Every year, the kind folks at 4Di Capital host an away weekend for members of their portfolio and alumni (which hopefully means I can be enjoying these for years to come!). It is meant to be a time to talk about challenges of our businesses in an open environment, and also just to get to know our other sister companies, and the other partners at the firm as the way it’s set up we each work primarily with one of the partners, in my case, Doug.
But before the weekend began I had to get through the rest of the week. I am not remembering what happened on Thursday, probably because it was Wi-Fi the world day and I was busy trying to pull together my thoughts for a board meeting the next morning. Which I survived although the next one will be a lot more fun as I will actually have an operational plan for review at that point.
I’m feeling good; things are starting to come into place. But, as we discussed at the bootstrap camp (aka summer camp for business leaders!), one of the single biggest challenges you face in a startup is time management. It’s not knowing what to do that’s so hard, it’s finding the time to do it all especially when you can easily wind up fire fighting or placating your latest unhappy customer. Churn is expensive. The best way to move forward fast is not to have unhappy customers. Well, duh, right?
Friday was also a bit of a strange day as I had a lunch meeting with yet another guy I’d only ever known socially, and now we might become resellers of each others’ solution. It’s weird how times change. And speaking of change, Friday also brought with it news of big layoffs at Mxit. Can’t say I’m entirely surprised; what I’d heard of that company resembled the crazy excesses of the dotcom era, which isn’t to say there isn’t a solid business in there. But fundamentals are important. I’d recommend bootstrapping to anyone.
As I had to be in the Stellenbosch mountains early Saturday morning, I spent the night with Hes & Ryan in Somerset West, after a super fun workout at Ballistix (2RM overhead squat followed by death by burpees). I managed 45kgs and 16 rounds + 16 burpees (stupid timing error … I should have had those 17 rounds). I also should have had 50kgs easy on the OHS, but was having some issues with my ankle that caused my balance to go out a bit. Kept making the first lift then losing my overhead stability. Wow, I remember a time when I couldn’t even comfortably overhead squat 30kgs. That time was a year ago.
Saturday morning we did a beach workout! In teams of 2, 2x20m sled pull on sand then running/thrashing into the ocean around two buoys and back around. This was way harder than it sounded! The first round I tried to power through and then quickly realised that was not going to last (it was a 30 minute AMRAP). So much fun though; my first beach WOD of the season as it happened!
Shower & on to bootstrap camp. The experience was great. It was one of those times when what I’m doing and where I find myself really sinks in. I tease Doug for calling me naïve but he is right. How could I be any other way? I had no idea of the stress, or the level of love for my staff, or the political machinations, or the stakes involved, before I got in. Not even sure I fully grasp it now, and I am probably doing pretty well but I’m also making mistakes. Of course I am; I’m human and I’ve not done this before.
I know and like quite a couple VCs, but I can really only speak from experience of working with these guys, and they are great. Like, I think they’d be intimidating in other circumstances. Speaking of circumstance, how I find myself the only American in the room, in a room full of people selling into the American market when I’m selling into the South African market. I think this is because I was the only one in the room working for a business that is more a service company than a product company, so it makes all the sense in the world when you think about it. Not that that makes it any less ironic.
The format of the weekend is that each person got to talk for an hour to an hour and a half, and then the rest of the group asked questions. We started with Nic from Motribe, which had recently sold to Mxit (ironically enough). This was a very interesting discussion because it really wasn’t so much about the money at the end of the day as all the other things around it: the staff expectations, what you can and can’t say, anchoring, and, of course, leverage. Leverage is becoming my new favourite word, along with offload.
Most of the folks went on the first day, with two going on the second day. In between was the requisite braai, drinking, and socialising. What a cool mix of people … Nic was tweeting something about getting ambition anxiety when around really smart people. He actually meant ambitious people. There is something fundamentally nutty about an entrepreneur. I was telling Laurie how I had never actually wanted to be a CEO because of all the responsibility that comes along with it. I’ve always preferred influence without responsibility. Well, time to grow up I guess.
Time also, in a way, to grow into the expectations of me. Time to stop being afraid and under-performing. I can think big, I can sell a vision, and what keeps me up at night isn’t that or my ability to execute. It’s something else, a weakness that I am rapidly working to fix.
I had the benefit of going last, which meant that I got to plan my presentation a little bit. I’m still in a strange space where I can’t necessarily talk about specific plans or track record yet, more still in the phase of here’s what I’m seeing, here’s where I think we’re going, here’s how we’re going to come up with a plan, here’s some challenges that I have.
