What Makes an Entrepreneur? (1/11) – Tenacity

Posted on Dec 15, 2009 | 110 comments


phelps olympicsThis is part of my new series on what makes an entrepreneur successful.  I originally posted it on VentureHacks, one of my favorite websites for entrepreneurs. If you haven’t spent time over there you should.

I wanted to also post the series here to have it as a resource on my blog for future entrepreneurs who stop by.  I wanted to get the conversation going in the comments section around each topic because I think as much value comes from the comments section as comes from the original post (as I noted in this post: Comments are the New Black).  And so I’ll elaborate on some of the topics more than I did in my VentureHacks post to try and make it worthwhile for anybody who read it over there.

One of the questions I’m most often asked as a VC is what I’m looking for in an investment.  For me I’ve stated publicly that 70% of my investment decision is the team and most of this is skewed toward the founders.  I’ve watched people who went to the top schools, got the best grades and worked for all the right companies flame out.

So what skills does it take to be a successful entrepreneur?  What attributes am I looking for during the process?  Having been through the experience as an entrepreneur twice myself I have developed a list of what I think it takes.  This post covers the first out of 10 that I’ll write about.

1. Tenacity – Tenacity is probably the most important attribute in an entrepreneur.  It’s the person who never gives up – who never accepts “no” for an answer.  The world is filled with doubters who say that things can’t be done and then pronounce after the fact that they “knew it all along.”  Look at Google.  You think that anybody really believed in 1999 that two young kids out of Stanford had a shot at unseating Yahoo!, Excite, Ask Jeeves and Lycos?  Yeah, right.  Trust me, whatever you want to build you’ll be told by most VC’s something like, “Social networking has already been done,” “You’ll never get a telecom carrier deal done,” or “Google already has a product in this area.”  You’ll be told by the people you want to recruit that they’re not sure about joining, by a landlord that you’ll need a year’s deposit or by a potential business development partner that they’re too busy to work with you, “come back in 6 months.”

If you’re already running a startup you know all this.  But some founders have that extra quality that makes them never give up.  At times it goes as far as being chutzpah.  And I see this extra dose of tenacity in only about 1 of 10 entrepreneurs that I see.  And if you’re not naturally one of these people you probably know it, too.  You see that peer who always pushes things further than you normally would.  What are you going to get further out of your comfort zone and be more tenacious?  It is really what separates the wheat from the chaff.

I once had a debate with a prominent VC on a panel.  The moderator asked the question, “if an entrepreneur writes an email to a VC and doesn’t hear back what should they do?”  This VC responded, “Move on.  Next on the checklist.  He’s not interested.”  Without much thought I shot back, “That’s the worst advice I’ve ever heard someone give an entrepreneur.”  Doh.  I almost couldn’t believe I had blurted it out, but what came out of my mouth was so heart felt that it just rolled out.

If you fold at the first un-returned email what hope to you have as an entrepreneur? As an entrepreneur people who aren’t going to respond to you and it’s your responsibility to politely and assertively stay on people’s radar screen. You no longer work for Google, Oracle, Salesforce.com or McKinsey where everybody calls you back.  You had no idea how important that brand name was until you left it behind.  Your customers don’t care that you went to Stanford, Harvard or MIT.  It’s just you now.  And frankly if you went to a state college in Florida you’re at no disadvantage in the tenacity column.  Persistence will pay off.

A simple example

When I launched my second company I was new to Silicon Valley.  I had spent the previous 11 years in Europe and Japan.  My company was relatively unknown.  We were launching a cloud-based document management into a space that was increasingly being called Enterprise 2.0.  It just so happened that there was a conference coming up run by a guy named Ismael Ghalimi, a very well respected software executive who also was keeping a blog at the time for companies in the space.officepanel1

He was having his first ever conference and people from the who’s who of VC firms in Silicon Valley would be attending.  There were also press and other senior executives from the sector.  I got my friends over at Lewis PR to give me an introduction to Ismael, who kindly invited me to present at the conference.  He sent me the schedule and I was to speak on the second day in an afternoon session in a break-out room.  Ugh.

I wrote to Ismael requesting that I be on in the first day and in a panel on the main stage with Om Malik, Shel Israel, Rajen Sheth (from Google),  Karen Leavitt (WebEx) and Ismael himself.  He wrote back and told me it wasn’t going to be possible.  I emailed him back with my bona fides and made the case again.  He, being the nicest guy in the world, very politely told me it wasn’t possible.  I had a friend email him and tell him what a great panelist I was.  I called Ismael directly.  I came up lots of reasons why I was the perfect fit.  He said he would think about it but that the stage was already crowded. “Yes, but you don’t have any startups on the stage.  I think it would make a better balance.”

