Entrepreneurs Don’t "Noodle" They Do

Posted on Feb 4, 2010 | 93 comments


man thinking

This is part of my series on Entrepreneurial DNA that was originally published on VentureHacks.  I know this series has been running for a while (and is getting long in the tooth) – I promise it’s nearly over.  I started with a “top 11″ list – only because I couldn’t fit them into a top 10.  But in the end I ended up with 12.  So only two more after this.

I’m not anti VC.  Obviously.  I am one.  But there are a lot of things that become norms in the VC industry that always drove me crazy from entrepreneur’s side of the table.  They still do.  One of them is when VCs say, “I’d like to ‘noodle’ on that for a while.”

Translation for any first time entrepreneurs can mean one of:

a. I’m not interested but it’s easier to say than “no”

b. I’m not really sure whether I’m interested, but if you suddenly get a lot of “traction” I’d love for you to see me soon

c. I’m super busy with other stuff.  I’d love to spend time thinking about whether your business would be successful, but I’m not gonna.

In short, Noodle = No.  I’d love it if VCs gave more honest and direct feedback.  But I’m totally off topic.

In the VC industry you can’t take daily actions.  It’s our job to say “no” 99.9% of the time.  Literally.  That’s the one thing that sorta sucks about being a VC because nobody enjoys saying “no” all the time but we have to.  Right before I got into the industry I was at a cocktail party in Palo Alto and spoke with James Currier, the founder of Tickle and a former VC for Battery Ventures.  He said that as a VC he really struggled to have a job where he had to say “no” all the time.  So he left and focused on starting companies.  I get that.  As an entrepreneur you’re used to being optimistic and finding a way to make things work despite the odds.

But as a VC you simply can’t do the majority of deals you look at.  So our job is to think a lot about things but not to take action on most of them.  When looking at new deals we analyze, consider, contemplate, talk to colleagues, go to conferences, reference check, triangulate, debate and … noodle.  Mostly we say “no” a lot.

That’s not you or you’re dead.  In an entrepreneur I need to see the anti VC character.  You need to be “The Decider.”  OK, maybe not.  But you need to be uber decisive.

10. Decisiveness – As I’ve said previously, being an entrepreneur is about moving the ball forward a few inches every day.  What astounded me when I switched from being a big company executive to being an entrepreneur was the sheer amount of decisions I had to make on a daily basis.  The minutiae.  Some of it incredibly important.

The decisions sound so basic when you’re not the one having to make them.  Should you go with Amazon Web Services (AWS) or have your own servers hosted at RackSpace?  Should you build in Ruby, Java or .NET?  Should you sign a 2-year lease or rent month-to-month?  Should you hire an extra developer now or a business development resource?  Should we take angel money or just go for a seed round from a VC?  Is venture debt a good idea?  Should we launch at TechCrunch50?  Should we charge for a product or offer fremium?  Should we ask for a credit card up front or after their free trial?

It never ends.  And there is no such thing as a startup decision with complete information.  The best entrepreneurs have a bias for making quick decisions and accept that at best 70% of them will be right.  They acknowledge that some decisions will be bad and they’ll have to recover from them.  Building a startup might be a game of inches but you don’t get timeouts to pause and analyze all of your decisions.  As I’ve posted about before: my startup motto is JFDI (think Nike).

And it is so easy to spot entrepreneurs who struggle to make these decisions.  They’re slow to hire new staff.  They’re slow to fire even when a person isn’t performing.  They lollygag on deciding whether to raise money, how much and from whom.  They are reluctant to quit their day job and jump in head first.

I was recently considering investing in an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley.  He was deciding between taking another senior role at a prominent Silicon Valley tech company or starting his own business.  I told him I didn’t think he needed any more resume stuffers and now was the time to go do something big on his own. It was time to earn! Within a week he had me a deck with a strategy for a new company.  He offered to fly down on 24 hours notice and meet with my partners (which he did).

He then booked tickets to China to talk with suppliers and he promised to revise his strategy by the time he got back.  He is getting stuff done in entrepreneur years which is a step change faster than dog years.  The next time I spoke with him he had a customer order for $125,000 – and he doesn’t even have a product built!

But I have the feeling by the time we speak again he’ll have made so much progress that he’ll question whether he should take my money.  I’m certain he will have talked with other funding sources.  This is how it should be.  (If he reads this he’ll know that I’m still open to being an angel investor ;-))

If you’ve been “thinking about doing something” for a long time and batting this idea around with your favorite VC for six months to a year, don’t be surprised if they’re not prepared to back you in the end.  VC’s understand the difference between the way their job function works and the way yours does.   Entrepreneurs don’t “noodle” they “do.”

