Louis Bidou

documenting my journey

A group of MIT researchers looked at the age of successful U.S. entrepreneurs in the recent years.

Studying new businesses, narrowing it down to those with a high-tech startup profile, and including many more industries than just consumer-facing IT, they found that the average age of their founders, by the time they started their venture, was in the early forties. Not the young-graduate-wearing-hoodie profile we may have in mind.

They show that older entrepreneurs have a significant higher success-rate, and that professional background plays a critical role. “Relative to founders with no relevant experience, those with at least three years of prior work experience in the same narrow industry as their startup were 85% more likely to launch a highly successful startup.”

This actually bounces on a previous observation at one of Firstmark Capital event with their portfolio companies' founders and early employees. I was surprised to not see any founder in their early or even late twenties. All looked at least in their thirties, if not older.

Starting young can of course work just as well. But looks like there may not actually be a deadly countdown to absolutely start our company before 30.

Source: https://hbr.org/2018/07/research-the-average-age-of-a-successful-startup-founder-is-45

Consider a brand new private company about to launch, and whose pitch is to offer a package of several services to make your daily life easier, better and cheaper.

In exchange of paying a yearly subscription fee, you will benefit from a bunch of services with amazing discounts, or even sometimes for free. You can not choose to pick only one service or another, as you basically pay for the whole package.

Among many services the company plans to offer, here are a few.

The company's pitch includes providing its customers with a year-long access to cheap transportation: networks of subways and buses in all cities that run, if not 24/7, long enough for you not to be obliged to rely on taxi or private drivers services at all. You can almost sell your car, as the new venture plans to offer cheap train lines across the country as well. You can use these transportation services to go to work in the morning, meet your friend who lives at the other end of the city at night, or go on vacation surfing a thousand kilometers away from your place. This will work anytime on weekdays and weekends, for super cheap.

The same company will offer utility services. As part of the subscription you will pay for, you will benefit from a reliable and continual access to electricity and gas, at your place but also everywhere you are, anytime. When you go back home from this friend’s place after a warm dinner cooked with the electricity his place is equipped with thanks to the same private company, lighting will follow you on your way back home so that you will never have to walk in the dark.

It is safer, and safety is another service this new venture will grant you with. Within the same plan, you will take advantage of a 24/7 security service that will make sure your probability to be assaulted is as low as it could be. And if this unfortunate event happens, you will just have to call a direct phone number to ask its agents to come and provide free assistance, anytime, even on Christmas Eve. If a fire or gas leak starts at your place, you will call another phone number, and specialists will come within 10 minutes to help your family out, for free again.

Within the same yearly plan, your children will have the possibility to benefit from free and quality education, from the first year of kindergarten to the last year of university. The company will provide people enrolled in its programs with world-wide recognized degrees, maximizing your children chances to get a pretty decent job. And in case they do not succeed in finding a job, the company will commit to provide an insurance. They will receive a basic monthly allowance and free advice to get back on track.

If life gets harder, you will have the possibility to move in a new apartment at a ridiculous price.

As part of the same yearly subscription, you will enjoy going to the doctor anytime for free, be paid back for the medicines you need, and even have access to the best health specialists to treat your cancer for free.

And if one day you have to suit someone, or defend yourself in court, the company will put you in touch with a lawyer who will help you out. For free again.

This new venture looks great! And it looks even nicer when you know that it will undertake generous corporate social responsibility initiatives. The company will integrate into its business model to be compliant with ethical standards, the spirit of the law and international norms. On top of that, every few years, all the customers will be entitled to vote and choose its CEO. Pretty neat.

The only thing you have to do is to subscribe to its yearly plan. To make things even easier, the venture will accept you to pay-as-you-go or at the end of the year. And to make it even more fair, your invoice will be calculated as a portion of your earnings of the previous year. Even though you will of course pay with real money going out of your bank account, the currency will then be more a fair amount of efforts than an amount of money. All customers will pay almost the same portion of efforts to have access to the exact same services. Thus, you will pay just the right amount.

I would buy that, definitely.

Luckily, this organization exists already, and has been existing and improving for centuries. It is called the State. It provides people with everything described above, and even more: maintaining healthy international relationships, defining standards to protect our environment, boosting research and innovation, supporting national industry and agriculture, preserving and spreading cultural heritage, promoting tourism, defining guidelines for spatial planning, not forgetting people with handicaps...