I asked him to breakfast to talk about it.  I know he didn’t really want me on the panel but I knew it was too important for me in gaining recognition.  I walked the very fine line between pushing the boundaries with my chutzpah but not crossing the line.  In the end he relented and this was a very important session for me in building out early awareness for Koral.  The picture above is from the actual event courtesy of Dan Farber who was writing for ZDNet.  And in the end I became quite good friends with Ismael, whom I miss since I’ve moved to LA.

For those who know me well know that this is just a normal day in the life of Mark Suster.  It’s not always pretty, but it’s part of my DNA.  I can’t help it.  And it’s one of the things I look for in entrepreneurs I evaluate.  Some companies don’t push hard enough.  Others cross the line.  I wish I could tell you some formula for the right amount of chutzpah but I’ve always said it’s a bit like art – you know it when you see it.

Next up: Street Smarts.

Some related articles for you if you haven’t read them related to tenacity:

How to follow up with a VC

How to build relationships with a VC

  • http://www.onelifenofear.com/ Entrepreneurs Blog

    Hi.. I was just reading through this and realised I had already read it on another blog. It is a great read thanks… I referenced it in my post 'Venture Investors and Why You Should Be Picky'

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    So Buddhist :)

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    I'm beginning to see “ideal running back” where I would expect founder feautures. If only I was a foot shorter, and twice as strong and fast ;).

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    Is your team a Jekyll and Hyde group (works day jobs to pay the bills, develops business at night)?

    That's the track I'm on now, good to see a measure of success after a couple of years.

  • http://reecepacheco.com reecepacheco

    We all started full-time, but we knew it would be hell raising money, so we took part-time work to stay alive…

    Trade night for day with me – I've been bartending. Not the best option if you have to work any weeknights (I've pulled all-nighters, getting off the bar at 4am and ready for meetings at 8am) but it keeps most days free to work, pitch, call customers etc. Most importantly, we could use the little angel money we had to pay business bills and not my rent.

    My engineer does some consulting – taking projects that let him learn new code for our business on someone else's dime first. Having one limited engineer has forced us to only build the most essential features for our app and it's been great for development. Further, we have a very focused product roadmap going forward.

    And at one point, my third and final co-founder – largely in charge of biz dev – was dog-walking for extra cash.

    We've pared down on the 2nd jobs recently, as our momentum has picked up. It's not the ideal situation, but we're all athletes who understand that you do whatever it takes to win.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Andy, I love the quote, “the most persistent person that people still like.” That's so awesome and I can see that in you. re: change direction vs. brick wall … yes, I think there is a difference between tenacity and lack of flexibility in thinking. One of the 11 is “ability to pivot” where I talk about the need to change direction when things aren't working so we're totally aligned.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Awesome quote! Thank you.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ha! Actually, Tyler, I was going to write about that in a future post called, “It's better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission” which is already on my Startup Advice list as an item for me to write about. Too funny – you already know all my stories. Actually, the story I wanted to tell here was how I was able to get transferred out to Europe when we were in the midst of the last recession and they didn't want any more Yanks out there. I thought about it but I love that story so much (and it so changed the course of my life) that I was going to do that in a post all by itself in the future. So I went with a less impactful example.

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    Great background story/company history. I took some
    time off last year (was in a tough spot outlook wise). After some serious soul searching writing helped me sift through a huge potential of futures and founding a startup pulled me in like a gravity well. My partner is a much more adept web coding wizard, while I'm an improvised hacker with a desktop programming/engineering background. I went back part time in May to propose to my fiancé (I couldn't wait :).

    I started pursuing the idea in July and built a rickedy prototype (no database, mashup of php). Bumped into Tyler while we were both editing a Google wave and went through my instinctive pitch (semantic social driven ads
    and search). Sent him some sample code (he was about the sixth other person I had talke to in detail about the idea). He made it work better, then reverted it in Ruby and forced me to learn.

    So many little details are needed to improve the use experience though.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thank you for the feedback – very kind. Funny about your language. I once took a course in business communications (I worked at a big company back then) and one of the biggest things he warned us about was the “I hear what you're saying” statement because it's always followed by a “but” and people hate buts. It's like falsely being complimentary which is worse than just disagreeing. Thanks for the idea. It's on my list.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Interesting. I love learning words / sayings from other cultures / languages. Having lived in many countries myself I have a collection of these. Thank you.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Rahul, one of the things I learned about sales (and will cover when I do my sales & marketing series) is that the most important three things to know are: qualify, qualify, qualify. In other words, the best sales people are the ones who figured out how to get to “no” the quickest so they don't burn sales cycles on customers that are ready or aren't able to buy.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, Morgan, that was your introduction and my memory is long. I had a great experience working with Lewis PR in London (as you know) and I'm loyal to those who helped me and delivered. Hope we get a chance down the road to work together again.

