If you’ve ever watched Peyton Manning play, you’ve seen it. From the end of the previous play to the next, Peyton is furiously taking in and processing new information, spotting patterns, making quick decisions and executing with urgency.
Though a play is called in from the coaching staff into the huddle, he might change it one or more times before the ball is snapped based on the down, the score, field position, the personnel he has on the field, the personnel the defense has on the field, the formation the defense is showing, how that play has worked previously, the weather, the crowd noise, what the cheerleaders are wearing or the price of hotdogs and beer. All of this assessment and decision-making takes place in the 40 seconds between plays. Regardless, the outcome (usually impressive) is factored into the next play and the game continues.
From time to time, I am asked to speak about the qualities that separate successful startup entrepreneurs from the pack. It’s a popular discussion topic that usually results in some lively debate. Truth is, like most things, there is no set-in-stone formula for the combination of behavioral characteristics, technical skills and experience that result in a successful entrepreneur.
On this blog, I’ve talked about what JumpStart looks for in the entrepreneurs we serve and invest in, as well as the employees we recruit to our client and portfolio companies. We look for a combination of adaptability and initiative, which results in an observable pattern of excellence we call Adaptive Excellence.
When choosing the founders in which they’ll invest, VC investors like Mark Suster look for a more specific set of characteristics in an entrepreneur’s “DNA.” Notably, the ability to pivot, or adapt, is near the top of his list. Similarly, the Startup Genome Project (a study of over 650 web startups) found that entrepreneurs who learn through helpful advisors and metrics tracking and those who pivot raise more money (seven times more) and gain customer acceptance more quickly. I think we’re all basically talking about the same thing, but using different names to describe these qualities.
Not satisfied with subjective, anecdotal criteria, some are looking to cognitive science for an answer. Adeo Ressi, founder of the startup accelerator The Founder Institute (FI), puts prospective companies through a bank of tests as part of their application process. FI looks for founders with high matrix (or fluid) intelligence combined with a behavioral temperament that demonstrates openness – creativity and divergent thinking.
This is interesting on several fronts. Fluid intelligence is best described as the ability to recognize patterns and solve problems in complex, novel situations, independent of acquired knowledge. This makes sense since starting and growing a successful company is all about executing effectively in highly complex and novel situations.
However, fluid intelligence is not often found to be coupled with a high degree of openness. A similar contradiction can be found in Suster’s less scientific criteria. How often do you meet people with a high degree of tenacity (number one on his list) that are open enough to pivot (number three)? The answer is, rarely. If starting a company, growing it quickly and achieving sustained success were easy, well, everyone would be doing it. And, as we all have heard countless times, most startups fail within five years.
But let’s stay focused on success for now since it’s much more fun to talk about why people win than why they lose. I have struggled to explain this combination of adaptability and focused performance found in successful entrepreneurs but I’ve found that sports analogies help illustrate how things work. To me, Peyton Manning is the quintessential example Adaptive Excellence at work.
Yes, he was highly gifted from birth. His father, Archie, was a very successful NFL quarterback. His brothers are all gifted athletes as well. He also works tirelessly, both physically and mentally, to prepare for each game. The same can be said of most athletes at this level. But what makes Peyton one of the best ever, a player whose absence has caused the hapless Indianapolis Colts (at team that is perennially in the hunt the championship) to go winless so far this season? It’s the 40 seconds between snaps and what he does to adapt, execute and produce excellent results.
Peyton, if you’re reading this blog and that neck injury persists, please consider moving to Northeast Ohio and starting a tech company. We’d be happy to work with you.
Robert Hatta is JumpStart's Vice President of Entrepreneurial Talent. He has worked at several startup companies in Northeast Ohio and Silicon Valley, as well as other high growth, technology companies across the U.S. and Europe. Through these experiences, Robert has gained an extensive understanding of the culture and needs of high growth companies with a particular focus on talent.