This is the first of an ongoing series of blog posts around the subject of entrepreneurial talent. Before I get started, I should warn you that my blog posts are likely to contain lots of opinions. Now, as much as possible, I will try to base my opinions on direct experience, data and input from people much smarter than me. But they are still opinions.
If you disagree and have a story or example to share, let's hear it. A blog full of opinions that everyone can agree on is a boring blog. I've been called a lot of things, but I've never been called boring. Speaking of things I've been called, I should share a little bit about myself, my background, and the role I play at JumpStart. That way, you'll understand where I'm coming from with some of the aforementioned opinions.
I'm a Northeast Ohio native, but spent my "adult" life in Silicon Valley and London before returning home about 3 years ago. I left NEO to attend college in California, in search of sun and opportunity. While I was sleeping through classes, the region around me was producing companies like Netscape, Yahoo!, Cnet, and eBay and fueling these juggernauts with piles of venture capital. So when I graduated, it seemed natural to take a job at an internet startup instead of following the more traditional route of consulting, investment banking, or management training programs.
Since then, I've only worked for growth companies in consumer technology, and I've got the scars to prove it. Several companies that I have worked for no longer exist and I have been laid off three times. But I have been exposed to incredible experiences and played impact roles in delivering new and innovative products to markets on a national and global scale. I love working with and for entrepreneurs. It's in my blood. So when my wife (a Cleveland native) and I wanted to return home to NEO, I naturally started looking for opportunities at startups.
A friend told me about JumpStart and introduced me to Becca Braun. She connected me to several innovative startups in the region, including Findaway World. Findaway had invented a new way of distributing audiobooks to schools, public libraries, and other institutions by pre-loading existing recordings onto a digital player (The Playaway®). In five years, Findaway has quietly built one of the country's fastest growing businesses (number 319 in 2009's Inc. 500 list).
I met with two of the company's founders a week later (they were in London forming distribution partnerships) and agreed to talk when I got back to Cleveland later in the year. Two weeks after pulling into town with our belongings in-tow, I was helping Findaway expand into new markets during a period in which sales and headcount more than tripled.
Becca and others at JumpStart had been informally referring and matching people like me to startups in the region for years. How is this relevant? Fast-forward three years and I'm working at JumpStart, for Becca Braun, and my job is to help match entrepreneurial talent with innovative growth companies in Northeast Ohio.
Now, one of the themes you'll hear a lot from me in these posts is the idea of Adaptive Excellence. In later posts, I'll talk more about what it is and how to find it. Today, I'll just touch on what I mean when I use Adaptive Excellence and how the phrase came to be.
A couple of years ago, JumpStart set out to learn more about the role of talent in early-stage growth companies and how we could leverage the region's talent to accelerate and sustain the growth of our fledgling entrepreneurial ecosystem. We interviewed successful entrepreneurs both locally and nationally; talked with HR and recruiting experts, and; researched the data and literature on the subject. We asked the question: what are the unique characteristics that go into being a leader at a successful growth company?
Consistently, we heard and learned that early-stage investors look for startup leaders who have previously led companies through periods of rapid growth to an exit that created wealth for the business' founders and investors. But even those leaders had a first attempt, or even multiple failure attempts, before they achieved that success. How do you find the leaders of tomorrow's great startups when many of the entrepreneurs you meet are doing this for the first time? That's when we came up with the idea of Adaptive Excellence.
The idea actually started with a comment from Cami Samuels, Managing Director at Versant Ventures. Her fund looks for entrepreneurs who demonstrate excellence in all things. Not excellent results in one thing. Not mediocre results in lots of things. But people that have the drive and talent to achieve excellent results in all things, both personal and professional.
That idea struck us as both profound and scary. That is indeed a high bar, and how the he%# do you find these people? It is true that high growth entrepreneurs must be able to do multiple things to an extremely high standard to take their companies to the Promised Land. They must be a master salesperson, fundraiser, project manager and evangelist. So to describe this mix of adaptability, initiative and excellent results, we started calling it Adaptive Excellence.
This idea, this set of characteristics, will come up in lots of posts and will hopefully help our entrepreneurs spot people that have it so that they can bring them into their growing businesses. Stay tuned. I will try to provide some useful examples and information on how the right talent can accelerate your early-stage growth company. At the very least, I'll throw out some opinions through which you can shoot as many holes as you like. The best ideas are those that are strengthened through vigorous debate.