  • http://twitter.com/PhilipHotchkiss Philip Hotchkiss

    The perspective on saying NO a lot as a VC makes sense. As a former JFDI kind of guy, how was your transition to the other side?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Struggled. Now I've normalized. Took a while.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/rajatsuri rajatsuri

    However Mark, I think we can be quite versatile. We can avoid noodling, but when the time is right, we canoodle too.

  • http://twitter.com/Net Net Jacobsson

    Hey Mark, you just made my day! ;)

  • http://twitter.com/mbeckett Miles Beckett

    This is great. I think non-entrepreneurs underestimate the amount of decisions required in the process of building a company, and most importantly, the number of times you're just plain wrong. In building our company my business partner and I have operated with the mindset, “As long as a decision doesn't kill us, it's better than not making a decision.” Needless to say, we've been in critical condition numerous times but we've managed to push things forward year after year and each year is better than the previous one!

    Bottom line: Quickly gather as much information as you can and make a decision based on this info. Then, see what happens, learn from your mistakes and try your best not to repeat them.

  • http://communitas.tumblr.com/ tobymurdock

    “being an entrepreneur is about moving the ball forward a few inches every day.”

    funny that you say that. i see entrepreneurship in the exact same way. in fact my company's corporate (not brand) name is “Daily Inches” and i just wrote a blog post entitled “Entrepreneurship and Inches” . embarrassingly it relates Al Pacino's cheesy halftime speech in “Any Given Sunday” to entrepreneurship, but i think that nevertheless it applies.

    the key to entrepreneurship is to relentlessly pursue those inches everyday despite the fact that in the ebbs of starting a business often times it appears those inches are getting you nowhere. you have to keep the faith, persist and then you find that the inches are indeed paying off and you're progressing.

  • Aviah Laor

    The opening is like chess. You take seemingly simple moves, which you will heavily regret later on. BTW, problem is that VCs says “no” 99% while most of the founders are way above the average.

  • http://twitter.com/johnnyfontana John Fontana

    I dont think that speech was so cheesy, I actually painted it on my wall in my bedroom when I was in high school (now that might be cheesy). First off Pacino is one of the best at movie speeches and like you said it really applies.

    From my experience, being an entrepreneur especially in the early stages is all about those inches. The small decisions like Mark was talking about that need to be made day in and out will ultimately shape your company. On top of that you need those people around you who you can trust in going to war with each day.

    Ill read your post but I can already see how they relate.

  • http://twitter.com/johnnyfontana John Fontana

    Mark,
    Do you think there are any decisions that you should take some time to think about. As an entrepreneur I'm in the JFDI mindset the vast majority of the time but think that I need to step back and revaluate from time to time because I get so caught up in what's going on.

    In your experience is there any areas such as hiring or releasing certain products that you should take a little extra time to look at?

  • cpetersen

    Great post, at my company we like to say we are “pushing the fly wheel”. Our best investors are people who say no all the time, but when they say do yes, they move fast.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Why, do you know anybody in this post? ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    100%. And I like to say all the time, “there is nothing worse than decision by indecision”

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Daily Inches – what a great name!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    First, VC's have no choice but to say “no” 99% of the time. Imagine you have 1,000 business plans / year. 1% is 10 deals. That's about the most a VC will do in a year of new deals because they can't sit on too many more boards than a handful each.

    Second, most founders are not way above average. An average number of entrepreneurs are average. That's the definition of average! Or at a minimum it's the definition of median.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I'm gonna talk about hiring in a future post, but I think too many people dither in hiring. The conventional wisdom is “hire slowly, fire fast.” As usual, the conventional wisdom is wrong.

    With products it's always a balancing act. MVP on one side vs. fully functional releases on the other. I err on the side of MVP, BUT you need to have a high quality product before you release.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    That's a great point. Having an investor who's willing to move fast when they commit is important.

  • http://www.vumedi.com Roman Giverts

    I really think this one should have gone earlier. It's especially important at the inception of the company. When you're just starting out and doing something that actually new/different, it's very rare that you'll be able to get 70% of your decisions right, more like 10%. If good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgments—then you better just make some damn judgments, good or bad.

    When someone at my company asks “what should I do about this,” I always say “just make a decision.” I don't care if I know he's making the wrong decision. I'd rather he learn to make decisions and learn from his own mistakes than just listen to what I say. I guess it's like that Fred Wilson post about Marc Pincus and everyone being a ceo.