The discussion was useful, for a couple of things: a semi-obvious thing that I had missed that Nic pointed out, and a question from Shiraan that I am still struggling to answer part of a week later. He asked, and this is a question any entrepreneur should think about: what is your #1 sales priority, #1 marketing priority, and #1 strategic priority? At the time I could answer the sales question. I can now answer the strategy question and I probably could have then if I thought about it. The marketing question I am still working on. Actually not a bad discipline to apply to the whole business: what is my #1 HR priority? OK that one I can answer. But you get the point.
I think another thing that happens at these events is that you get excited about your sister companies! I’m sure it’s no secret but I’m a bit jealous of my friends over at HealthQ. They are literally going to change the way that we humans interact with our bodies and the world around us, and kill all the snake oil salesmen in the process. Compared to that, my plans for world domination seem quite cute by comparison. I think there was a time in my life when I would have been so jealous that I couldn’t be a part that I would have some sort of resentment for the amount of fame and money that will surely be coming their way. But somehow this doesn’t upset me at all, perhaps because I enjoy them so much as people. Plus, there’s enough to go around. It’s not like I need to own my own jet plane or anything. So maybe I’m maturing.
I also relayed the story about how when I first met Doug, before I nearly talked myself out of a job before turning the entire conversation on its head, I said that I didn’t know if I had a passion for the industry. Turns out I have developed one: when I’m listening with rapt attention to the pre-sales engineer telling me about channels and spectrum and mesh networks, without having any desire whatsoever to check my mobile phone … I’ve been won over.
Another thing that I mentioned was how when I first started, perhaps as a result of not being a founder, and not knowing if I had a passion for this field, I didn’t actually know whether or not I could do what I was being asked to do. Now I’m much more sure I can. Let me rephrase: I know I can. If you’re going to succeed, though, you do need to pull the team together, and you need some luck on your side. So far both of those things are going really well as well, but time will tell. Being able to do something and actually doing it are not the same thing.
We were discussing what characteristics make for a successful startup CEO. I think there are a lot. A sense of humour sure as hell doesn’t hurt, nor does genuine charisma. What I came down to though is if you had to ask me the single most important factor, it’s being able to see opportunities that others miss, and understand how to execute on them. You can get a good manager to execute the plan. But if your plan is bad, or your vision is bad, you can’t go anywhere. I think Doug said it himself: you need to be able to see opportunity, motivate the team and align them with the vision, and then translate that into differences on paper that result in lasting value creation.
Simple, right? Well as I have said before, the best definition of strategy is a reality that reflects all other realities.
Last but not least, I discovered that one of the other guys at the camp bears a striking resemblance to me in personality traits, investors, and in a way, type of target customer. Everything from an affinity for sales to a tendency not to want to hand off stuff if it can’t be done up to our level of expectation to periods of time in our life where we were off the training/health bandwagon in a serious way. We’re going to spend some more time together; it’s going to be interesting to see just how we are similar, how we are different, and how this changes over time.
I look forward to next year!
- “Oh did I say that out loud?” “I didn’t hear anything.” – Ellie & Neil
- “There are kettlebells involved but it’s not what you think.” – Ryan
- “I’m surprised you’re still there.” – Hes
- “It’s just a question of how bad you want it.” – Hes
- “If you don’t step out of your comfort zone you’re never going to change.” – Hes
- “Maggots, for example, are a good source of protein.” – Riaan
- “We’ll have a cool maggot evening!” – Riaan
- “I now know you need 4-5 hours sleep if you’re going to drink a whole bottle of whiskey.” – Laurie
- “All worms are better if you deep-fry them.” – Riaan
- “You can’t just paper over problems with money.” – Justin
- “Nothing you read is true.” – Nic
- “Attraction is part of leverage.” – Laurie
- “There’s a difference between building a product and building a business.” – Nic
- “Up ‘til now we’ve dealt with feature creep by adding the feature.” – Dave
- “I didn’t start cynical.” – Dave
- “People don’t like the truth.” “People don’t like it when you say that.” – Ellie & Sheraan
- “There’s a lot of IP in the IP.” – Riaan
- “This could be bigger than Apple.” – Laurie
- “What does it feel like to know you’re on the brink of changing the world?” – Nic
- “Ellie just said it – there’s a lot of smart people. There’s not a lot of smart people who think that big.” – Nic
- “You’re in a special group, Ellie.” – Doug
- “Even viral products are not really viral.” – Sheraan
- “There’s 24 hours in a day and you’re only working 12.” – Dave
- “I’m afraid that in general what you’ve all signed up for is a hard thing to pull off.” – Justin
- “We’re all lunatics.” – Justin
- “There are people who are just less stubborn.” – Sheraan