Many years ago, I heard an investor say that when they looked at an investment opportunity they looked at teams above everything else. I was surprised when he said “You can make a spreadsheet say almost anything, so we just glance at the financials, and scroll down to the team slide”. His last words on the subject were these (and they have stuck with me ever since):
“A B-Team will screw up an A plan, but an A-Team will fix a B-Plan”
I can’t remember his name but I remember his words. This was in the oughts and I seem to remember he was from Bessemer Ventures, but I am not 100% sure. Still it is remarkable that despite forgetting a lot of detail, that sentence has stuck in my mind.
I remembered his words because in two consecutive articles today I came across similar sentiments from investors. The first one was from a blog post by Paul Graham writing about how they select teams for investment.
“If a group of founders seemed impressive enough, I’d fund them with no idea. But a really good idea will also get our attention—-not because of the idea per se, but because it’s evidence the founders are smart.”
Paul Graham (Co-Founder, Y-Combinator)
Minutes later I was looking at excerpts from an interview of Karan Mohla, head of IDG Ventures, India. At the end of the article is this nugget:
A great founder in a bad market can find good opportunities but that does not work the other way round.
Karan Mohla, IDG Ventures, India
Of course entrepreneurship is not just about fund raising. I have seen time and again how companies (not just startups) have failed because of the lack of cohesive and well-executing teams. I started with the investment thesis because it makes for great copy! However, the reason investors look for good teams is precisely because a company’s success is most strongly related to a good team.
My favorite example of a failure is from eighteen years ago – when AOL and Time Warner merged. It was touted as the mega-merger that would never be duplicated. It was the coming together of the new economy with the old economy. AOL had the infrastructure and the users (by then in millions) who were online, looking for content. Time Warner had more than enough content. This was to be the model of businesses in the future. There was no one who could beat this behemoth because no one was bigger in the ISP business than AOL and the same was true of Time Warner in the Media business.
Unfortunately, they destroyed themselves and around a year later, the merger unraveled. Why? I am quoting from some article I read long ago (again!) but essentially the picture it painted was something like this. Imagine a conference room with executives from both companies making plans and strategies for the new directions that the combined was going to take. Time Warner executives are wearing three-piece suits, the AOL people show up in shorts! There was no way they could talk to each other, leave alone collaborate.
This combined entity had the best brains, the infrastructure, the users and more than enough capital to have accomplished anything they could agree to. And there’s the rub! They were not a single cohesive team, and they floundered from the very first day because they couldn’t achieve anything together.
In other words, an entrepreneur needs to focus on building a great team, not on raising capital or anything else for that matter. When you get a good team, or even the beginnings of one, it just gets easier to do the other important things such as building the product, finding customers and perhaps yes, even raising capital. That is why, when people ask me what my long term role in the company will be I say Head of HR. That surprises, them because I’m a techie to the core and most people know I like nothing more than slinging code and hardware with funky lights that blink. But I know I can find others who (as a team) will do a better job. And so, building that team, and the marketing team and all the other teams, is my real job.