“Great” is Tough To Pick Out of the “Good” Crowd

One of the oldest adages in start-ups, for entrepreneurs and VCs alike, is that “the key to success is the quality of the people.” My experience supports this notion unequivocally. That said, it’s truly hard to find the people who can make that success happen. In a world filled with people who are good enough, how do you identify the “great” ones?

Whether explicitly or not, everyone has their own answer to this question, and based on the success rates of start-ups, those answers by and large stink. I don’t have a Magic 8 Ball on the topic, but two things make this the issue I wrestle with most:

  1. The often-unpredicted success or failure of “nobodies” or “sure things” respectively
  2. The outsized rewards for locating great people, juxtaposed with the probability of abject failure when settling for good ones

There is no central casting for these players — many of the A+ entrepreneurs with whom I have partnered have come in unusual packages: a biology post-doc who thought about opening a microbrewery B&B; a large-animal veterinarian who went to business school in his late 30s; and an ex-EMT who was also a nephew of the President. The best VCs seem to show the same diversity of background.

I now focus on these attributes:

  • Great talents find a way to win, and are relentlessly driven to do so. They follow through and complete the task at hand — after all, starting is easy, it’s finishing that takes real will. It is not that they think outside of the box, there simply is no box for them. They view ambiguity as opportunity, not risk. When things get uncertain is when they really perk up and start to pay attention, because that is when real change is possible. Most of all, they exceed expectations. They bend the space-time continuum in some fashion, and their accomplishments are extraordinary.
  • Experience is overrated. By and large, the world is changed by the young and the hungry. Experience can be enabling or constraining, but it is not even close to the dealbreaker that many believe it to be. If you are seeking a VP marketing or head of sales at a 100+ person company, absolutely, look at a resume. But to find someone with the passion and uniqueness to actually create an early-stage venture, you have to take time: Watch them and see what they do, talk to them and see what they think, ask around and see how well respected they are.
  • Balance exploring/driving with learning/listening. Great people have a very clear grasp of their vision, while understanding that the world has a lot to teach them. They are humble students of the game, but are very confident in their abilities, and never “do what they are told.” They don’t avoid conflict and will always bet on themselves rather than shy away from risk. They ask questions and argue on facts, balancing innumerable data streams with a gut feeling to get to what they believe is the right answer.
  • Great people are magnetic. They are not only smart and driven, they attract resources when all the data suggests they should not — whether capital, people or partners — and thereby become larger than just their singular efforts.

While it’s a potentially controversial idea today, I have come to believe that great entrepreneurs and great VCs are two sides of the same coin. Both embody these attributes. They are maniacally focused on changing the way we live with innovations that others thought were not possible. They are passionate about building a great company, and put the company before themselves. Their roles are complementary, like looking down opposite ends of a telescope, but those different perspectives on a problem can be extraordinarily synergistic. Great future entrepreneurs can look like great young VCs, and vice versa — in fact, three of my recent investments are stellar companies started by folks who have crossed from one role to the other.

All venture firms are simultaneously never, and always, looking for team additions. I believe this is a direct result of how difficult it is to identify those who will be not only smart, passionate, personable and high integrity, but also successful in this ever-changing, ambiguous entrepreneurial world, in which a strategy that worked the last time is not a recipe for a future win, but more likely charts a path to mediocrity. In fact, my own difficulty in finding great new additions for our firm is what spurred putting these thoughts on paper.

Bryan Roberts is a partner at Venrock and has been the highest-ranking healthcare investor on Forbes Midas List since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter at @brobertsvc and learn more about him at Venrock.com.

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