Starting and Finishing

AVC regular Donna White posted this to her Tumblr yesterday:

I'm a crotchety old guy. I worry about all these new companies. I’m glad that they’re easier to start, but the problem is, they’re just as hard to finish as they have always been.

The quote is from Mike Olson in this post.

The thing in Mike's quote that really speaks to me is the difference between starting and finishing. Starting requires an idea/inspiration, a team, some technical skills, the ability to iterate on the MVP and find product market fit. That's hard for sure, but what happens after you find product market fit is even harder. That's called building the company and building the business. And that is where I have seen all founders struggle. The ones that have done it before a few times seem to manage through this struggle better. The ones who are doing it for the first time really need a lot of help from mentors, coaches, and their team to get to the finish line. And many don't. Mike handed his company over to more seasoned managers and many other founders end up doing that too. Sometimes the VCs/investors have a role in making that happen. Sometimes the founder makes that call on their own.

The skills that get you from idea, through initial product, past product market fit, and into a market leading company are very different from what it takes to manage a 200-500-1000 person global business that needs to exectute well across a range of dimensions and keep everyone aligned, motivated, and working well together.

The quick pivots, the exhausting product/engineering sprints, the rapid fire innovation, the missionary zeal, etc work so well in the early days but they get old quickly and they don't scale. At some point calm, rational, supportive, and highly communicative management skills are required. And learning those on the job is hard. As Mike points out in his post, it is a bit easier to learn those skills from watching someone else who is really good at doing that. And that is why Mike argues that founders should pay their dues working in someone else's company before starting their own.

I agree with Mike that learning from someone else is a better model for becoming a great CEO. But often a first time founder has the right idea at the right time and assembles the right team and ships the right product. And getting behind that kind of founder has produced the best returns over time for USV and for many VC firms. So the art is helping the first time founder learn how to turn themselves into a great leader manager or helping them decide that they should step aside and let someone else take over.

I have seen both done both many times. There isn't a right way or a wrong way. But there is a right way or a wrong way in a specific situation with a specific founder and company. It all depends on whether the founder wants to make that shift, is making that shift over a reasonable period of time, and that the company is making that shift with them.

It's postseason baseball time. So I will use a baseball analogy here. The starter rarely pitches a complete game. Most times the winning team will leverage both a great start and a great close from two different pitchers. And there are plenty of both in the hall of fame.

Update: As my friend John points out, there are only 5 closers in the hall of fame. Not sure what that means for this post, other than my analogy was a bad one and I should have done some homework before using it.