VCs and angel investors know that a good idea is nothing without the right people to bring that idea to life. They invest in people as much as they do in products or services. After a successful $43 million fundraising round, MaryAnn Bekkedahl, co-founder and president of New York-based start-up theSwizzle, shares some of the valuable lessons that helped her team get the edge.
VCs bet on the jockey, not the horse.
The "jockey," of course, is the founder and leadership team. The "horse" is the idea they're building towards. History shows that original ideas change time and again (pivot) at start-ups; it's most important to know that the leader(s) can manage that change well and build value for the investors. It's just as important to showcase the leadership team's strengths and experiences in investor presentations as it is to detail the product vision and its eventual grand success.
Get customers, then funding.
No amount of investment can buy customers if your product itself can't earn them. And with customers, funding follows easily. Customers, then funding, always.
Choose the right leadership style for you.
In my traditional career prior to becoming an entrepreneur, I was a typical "top-down" type leader who set the vision, laid out the strategies, and delegated execution to team leaders and their subordinates. The culture where I worked very much emphasized the value of experience and seniority, and leaders made big decisions, and then oversaw their progress.
My mentor at Keep Holdings, Scott Kurnit, has a completely different leadership style that I try to adopt as often as possible. His view is to hire excellent people, empower them with full accountability and then let them make all the decisions independently, encouraging them to seek input from those around them as they go. This style certainly gives people a strong sense of ownership of their work--which ALWAYS motivates their best work, often derived from long hours, sleepless nights, and incredibly passionate output.
The drawback I see to this leadership style is this: because the more junior person doesn't always have experience in what they're doing (most start-ups are inventing, after all!), they can take much longer when working independently and without experienced guidance. And their final result--while passionately developed and delivered with pride--is not always good enough. Leading them from their best work to the best product for the company requires delicate management, and more time.
The best advice for fellow female leaders.
I believe that everyone should use their natural powers of persuasion, their passion, and their unique personalities to their best professional advantage. I am not in that camp that says women should act like men to succeed in a man's world. At all. However, I see a lot of women put themselves into a disadvantageous situation by demonstrating culturally "female" linguistic styles at work that in my opinion, get better results outside the office. What do I mean? The valley-girl question mark at the end of each sentence--it may be cute at the bar, but it screams of uncertainty at the office. The flirty interactions with men which can be fun, of course, but I've yet to see them generate respect from those men or the observers around them. Opening each presentation with a joke or self-deprecating anecdote--why, again? Lead with your smarts. I am so impressed when women command a conference room, a conference call, a boardroom, or a packed auditorium with their straightforward, educated, and knowledgeable presentations.
How others can learn from theSwizzle.
Perhaps others at my company would answer this differently, as I'm sure we all feel challenged in different ways at different times. For me, the biggest challenge has been the long stretches of time (weeks) between major feature builds or consumer acquisition spikes. Innovating takes time, and the valleys where nothing SEEMS to be happening (while the developers are heads-down building, for example) can be very difficult. Then again, I'm a bit of a "milestone-junkie," and need the thrill of success hourly to keep me sane!