The Valuable Unsung Heroes of Startups

Posted on Dec 17, 2012 | 32 comments

The Valuable Unsung Heroes of Startups

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.”

Love that.


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.

  • Clay Collins

    As an entrepreneur, I’m often amazed by how uncomfortable I feel about being hopelessly dependent upon others.

    Our company has had some nice wins recently, and the constellation of relationships that went into creating those wins feels like a small miracle. And the entire thing feels utterly non-replicable (even though I’ve been doing this long enough to know that it is).

    Sure . . . entrepreneurs sometimes make things happen by sheer force of will during key moments. But triage isn’t sustainable day in an day out for years.

    A few years ago I found myself working 18+ hour days 10 days in a row. I checked into a hospital because I thought I was having a heart attack (it ended up being a panic attack). A few months later I hired someone who built systems around the business, hired a support staff, and took me out of day to day operations.

    Her name is Tracy, and I cringe every time I hear someone say that they “need a Tracy” because she’s one in a million. And that’s just one of many relationships that I feel like I’d be dead in the water without.

    The idea of the successful entrepreneur as a lone maverick is such utter bullshit.

    Thanks for writing this post.


  • msuster

    Your heart attack story is very common. I’ve written about it before. Happened to me in early 2000. For most entrepreneurs I’ve found it’s acid reflux that comes from the stress that you internalize and when it gets chronic it feels like chest pain.

  • Matt A. Myers

    Those kinds of wins kinda feel like luck, though if they were meant to happen, they were meant to happen – “the stars were aligned” as it’s sometimes said.

    As “no man is an island,” no entrepreneur is an island either – at least not once your plans get big enough, like your unhealthy / unsustainable 18-hour days. An entrepreneur then does need to be a maverick in relationship building, which for many tech-background entrepreneurs this can be a big learning curve. If you’re on the business / sales side, then the learning curve could be the other way of being able to guide the technical side of things – assuming that you’re a handson product person and needing/wanting to be involved in all details.

    I hope to have my official full-time hire happen within the next 4-6 months. Until then it’s outsourcing and part-time helpers. This will be a big shift, mainly in my own workflow – however I’ll likely not only be hiring one single person on full-time, so the added productivity will of course be worthwhile the management time – including possibly the slowdown for time learning how to manage an in-house team and keeping them productive.

  • Matt A. Myers

    It’s good to attract good people. It will make your life so much easier in the present, and in the future. It’ll help you get through situations much faster, and keep a fluidity to your life. Whether you call them role models, mentors, life coaches, or counselors / therapists – they’re all invaluable, and usually help because they genuinely like you, for whatever their reasons. I obviously can’t speak for outside of myself, though I attract a lot of high-quality people in my life that want to see my ideas succeed because of what it all will lead to.

    Coaches / teachers, of course, are how you learn information you need to know – or know you need to know – or perhaps don’t know you need to know, though find out that you do after explaining a situation. That’s why building solid relationships in areas that you’re likely to need advice on is so invaluable, and worth every moment possible (and practical) to fostering such relationships. That’s one valuable part of being in a bigger city with many people, as it’s much more human to be able to meet and chat in person than over the phone or other method, even if that’s what is eventually done after a basic trust and comfort has formed.

    I know my own list of thank yous is starting to get longer. I’ve always wanted to keep a list of who’s influenced me or shown enough support to show me the good in people – who believed in me and where their actions or time given has reflected that.

    I’m getting better at relationship building too – definitely something I want to be excellent at.

  • Rachel Aubrey Morris

    I don’t think everyone needs to care about every piece of business they have (in terms of people who have clients). But to be on the receiving end of a person who expresses and acts on empathy for your specific issues, who takes the time to consider the complexity of situations that for founders (or others who care deeply about the start-up they work at :) seem at the top of the ‘stress’ mountain…you can’t really fake that. Even the time it takes to boost someone when they might need it most. It’s just not a dollar amount, and I think putting a price on it might cheapen it anyway.

