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May 14, 2012

Building the perfect machine

If the goal is to do something exceptional, nothing is more important than building a great team. It is very rare that success is a truly individual discipline. Whether one is talking about world-class researchers, top-tier tennis players or sought-after start-up founders, stellar results are the outgrowth of carefully coordinated and chemically-balanced team efforts. I had the benefit of witnessing this first-hand during my Wall Street career and subsequently in my time as an angel and venture investor. The best leaders consistently attract and retain the best teams. But doing this requires a level of self-awareness and humility that is hard to find in nature. 

Team-building is hard because it is partly a function of filling in gaps, not only in bandwidth but also in ability and skills. And for super motivated, opinionated, stubborn, high-performing individuals, it isn’t always easy to say “I suck at this: I really need to get someone who is much better than me and from whom I can learn.” But the best find a way to do this. And this isn’t just about Mark and Sheryl or Larry, Sergey and Eric, but about every start-up, every large corporation, and every focused unit where there is a concrete mission and a need for diverse skills and perspectives to achieve the mission. Running a bake sale. A Little League. A product team. It doesn’t matter: the requirements are the same.

My experience in constructing the IA Ventures team is a microcosm of the team-building challenge. When I first conceived of the firm, I recognized that to fulfill my vision of being the go-to seed stage venture partner for all things data I needed several elements, many of which I did not possess:

  • Deep technical and product knowledge, Ph.D-level depth plus years of practical experience, that could be used to both assess and advise companies on technical issues such as scaling, managing the release cycle and bridging the gap between technology and product. This is a skill set and range of experiences I definitely did not have.
  • Operational start-up experience, as one who has started a company, built the infrastructure, models and controls, yet has the skill sets of a financial manager that can help advise seed stage companies on modeling, budgeting and tactical decision-making. My experiences touch these areas but don’t represent the ways in which I can personally be most valuable as an investor, adviser, mentor, strategist and partner.
  • Higher-order financial modeling skills together with a voracious appetite and aptitude for understanding markets, analyzing the competitive landscape and constantly asking questions to keep our firm’s thinking rational and pure. This is an essential part of the connective tissue that keeps everything humming among the firm, the portfolio and the market.

To this end I went out and was able to lasso Brad and Ben, and subsequently Justin and now Jesse. They are all awesome but they are awesome not merely as individuals but because of the separate yet distinct roles they play on the team. Brad sits on a handful of Boards but has helped most if not all of IA Ventures portfolio companies as a sounding board on technical issues, tech recruiting, product roadmap and myriad other topics. Ben also has his complement of Board seats but has certainly helped the majority of IA Ventures’ companies with their budgeting, staffing and financing strategies. And Jesse is a gem of a resource that has literally helped several companies rebuild their financial models, perform very targeted research and stay on top of market developments. And I lead several investments while assisting all companies in our portfolio with financing strategy, business development, recruiting and ensuring that our portfolio company teams know each other and ways in which they might help each other. Rather than feel threatened that I have teammates and partners who are better than me at a bunch of stuff, I am so thankful that our team - the machine - is working well for the benefit of our company partners, our LPs and our firm. It was a very deliberate process and it has been the single most important thing I’ve done since starting IA Ventures. Without all elements of the team we wouldn’t be where we are today.

For the last 25 years I’ve been in pursuit of the perfect machine, that just-right group of people with whom to pursue a shared mission. Sounds a lot like the challenges of our founders, no? It is. Team first. Because with a great team, achieving even big, honking, seemingly insane and audacious goals are comfortably within reach.

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