate, but don’t be blinded by your passion. Sometimes you can be and that can lead to incorrect actions.
Ten years ago, I was absolutely blinded by something I loved. We built it, and no one had ever built it before, but the market for it didn’t exist yet. It didn’t work out. This time, though, with RevUp, we realized that data analytics is a proven and lucrative product, and that we’re going to take this proven thing and bring it into new markets — education and politics.
The lesson I learned is you can either build a new product and take it to an existing market or take an existing type of product and expand it into a new market. It’s hard to do both at the same time. If you come up with a great idea for a new product, that’s wonderful, but make sure you can sell it into an existing market, because if the market for it doesn’t yet exist, you’ll have to build that in addition to the new product, and that’s very, very difficult to do.”
Leverage your network to help you build your business
“I’ve had over 25 years of building my network — developing relationships with people personally, professionally, and politically that I’ve been able to leverage now with RevUp. To be able to have investors who can help provide input into the product and partners who can help you market and sell the product is really important.
For consumer applications, where you can just put your product online and see if it gains traction, your backers may not matter as much. But with enterprise software, who your investors are, who your partners are, who your advisors are, who your employees are, who your clients are — can make or break your business.”
It’s okay to have doubt, but don’t be crippled by it
“It’s good to have doubt and be scared. It’s healthy. For example, there are a whole host of things that keep me up at night — prioritization of product features, hiring, burn, when to do the next round of financing, what happens to the business when the macroeconomic environment changes.
But at some point, you need to keep moving forward. One of my favorite movies is The Martian. My favorite part was the end of the movie. Essentially, the Martian had a decision. What was he going to do? He could get paralyzed with doubt. Instead, he just thought through the problem, solved it, and went on to the next one. I just thought that was a wonderful movie, a wonderful ending, and a great example for how we should live our life.”
Hire Missionaries not Mercenaries
“When hiring, what we hope for is that we’ll find people will be drawn to our vision — people who will want to do something that has a greater good.
When I interview people, I look for fit and whether or not I think they’re promotable. I want to work with people who have proven themselves or earned a promotion at their current job, rather than hopping from company to company to get that bigger role. It’s really important to me to see that prospective hires have done something, and that they were recognized for it by earning more responsibility. I want loyal, team players, not mercenary types.
I’m trying to build an environment where we’re trying to solve really hard problems that no one’s ever solved before doing things with clients, customers, and sectors that really need our help. If we’re successful, we really make a difference in the world. So I want to do it with a team that’s going to be on board for the next few years. I want them to know that, if they do well, there’s promotable capability within the organization and they won’t have to leave to get that bigger role.”
Stay focused and don’t be stubborn
“I’ve advised a lot of companies over the years, and I’ve seen the whole gamut. Some are super successful, but it was more a matter of luck than execution. Others executed brilliantly, but they had bad luck (i.e. wrong product, wrong industry, or wrong time). Success isn’t always correlated with hard work or with those who deserve it, unfortunately. But you can at least try to put yourself on the right path by staying focused. And don’t be stubborn; always ask for help when you need it.”
The Founder’s Corner podcast series is produced by Omidyar Network’s Emerging Tech initiative. To learn more about our work, visit our website and subscribe to the podcast on SoundCloud, iTunes, or Google Play.