  • Rachel Aubrey Morris

    I should add I think there is something Karmic here that some people ‘get’ and some do not. If you put the need for help out there and build relationships in the right way (as in reciprocal..), it can create exactly the scenarios you describe above. It’s funny to realize from reading the initial twitter responses you got – which were quite aggressive! – that this is not an obvious thing.

  • Anuj Agarwal

    Credit should also be given to products like Twitter. I have personally made valuable connections on twitter. Discovered some of the most useful blogs that has helped me immensely in my startup. I run my startup from mumbai but products like twitter where i follow most of the silicon valley geeks make me feel like im right in the heart of the valley.

  • Sudarshan

    Great job! It’s always great to see unsung heroes being written about, if we wrote about them often enough; they wouldn’t be unsung.

  • CliffElam

    Funny, I always knew when my lawyer was working weekends … when I got the bill.

    More seriously, I have always said that a good lawyer, accountant, and board member are like a roll of duct tape in a crisis – absolute must haves.

    One of the first things I see experienced ent’s do with newbies is offer up the name of a lawyer or finance guy or …. It’s a bigger gift than people know.


  • Jiri Krewinkel

    I had an anxiety disorder for a couple of months as a result of putting myself through too much stress and pressure. It felt like I could go crazy any second with major sweats and shakes.

    However, funny enough I still have these habits of wanting to do it all by myself. Some sort of weird hubris or insecurity about ‘losing’ the image I have in my mind about the company should I rely too much on other people.

    Thanks for the blog Mark, it’s so much more valuable to me than blogs that have ‘top 10 tools you need’-entrepreneur blogs.

  • Will Critchlow

    Especially in the UK, I would add accountant to this list (in my experience, their advisory role is often filled by a lawyer in the US).

    But definitely +1 for the value add of professional advisers of all kinds.

    I can’t believe I haven’t read googled – ordering now.

    Thanks Mark.

  • Seth Lieberman

    Without question there are lots of contributors that are behind the curtain and deserve credit- nothing is ever really a solo act. But the people that deserve top billing far and away are the spouses, family and significant others of entrepreneurs. It is their fundamental emotional support, time and event financial support that enables an entrepreneur to throw caution to the wind and risk all. Without the shoulders of my wife, family and friends running startups would be undoable- and these folks, unlike all the other’s listed are *unpaid* (yes if I gain, my wife gains financially I know).

    It’s not that the white collar team doesn’t also deserve credit for a success (obviously they do) but the ones who often deserve the most credit are dismissed at cocktail parties as uninteresting- and that’s wrong and bullshit.

  • Adeel vanthaliwala

    Totally agreed. I did a specialist in Organizational developmental strategy and my previous startup experiences have been very similar to your post above.

    I think the foremost thing you can do as an entrepreneur CEO is to have the ability to learn and understand the fundamentals of each part of your business and operate them to moderate success while performing superbly well in one key aspect that is your strength. After that, you HAVE to bring on people either as advisors/managers/employees and you have to let them drive other aspects of your business. Having learnt the fundamentals of each side of business will help you in recruiting, setting broad goals, holding them accountable and not get duped by anyone. As a CEO, your biggest skill has to be the gathering and inspiring/organizing (culturally and operationally) of different resources together to make the organization work and meet the exceed your company objectives.

    It’s impossible to grow, or I’d argue, even get the company off the ground with the attitude of not relying on others. I wonder if some of those negative tweets were by those who have ever started a company. I’d be interested in hearing their experiences.

  • Rick Foerster

    What about “employees”? I thought that it was strange that they were missed.

    Derek Sivers: “Leadership is overglorified. That, yes, [whoever was first] gets all the credit, but it was really the first follower that transformed the lone nut into a leader.”

  • Cookie Marenco

    I recently lost one of my mentors in a sudden accident. He was a great entrepreneur who changed history twice and guided me through 3 of my own companies over 25 years. He was a friend, customer, boss, adviser, sparring partner, connector, guidance counselor,supporter, and drinking buddy when I needed it. He was that to a lot of people, including some of his competitors.

    If we got cross-wise over an issue, we could go for years without speaking..but I always knew there was a mutual respect. Disagreements were temporary hissy fits where egos got bruised. Mentors get their feelings hurt just like anyone else.