    This is what separates start ups from large companies. Large companies are all about building consensus. Every time I hear that from someone at a large company I just want to throw up. So who makes the decisions? Nobody!! Executives should be paid to make decision, not gather consensus. Since when did a company become a democracy?

  • http://twitter.com/SyedShuttari Syed Shuttari

    I must admit its one of the shortest blogpost you have ever written, i missed the in depth lengthy post.

  • http://twitter.com/PhilipHotchkiss Philip Hotchkiss

    The perspective on saying NO a lot as a VC makes sense. As a former JFDI kind of guy, how was your transition to the other side?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Struggled. Now I've normalized. Took a while.

  • http://www.vikramadhiman.com/ Vikrama Dhiman

    Decisiveness. Some tips on how to become decisive? How is it different from taking a decision at last opportune moment [Lean Thinking?]

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/rajatsuri rajatsuri

    However Mark, I think entrepreneurs can be quite versatile. We can avoid noodling, but when the time is right, we canoodle too.

  • http://twitter.com/Net Net Jacobsson

    Hey Mark, you just made my day! ;)

  • http://twitter.com/mbeckett Miles Beckett

    This is great. I think non-entrepreneurs underestimate the amount of decisions required in the process of building a company, and most importantly, the number of times you're just plain wrong. In building our company my business partner and I have operated with the mindset, “As long as a decision doesn't kill us, it's better than not making a decision.” Needless to say, we've been in critical condition numerous times but we've managed to push things forward year after year and each year is better than the previous one!

    Bottom line: Quickly gather as much information as you can and make a decision based on this info. Then, see what happens, learn from your mistakes and try your best not to repeat them.

  • http://communitas.tumblr.com/ tobymurdock

    “being an entrepreneur is about moving the ball forward a few inches every day.”

    funny that you say that. i see entrepreneurship in the exact same way. in fact my company's corporate (not brand) name is “Daily Inches” and i just wrote a blog post entitled “Entrepreneurship and Inches” . embarrassingly it relates Al Pacino's cheesy halftime speech in “Any Given Sunday” to entrepreneurship, but i think that nevertheless it applies.

    the key to entrepreneurship is to relentlessly pursue those inches everyday despite the fact that in the ebbs of starting a business often times it appears those inches are getting you nowhere. you have to keep the faith, persist and then you find that the inches are indeed paying off and you're progressing.

  • Aviah Laor

    The opening is like chess. You take seemingly simple moves, which you will heavily regret later on. BTW, problem is that VCs says “no” 99% while most of the founders are way above the average.

  • http://twitter.com/JohnnyFontana John Fontana

    I dont think that speech was so cheesy, I actually painted it on my wall in my bedroom when I was in high school (now that might be cheesy). First off Pacino is one of the best at movie speeches and like you said it really applies.

    From my experience, being an entrepreneur especially in the early stages is all about those inches. The small decisions like Mark was talking about that need to be made day in and out will ultimately shape your company. On top of that you need those people around you who you can trust in going to war with each day.

    Ill read your post but I can already see how they relate.

  • http://www.venturingunlimited.com/ Richard Edwards

    Test and learn, test and learn… true entrepreneurs don't die wondering. You make a decision, assess the impact, then make another decision, and so it goes on.

  • http://twitter.com/JohnnyFontana John Fontana

    Mark,
    Do you think there are any decisions that you should take some time to think about. As an entrepreneur I'm in the JFDI mindset the vast majority of the time but think that I need to step back and revaluate from time to time because I get so caught up in what's going on.

    In your experience is there any areas such as hiring or releasing certain products that you should take a little extra time to look at?

  • http://www.assaydepot.com/ Christopher Petersen

    Great post, at my company we like to say we are “pushing the fly wheel”. Our best investors are people who say no all the time, but when they say do yes, they move fast.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Why, do you know anybody in this post? ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    100%. And I like to say all the time, “there is nothing worse than decision by indecision”

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Daily Inches – what a great name!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    First, VC's have no choice but to say “no” 99% of the time. Imagine you have 1,000 business plans / year. 1% is 10 deals. That's about the most a VC will do in a year of new deals because they can't sit on too many more boards than a handful each.

    Second, most founders are not way above average. An average number of entrepreneurs are average. That's the definition of average! Or at a minimum it's the definition of median.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I'm gonna talk about hiring in a future post, but I think too many people dither in hiring. The conventional wisdom is “hire slowly, fire fast.” As usual, the conventional wisdom is wrong.

    With products it's always a balancing act. MVP on one side vs. fully functional releases on the other. I err on the side of MVP, BUT you need to have a high quality product before you release.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    That's a great point. Having an investor who's willing to move fast when they commit is important.

  • Aviah Laor

    :), that was kinda joke.

