In my last post, I reflected on how my experience of parenting six kids has had a deep impact on me as an entrepreneur and investor. The top three lessons that I’ve learned so far: Belief is essential (but not absolute), tell the truth (even if it hurts) and a little fear is a great thing. To cap off my list, here are three more things that being a father has taught me about funding startups:
CHILDREN, LIKE IDEAS, HAVE FUNDAMENTALS THAT MUST BE RESPECTED. I don't have a single kid over 5'8"; we are all short, smart, stocky people. So our prospects as NFL tight ends or NBA stars are dim. Now, that doesn't mean there is no chance we could do those things. Spud Webb was barely 5’4”. But it does mean that the likelihood is much lower, the risks much higher and the path much steeper. It means there are almost certainly many things we are better suited to. Wise parents don't push their children to become the people the parents want, but to become the people the kids are naturally meant to be. I have always let my kids lead in terms of determining their interests and areas of focus. I have said and believe, if they found something they loved they should focus on it. Because love becomes focus, then it becomes intensity of experience, and finally it becomes excellence. It goes on to produce experience, generating out of bounds performance. Basically, the 10,000 hours concept.
Technologies, teams and the startups wrapped around them also have fundamental characters that must be acknowledged. Some ideas are simply small. Doesn't make them bad, just small. If that is what the team wants, great. If the investors are ok with that, great. Other ideas are extremely high risk. Same deal. If everyone has the character suited to this kind of wild ride, go for it. But so often we see small teams with small ideas, convinced they are ready to climb Everest. They won't succeed. But they could have owned and had a lovely modest success. If they had let themselves. Realism is a true hallmark of startup success and one of the things we look for in founders and respect most deeply when we find it.
FALLING DOWN CAN'T BE AVOIDED. WHAT HAPPENS AFTER IS THE KEY. This one may seem pretty obvious… to an American at least. But in many cultures all failure is viewed as toxic, permanent and fatal. We know it isn't. When my children were small I made a real point, when they fell down and skinned a knee or banged an elbow, of not immediately rushing to them but of smiling and clapping as if what happened was just the coolest trick I had ever seen. My kids seeing this, ready to burst into tears, would often stop, reconsider and then realize it didn't really hurt that much; it wasn't so bad. And then, with gusto, they would jump back into what they were doing. Everybody fails. Everybody makes mistakes. Great entrepreneurs -- great humans in every endeavor -- get back up and keep moving. That is the lesson parents should teach their kids and investors their portfolio companies.
KNOW WHEN IT IS TIME TO LET GO. We all want to live forever. We want every pleasurable experience to extend through eternity. We don't want the things we love to alter, wither and step away. But that is not how life works. As a parent I have worked hard to show my kids that different isn't better or worse than what was before it. It’s just… different. We need to learn when it’s the right time to reach high and seize an opportunity, and we need to recognize when it is time to leave the field of play. A few years ago I realized that my time to lead startups was over. I was no longer the first one to break to the basket -- the younger people around me were. I had to think through a generation of habit to get where they were instinctively. It was time to change. So I did. And now, as an investor, I believe I'm doing better work and know I'm having more fun than ever before. We need to accept change. Startup CEOs need to recognize when they are no longer the best leader for their creation. Investors need to know when an idea has passed its moment, regardless of how much previous capital has been pounded into it.
Even though it’s hard and it doesn’t always go well, being a father has taught me invaluable lessons relevant to a range of situations. But when it comes to funding startups, there is a fundamental similarity to raising kids: We are resolutely investing in the future.