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  • http://reecepacheco.com reecepacheco

    Mark – thought I'd share this re: Fred's response to your post about tenacity. It's from my mother (an immigrant entrepreneur) and I'll share it despite the flack I'll catch from my friends:

    “yes tenacity is what you got from your dad who quit his great paying job [as a chef] to start his own catering company when his wife was 6 months pregnant with you – “baby tenacious” – so yes you got it while in the womb. oh yeah he also got me a job while I was 9 months pregnant and the board came to interview me at the house in case I went into labor… Tenacity and BELIEF in the product equals success.”

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  • morganmclintic

    Good advice Mark. And glad to have helped in some small way with the intro. Working your network, and bringing others to bear can make all the difference as you have shown here. Thanks for the kind words.

  • http://twitter.com/davidsmuts David Smuts

    That sounds like you've got what it takes, Reece. Very inspiring!

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    So Buddhist :)

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    We only perceive our situation as different from begging. We prove that our begging is something more by creating real value, not just a flashy exit that evaporates.

    I had a good hour long discussion with someone who I believe was homeless (wrote it up here). There's an aspect to their perspective on life that shouldn't be ignored. A form of social evolution that ruthlessly ignores those in a tight spot. The events and choices that lead a person there are something I need to understand or at least come to terms with as I seek a value creating path.

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    I'm beginning to see “ideal running back” where I would expect founder feautures. If only I was a foot shorter, and twice as strong and fast ;).

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    Is your team a Jekyll and Hyde group (works day jobs to pay the bills, develops business at night)?

    That's the track I'm on now, good to see a measure of success after a couple of years.

  • http://shanacarp.com/essays ShanaC

    I think I would laugh, but not give you flack. I get your mom in all of this. Sounds like a strong woman. Good mom.
    As for your friends, thwap 'em over the head with one of your dad's spoons with a serious look. That will treat them for disrespecting your mom.

    That will teach them…

  • http://reecepacheco.com reecepacheco

    We all started full-time, but we knew it would be hell raising money in the nuclear winter that has been the economy recently, so we took part-time work to stay alive…

    Trade night for day with me – I've been bartending. Not the best option if you have to work any weeknights (I've pulled all-nighters, getting off the bar at 4am and ready for meetings at 8am) but it keeps most days free to work, pitch, call customers etc. Most importantly, we could use the little angel money we had to pay business bills and not my rent.

    My engineer does some consulting – taking projects that let him learn new code for our business on someone else's dime first. Having one limited engineer has forced us to only build the most essential features for our app and it's been great for development. Further, we have a very focused product roadmap going forward.

    And at one point, my third and final co-founder – largely in charge of biz dev – was dog-walking for extra cash.

    We've pared down on the 2nd jobs recently, as our momentum has picked up. It's not the ideal situation, but we're all athletes who understand that you do whatever it takes to win.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Andy, I love the quote, “the most persistent person that people still like.” That's so awesome and I can see that in you. re: change direction vs. brick wall … yes, I think there is a difference between tenacity and lack of flexibility in thinking. One of the 11 is “ability to pivot” where I talk about the need to change direction when things aren't working so we're totally aligned.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Awesome quote! Thank you.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ha! Actually, Tyler, I was going to write about that in a future post called, “It's better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission” which is already on my Startup Advice list as an item for me to write about. Too funny – you already know all my stories. Actually, the story I wanted to tell here was how I was able to get transferred out to Europe when we were in the midst of the last recession and they didn't want any more Yanks out there. I thought about it but I love that story so much (and it so changed the course of my life) that I was going to do that in a post all by itself in the future. So I went with a less impactful example.

  • http://www.victusspiritus.com/ Mark Essel

    Great background story/company history. I took some
    time off last year (was in a tough spot outlook wise). After some serious soul searching writing helped me sift through a huge potential of futures and founding a startup pulled me in like a gravity well. My partner is a much more adept web coding wizard, while I'm an improvised hacker with a desktop programming/engineering background. I went back part time in May to propose to my fiancé (I couldn't wait :).

    I started pursuing the idea in July and built a rickedy prototype (no database, mashup of php). Bumped into Tyler while we were both editing a Google wave and went through my instinctive pitch (semantic social driven ads
    and search). Sent him some sample code (he was about the sixth other person I had talked to in detail about the idea besides blogging about it). He made it work better, then reinvented it in Ruby and forced me to learn.