  • Roman Giverts

    I really think this one should have gone earlier. It's especially important at the inception of the company. When you're just starting out and doing something that actually new/different, it's very rare that you'll be able to get 70% of your decisions right, more like 10%. If good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgments—then you better just make some damn judgments, good or bad.

    When someone at my company asks “what should I do about this,” I always say “just make a decision.” I don't care if I know he's making the wrong decision. I'd rather he learn to make decisions and learn from his own mistakes than just listen to what I say. I guess it's like that Fred Wilson post about Marc Pincus and everyone being a ceo.

    This is what separates start ups from large companies. Large companies are all about building consensus. Every time I hear that from someone at a large company I just want to throw up. So who makes the decisions? Nobody!! Executives should be paid to make decision, not gather consensus. Since when did a company become a democracy?

  • http://twitter.com/SyedShuttari Syed Shuttari

    I must admit its one of the shortest blogpost you have ever written, i missed the indepth lengthy post.

  • http://reecepacheco.com reecepacheco

    “Make errors of commission, rather than omission.” We heard that one from our coach all the time. Great advice.

  • http://www.vikramadhiman.com/ Vikrama Dhiman

    Decisiveness. Some tips on how to become decisive? How is it different from taking a decision at last opportune moment [Lean Thinking?]

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

    Liked your intro into this post here Mark. Got me thinking about how Entrepreneurs should deal with NO because they're going to hear that a lot! I think there a lot of different NO's Entreperenuers will hear from VCs and investors; some may be the kiss of death (such as no confidence in the captain/team) and some may be a blessing (they can help you improve).

    Would you agree that most of the NO's you give are because the companies are just too early (not enough traction?) or the market isn't big enough? Would be interested to learn from your experience, what are the most common reasons you have for saying NO.

    Would make for an interesting post – an analysis of the common NO's and how they are often communicated (sometimes clearly, sometimes not) and how Entrepreneurs can deal with/learn from/overcome/adapt etc.., following one of these types of NO.

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    Mark

    Thnx for this this post.

    It is perfectly crisp and articulates why I choose to be operational in my investments and advisory positions.

    You knew of course when you wrote “being an entrepreneur is about moving the ball forward a few inches every day” you were channeling the great inspiration Al Pacino speech from “Any Given Sunday”.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WO4tIrjBDkk

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

    Now you've got to hustle to close that deal Mark, stop Noodling and JFDI. This type of mover isn't going to wait.

    Great post, but way to tear down founder ego. A flight to LA and then China would bankrupt my wedding.
    My real question, does this founder exist, or did you make him up?

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

    So Net is the gent, pardon my asking above then.

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

    That's a damn good question. Love it when a comment make reading a post even more worthwhile.

  • http://blog.botfu.com Kevin Marshall

    This entire series of posts has helped me realize two things:

    1. You are exactly the type of VC/person I would want in my corner, giving it to me straight, and helping to focus/direct my business

    2. No matter how great or far ahead of other 'startup' people I think I am, I still suck. Always more I could be doing better…

  • http://twitter.com/PhilipHotchkiss Philip Hotchkiss

    I can imagine. Saying no 99.9% of the time has to be tough, but I'll bet it's even tougher when you really wanted to say yes early in the startup relationship but diligence uncovered stuff that knocked it out of the box.

    Piggy backing on this thread-how do you find the intensity level being a VC vs. the intensity/heroic efforts etc. that was required when you were a startup entrepreneur?

    This would be a great subject for a blog post-contrasting both sides of the table through this lens.

    As always, thanks Mark for not only the great posts, but for the conversation.

    Phil

  • http://www.venturingunlimited.com/ Richard Edwards

    Test and learn, test and learn… true entrepreneurs don't die wondering. You make a decision, assess the impact, then make another decision, and so it goes on.

  • stevepelletier

    Mark-
    Another good one. And by the way, congrats on being voted the 2nd most popular VC! http://www.techcrunch.com/2010/02/02/most-loved

    I believe that entrepreneurs need to have (at least) two mindsets. First, they must be able to process incomplete info and quickly make decisions on issues that concern every functional area of the business (e.g. HR, operations, product, marketing, etc.). As you point out, this can mean deciding on a new hire, a new lease, acceptance of a sales order, etc.

    But entrepreneurs also need to be able to noodle on things that are more strategic and require a more measured, thoughtful contemplation before jumping into action. These types of decisions can include long-term product vision, strategic partnership opportunities, and perhaps even funding. When these decisions are made without proper analysis they can lead to an organization that chases its tail and ends up with a lot of nothing.

    Steve