    In the last few years of his life, he had a brain tumor which slowed down his physical body, but not his thinking. He was on his 3rd game changing company
    and unbeknownst to a lot of us, it wasn’t a smooth ride. He was pretty cranky
    so I stayed away and sought advice elsewhere.

    About 3 months before he passed on, I met with him — not for advice but to show him the latest iteration of our company. For possibly the first time in our relationship… he ‘got it’ right away and outlined a future path that included his involvement.

    I don’t think I was presenting much more than I had in the past, just wanted to show him where we had come to since we last spoke. For whatever reason, the stars aligned that day. He was on the phone immediately setting up some incredible connector meetings.

    We had a game plan for an important meeting to pull another well known lawyer on our team. Suddenly, mid meeting, hard questions being thrown out, my mentor is free-wheeling ideas left and right. I’m thinking.. “he’s out of his mind! But I’m team player so I’ll sit back and watch”.

    My mentor was in a car accident a month later. I
    contacted the lawyer to ‘start over’ and he agreed to see me. We both felt the hole this great man had left. I outlined my plan and the lawyer thought it had merit enough to join us. Then something strange happened.

    My mentor’s death was the day after we had a very successful product debut. I couldn’t help but lament that he wasn’t around to see the aftermath results. Through the month, I kept thinking about that free-wheeling meeting and what it all meant.. and I found myself reverting to a lot of the concepts he presented that day. And god damn it, he was right.

    Our revenue doubled that month… and the next month.. and the month after that. I wish he could be here to see this unfold, but I feel like he’s here, kicking my ass every day. I miss him a lot.

    Mentor relationships can last longer than most marriages. Both parties have to want it— rough edges and all. It’s a lifelong relationship.

    Thanks, Mark, for stirring up this memory.

  • petermengo

    Our company just completed a 12 week stint at a fantastic new accelerator in St. Louis called Capital Innovators. The binding philosophy – community mentorship. Each startup is assigned a key mentor, but the real value comes at three points. First, Wednesday mornings when all teams and mentors congregate and company by company go through the past week and the upcoming week. All that veteran entrepreneurial advice and network blended with new ideas from the entrepreneurs solves real problems fast, supercharges everyone’s batteries, and creates binding bonds. • Second is the high value pro bono services from select professional services companies that ends up benefitting both parties. Learning to turn over your accounting, legal, and marketing to professionals has tremendous returns in terms of time, trust and execution. We’re starting to look and act like a real company. • Third is access to capital. During the whole process we’re introduced to, counseled by, lectured from, and critiqued by members of the investment community at every level of the investment path. When your tour is up you know who the players are and most of them know you. Together these three things provide the rarely recognized willing shoulders for a young company to climb up on.

    Using this model (I know it’s not totally unique but it’s being executed brilliantly) the beautiful old building where the accelerator is located has gone from 6 startups to 50 in 18 months. They are thriving in a high energy hive-like community, and I’ve seen new ideas that will rock our industry – and many others – all with a dramatically higher chance of success.

    In the past I’ve tried to build my businesses on my own, doing everything. It sucks – it will kill you – it almost killed me. And, like me more then once, acting ego alone you will crash and burn.

    I always blamed my failure on not having a mentor. The sage old white hair you meet with each week for coffee who gives you the magic pieces of advice that clear your path to success. Took me more then 50 years to figure it out – that one old guy doesn’t really exist … your mentor is your community.

    Wonder if we can get Hugh MacLeod to do a new piece – “It’s the community stupid!”

  • Antonio Neves

    Truth bombs were dropped all over this post. Excellent read.

    The question is: Who Makes You Better? Who encourages you, supports you, challenges you, holds your accountable, pushes you past your limits, etc … all while wanting you to succeed? Find these people and cherish them.

    Be associated with greatness.

  • Drew Meyers

    I will puke next time I see a “ten tools you need” post.

    Mark, the personal nature of this blog is what makes it awesome. Keep it up.