    So many little details are needed to improve the user experience though.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thank you for the feedback – very kind. Funny about your language. I once took a course in business communications (I worked at a big company back then) and one of the biggest things he warned us about was the “I hear what you're saying” statement because it's always followed by a “but” and people hate buts. It's like falsely being complimentary which is worse than just disagreeing. Thanks for the idea. It's on my list.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Interesting. I love learning words / sayings from other cultures / languages. Having lived in many countries myself I have a collection of these. Thank you.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Rahul, one of the things I learned about sales (and will cover when I do my sales & marketing series) is that the most important three things to know are: qualify, qualify, qualify. In other words, the best sales people are the ones who figured out how to get to “no” the quickest so they don't burn sales cycles on customers that are ready or aren't able to buy.

  • http://lmframework.com/blog/about David Semeria

    That's a great answer Mark, and reminds of one my favourite VC posts of all time from Stuart Ellman of RRE http://bit.ly/6UnBPo

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, Morgan, that was your introduction and my memory is long. I had a great experience working with Lewis PR in London (as you know) and I'm loyal to those who helped me and delivered. Hope we get a chance down the road to work together again.

  • http://lmframework.com/blog/about David Semeria

    double post

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  • http://jayliew.com jayliew

    Out of curiosity, in the example above where he finally let you speak on the all-star panel, do you know what the reason is? Was he finally convinced of your credibility, .. or impressed by your tenacity, .. or .. ?

    I'm thinking that if you're genuinely offering someone something that is of value to that person, if they person don't understand it, then they will reject it. Therefore, your job is to demonstrate and prove to the person, that <whatever it is you're pitching> is creating value for that person. Better, cheaper, faster, …

    Chalk this up to a little P&L homework ;) we learn lessons from the battles we win and the ones we lose, right?

  • http://reecepacheco.com reecepacheco

    Mark – thought I'd share this re: Fred's response to your post about tenacity. It's from my mother (an immigrant entrepreneur) and I'll share it despite the flack I'll catch from my friends:

    “yes tenacity is what you got from your dad who quit his great paying job [as a chef] to start his own catering company when his wife was 6 months pregnant with you – “baby tenacious” – so yes you got it while in the womb. oh yeah he also got me a job while I was 9 months pregnant and the board came to interview me at the house in case I went into labor… Tenacity and BELIEF in the product equals success.”

  • http://keithbnowak.com/ Keith B. Nowak

    I think a related point is summed up well by this quote from Seth Godin: “Persistence isn't using the same tactics over and over. That's just annoying. Persistence is having the same goal over and over.” (http://bit.ly/wEEKC)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I supposed I'd have to let Ismael answer but if I were a betting man I'd say he likely just relented. He felt worn out from trying to say “no” and I wouldn't accept no. I was able to avoid being annoying but I wouldn't just accept no. He probably thought about it and finally said to himself, “I suppose it wouldn't hurt” so finally said yes. Often times when people are saying “no” they don't have compelling reasons. That's why I can be relentless as my wife will attest to.

  • http://twitter.com/davidsmuts David Smuts

    That sounds like you've got what it takes, Reece. Very inspiring!

  • http://shanacarp.com/essays ShanaC

    I think I would laugh, but not give you flack. I get your mom in all of this. Sounds like a strong woman. Good mom.
    As for your friends, thwap 'em over the head with one of your dad's spoons with a serious look. That will treat them for disrespecting your mom.

    That will teach them…

  • http://jayliew.com jayliew

    Out of curiosity, in the example above where he finally let you speak on the all-star panel, do you know what the reason is? Was he finally convinced of your credibility, .. or impressed by your tenacity, .. or .. ?

    I'm thinking that if you're genuinely offering someone something that is of value to that person, if they person don't understand it, then they will reject it. Therefore, your job is to demonstrate and prove to the person, that <whatever it is you're pitching> is creating value for that person. Better, cheaper, faster, …

    Chalk this up to a little P&L homework ;) we learn lessons from the battles we win and the ones we lose, right?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I supposed I'd have to let Ismael answer but if I were a betting man I'd say he likely just relented. He felt worn out from trying to say “no” and I wouldn't accept no. I was able to avoid being annoying but I wouldn't just accept no. He probably thought about it and finally said to himself, “I suppose it wouldn't hurt” so finally said yes. Often times when people are saying “no” they don't have compelling reasons. That's why I can be relentless as my wife will attest to.

  • http://twitter.com/PipitPurch David Fishman

    Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.
    Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent
    Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
    Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.
    Persistence and determination are omnipotent.
    The slogan 'press on' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race. – Calvin Coolidge

  • http://davidfishman.tumblr.com/ David Fishman

    Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.
    Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent
    Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.
    Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.
    Persistence and determination are omnipotent.
    The slogan 'press on' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race. – Calvin Coolidge

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  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Great quote! David Fishman … that quotinator! Keep 'em coming. Good to see you again at DealMaker.

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