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April 30, 2012

Being a builder: balancing conviction and criticism

Building is hard. It just is. Great builders have bold visions, boundless passion and ample energy to achieve the mission. However, great builders also find it necessary to course-correct based upon objective data, subjective input or gut feel that synthesizes both quantitative and qualitative factors. At accelerators the term “mentor whiplash” is bandied about to describe the myriad perspectives received by start-up teams, much of which is conflicting yet delivered by credible people. Who is right? Who do you trust? There are no easy answers.

This is an issue I personally experience every day in the building of IA Ventures. I came into the business with several hypotheses about investment theme, investment selection and portfolio construction. I also had several hypotheses about the way we should engage with teams, participate in financing rounds and take board seats. There are a large number of variables at play with few clear “dos” and “dont’s” marking the path. And to make matters even more confusing, there are people whom I respect greatly that are taking vastly different approaches in how they invest in and advise companies as well as shape their portfolios (think 500 Startups vs. Union Square Ventures). Who is right? Who is wrong? Who knows. Nobody does. It is easy to get caught up in the advice and approaches of others and to lose yourself in the process. Successful builders do not let this happen. 

I’d love to say that if only founders followed a particular path they’d be assured that their company would achieve its maximum potential. Reality is quite different. Having deep conviction around solving a specific problem or engaging users in a meaningful way is the essential element for starting a company. From there, however, art and science diverge. As you build the company, shape the product and spend time working with and trying to acquire customers, you will collect a bunch of data. This data will give you a sense of whether or not you are on the right track and if a broader array of users perceive your product’s value in the way you do. You will also likely observe others in the marketplace, both direct competitors and those whom you aspire to be which will influence your thinking. You might also have mentors and advisers with relevant experience and perspective who will weigh in, filling out the information mosaic.

Distilling relevant input and shaping the product  without losing the essence of the vision and mission is the delicate balancing act most founders face. Some founders hit product/market fit just right the first time. But the overwhelming majority do not. They have to synthesize massive amounts of structured and unstructured data and make good decisions. This is the magic of great builders. 

As I reflect upon my own learnings, I have tremendous empathy for the challenges faced by founders. To have conviction but to avoid being pedantic or foolishly stubborn. To be flexible and adaptive but to maintain the essence of the mission. Being a great builder, whether in start-ups, large corporations or any other place where leadership matters is a matter of balance. And achieving balance requires confidence. NB: Great builders are confident - make no mistake about that.

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