  • Scott Schlichter

    A very suitable post. I am continually astounded by the generosity of advisors, attorneys, mentors, and other founders to assist us with our startup all without benefit. I’ve been in business many years, and it is readily apparent that in the “startup” world this is a unique phenomenon. Is it the culture, the nature off the business, the understanding of the difficulties? I don’t have an answer, but I do know that it will be virtually impossible to repay the generosity of these fine folks. For those that respond otherwise, I would suggest you may have aligned with the wrong people.

  • Ern

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  • Dhiran Shah

    Mark, I understand that one has to be credited for the good work that has been contributed by one. But ultimately it so happens because the Entrepreneur made available of an opportunity on the first place for so many other stakeholders to join along and contribute. It is rarely a one man show from start to finish. Cannot think of a corporation that was built solely by one mans work from bottom to top without requiring advisors, skilled personnel etc…

    I thank the energy bar that I just ate for giving me additional power. Never heard of anyone going over the contents of the energy bar and thanking each one of them…

    I do understand your point. But its just that to me an Entrepreneur stands all top.

  • Tony Karrer

    As usual. Great post Mark. You could have easily added technical, marketing and other kinds of advisors as well. Even as a CTO, I find that I’m constantly reaching out to other people to help informally advise around startup issues.

  • Greg Johnston

    Great article Mark. This goes along with a book I’m reading called “Outliers”. Success is a group effort. It’s not just because of our own efforts. It’s because of the contributions of lots of different people and lots of different circumstances.

  • Frederic Kerrest

    Couldn’t have said it better. As an entrepreneur I am fortunate to work with some fantastic people, personally and professionally, across all the vectors above and many others (insurance agents, accounting services, HR brokers, bankers, etc). At Okta we wouldn’t be anywhere close to where we are now without all of this support, and I am deeply and eternally grateful to all my business partners. Great post Mark.


    Dude. Love everything you write. But for goodness sake, padding. Look up padding. Your text is practically off the left side of the screen.

  • Webloggerz

    i loved the top quote..seriously….

  • Sherif Koussa

    Coaching/Mentoring for me feels like exercising. You “know” it is really good for you and it feels good whenever you do it, but it is almost impossible to do it on regular and consistent basis. Would be great if you could write your thoughtsexperience on how to find a committed coachmentor.

  • Chris Windley

    Mark, your post and Tweet ( and ones similar to these ) are going to be easily understood by Angels and VC’s but only by the rare few ” Entrepreneurs “. I have been an ” Entrepreneur ” and ” Founder ” for about 23 years and an Angel for about 13 years. I doubt very much – as I think you hint at – that an Angel or a VC will get a good reference from a company that ” failed ” or one that is ” sold or floated or even shut down ” before the Founders want it to be ( but probably agreed to when they got funding ). Angels and VC’s make great scapegoats. Many Founders and Entrepreneurs live in a distorted reality world. In this world money is given to them as a right and the Angels and VC’s have little to offer – despite the fact that they have worked on more startups and with more Entrepreneurs and Founders than many Entrepreneurs and Founders ever will. Most of the unsung heroes that you mention often get paid for providing their services – Angels and VC’s rarely do.

  • Donna Brewington White

    “The idea of the successful entrepreneur as a lone maverick is such utter bullshit.”

    I am hearing comments like this more and more frequently from entrepreneurs and it is really exciting.

  • Phanio

    No one can run a successful business alone but failed businesses can be run alone. I am glad that you brought up VCs as unsung hero (even though they can really get paid for their effort and usually sing loud about themselves). I personally beleive that it is what VCs bring to the table – other than money – that business owners should be after and then let the money be a bonus to that deal. Expertise first – money second and use the money to implement the expertise.

  • Donna Brewington White

    Thank you for the spirit of this post, Mark. It seems that a robust startup ecosystem requires players who are not actually in a startup — for perspective, expertise and reinforcement. I am excited to see a stronger “community” developing around startups and that entrepreneurs while still a wonderful and rare breed do not have to be lone rangers on top of it all. It’s a lonely enough role as it is.

  • MicroSourcing

    Ideally, everyone in the company should be, or at least enabled to become, a leader in his or her own way regardless of job title.