I got a call Sunday from a business colleague while I was sitting in the lounge at LAX waiting for yet another delayed flight.
This colleague is a lawyer with whom I work on a deal and have done so for a couple of years. By all accounts I now consider him a friend. He caught me while I was sipping a Bloody Mary and thinking about a business situation that bummed me out. He called to try and put things right.
It was partly a professional call and partly a personal one. I have often written about how lonely it can be to be a CEO and and have very few people with whom you can talk about difficult situations. But honestly there are times when being a VC can feel like that, too. It’s not exactly like you can disclose complex and confidential situations to outsiders.
And you can only bug your wife so many times without feeling badly.
So you mostly swallow it or obviously talk with your own partnership.
My friend called to talk through our mutual situation. He often calls me on weekends. He has a family and so do I. We’ve grown accustomed to a professionalism where we know when a work issue comes up we can count on each other for a quick Sunday call between family time. I wonder sometimes if founders even know about the hours their lawyers or advisers put in on evenings, weekends, vacations.
And it got me thinking about all of the people like him behind the scenes who never get recognized for their significant contributions to the success of companies. I was originally just going to send out a Tweet (the one above) and be done with it. But a couple of people replied with responses of such lack of comprehension that I thought it was worth expanding on for first-time entrepreneurs.
The most active person responding negatively said, “so an ENITRE industry is undervaluing their services? Nope. Sorry. Not possible. Econ 101.”
Or there was this one. I cringed so much I couldn’t bring myself to publish his name.
If you’re new to entrepreneurship let me be the first to tell you that this myopic view will get you exactly nowhere. Successful entrepreneurs achieve much through their personal leadership traits that inspire others to do great things with them – sure. But without these unsung heroes you’ll go nowhere.
Some of the most helpful people to me personally have been people not being directly compensated for doing so. It might be a big law firm behind your deal but it is an individual partner and human being working on your deal.
And that person has almost certainly chosen specifically to be a startup lawyer over serving other types of customers because he or she enjoys working with entrepreneurs. They don’t always have the personal upside (and this is hard for them) but the moments they live for are those where they can be your confidant. And they will offer you some of the best business advice you will ever receive if you’re open to it.
And it’s not just lawyers.
I had dinner with my friend Brooke Hammerling, founder of Brew PR recently. She was lamenting that some startups simply see their PR company as merely somebody who corrals the press when you want to get some inches. She felt that her firm provides significantly more value as an advisor than simply a press shop.
And I agree entirely.
In a world where it’s hard to find advisors who understand the most important components of your business you are lucky if you can work with people like Brooke. And she doesn’t always charge what she should. I would gladly part with equity (actually, I have) to work with people like her on deals. And when you see Brooke & Dena work with companies behind the scenes you know it goes way beyond just trying to earn a buck.
One day if you’re lucky you’ll be big enough to work with recruiters to hire senior members of your team or your board. You’ll find that the best recruiters in the industry spend far more time working with you on your existing team dynamics than merely filling out a spec and interviewing candidates.
And speaking of coaching, if you haven’t read Googled by Ken Auletta you should. It’s a great read. And in it he profiles the work of Coach Campbell who was once on the boards of both Google & Apple. He personally worked with Larry, Sergey and Eric Schimidt to help smooth the issues caused by bringing in a senior-level CEO above two super-talented founders who apparently didn’t want a boss.
If you hadn’t read the book I’ll bet most of you (like me) had never understood the role that Coach Campbell played with the three execs but according to the book at one point they were having weekly sessions with him.
See there are tons of people who play the role of mentor in their own capacity. And at moments of crisis or moments of great opportunity it can often be a small group of people surrounding you who help move you carefully across a winding pass and on to greatness. They often won’t stick up their hands to be recognized. If you don’t work with somebody like that now, it’s your loss. And I would start to open my eyes more to it.
After I posted I saw the following Tweet. I loved the quote so had to include it, “All medal winners have coaches. No exceptions.”
And finally that brings me to obvious topic of venture capital.
Coincidentally my good friend Roger Ehrenberg wrote a post this past week on founders having trust in their VCs. It’s a must read.
Not all VCs are good human beings or good actors. But I know a lot of them and I would count many of my friends in the industry as unbelievably trustworthy people. When I wrote about Lines, Not Dots (probably my most often quote blog post) I made it clear that “lines” go both ways. It’s precisely because you work so closely with your VCs for so many years that it is unbelievably important that you find the good actors from the bad. And yes, there are some bad actors. Luckily word travels quickly.
And that’s why it’s super important to reference check your VC as I wrote in the linked post. You need to call the companies they funded that didn’t go well in order to find out what kind of actor they really are. When everything went up-and-to-the-right of course they loved their VCs.
I’m sure there are many more unsung heroes we could name including spouses, angel investors, accountants, real estate advisors (if you’re lucky enough to have this problem) and the like.
So here’s to all of you that work tirelessly behind the scenes to help companies achieve greatness.
And a heartfelt thank you to my VC friends, lawyers and portfolio executives who have spent their personal time counseling me in 2012.