All this in exchange of a fair amount of effort. Definitely one of the best service I have been subscribing to so far.

I have been discussing with many friends and entrepreneurs looking for interns to help them every day. They have very few money and may be tempted to hire the first person applying, with the excuse that his/her tasks will not be of high added value. But I don't think it is a reason to complete our teams with average performers.

Execution is the key challenge startups are facing. We need people who are able to get things done smartly, and who do it fast, or at least faster than others. Yes, we may have to pay a premium compared to the average intern compensation to attract those serious people, but I do think it is worth it.

Let me share with you a story I have been told a few months ago. A growing New York based startup, which raised a Series A round with one of the major VC fund on the East Coast, has been hiring apparently-good interns for months. Even if investors urged the team to switch to hire experienced people on key positions, passionate interns kept up joining. Finally, the investors admitted they have never seen a team attracting such reliable interns. The founders paid special attention not to hire the first student applying, but really looked for a good fit. It paid and continues, to a certain extent, to pay off.

Of course, it's tough to build a growing and sustainable machine with team members in the context of an internship, but I believe we actually can get the ball rolling pretty fast with passionate people in their 20s jumping on our projects.

... and you will help them to become what they are capable of being.

Here, Goethe may have given one of the best advice to people hiring young professionals.

I had the chance to discuss with a top-executive at SoundCloud to have his feedback on what would be, to him, the smartest professional move of a soon-to-be graduate interested in innovative projects but not ready yet to launch his/her own project. His advice was clear: “Go in a company where you learn, where you develop a framework of thinking, and where you are treated as a real professional.” Go be treated as what you are capable of being.

I feel that's the beauty of growing startups today. If we have the chance to find a project meaningful to us, a team we trust and admire, and an organization that gives us the bandwidth and support to do our best work, there is a fairly honest probability we will learn a lot. Join this transparent company in which we can work closely with experienced people, benefit from leadership vacuums, and make a name for ourselves.

There is no such is as being treated as what we ought to be.

My friend Nicolas and I had the chance to meet a Managing Director at The Boston Consulting Group to talk about business models cultural institutions could find on their digital content. The bottom line of his answers was all about AND, never about OR.

Will virtual cultural experiences shut down museums? His answer was basically no, simply as the digitization and the move to free music did not empty concert halls. It's not digital music OR concerts, it's digital music AND concerts. Same for universities. MOOC's did not move students interests from regular curricula to online classes. Yes, traditional methods are disrupted, but both coexist.

I think there is actually a lot to learn from this “AND not OR” way to see the world, both on a business and a personal standpoint. It's a less passionate and more complex way to figure out how something is going from point A to point B.

Brian Halligan, co-founder and CEO of HubSpot, illustrates leaders' duties with the image of a bus trip: set direction, pick up people and make sure there is enough gas in the tank.

First, set direction, or define the strategy. It has to be clear and shared enough to inspire people to join the trip and help you en route. They need to be excited about it. Second, choose the right people to pick up, and know when to let some hop off along the way. Also pay a lot of attention to retain them as the trip goes. Third, make sure there is cash in the bank to get to the destination. And I'd had a fourth one: get the ball rolling. Make sure you help people achieving their mission.

Decision making evolves as a startup grows, but those duties seem to be the bottom-line of every successful leaders.

Source: https://hbr.org/2016/03/how-decision-making-evolves-as-a-startup-grows

Fred Wilson reminds that side projects were a meaningful part of the innovation ecosystem in the early 2000s. Now people are moving away from them toward doing a startup, which is not always a good thing.

A reason may be that today the effort to build and launch something that can reach broad adoption is harder. You now have to develop your solution for many devices and OS while you could focus on desktop web back in 2003/2004. It is also much easier to quit your job and get some seed funding.

To USV's partner, there was something great about the ability to experiment with an idea before committing to it. When it didn’t work, it didn’t work. No need to pivot to save face or get investors whole. Just shut it down and start thinking about another idea.

Experimentation is critical and we should have lots of it. But a full-time commitment matched with a significant amount of money from day one is not ideal in many cases. Side projects have an important role to play in the innovation economy.

Source: http://avc.com/2016/03/side-projects/

I recently worked on a paper on L'OREAL talent acquisition practices, and realized they actually have a very lean, opportunistic and individualized approach: hiring the best fast, and projecting them inside the Group.

When asked about the main HR challenge L'OREAL was facing, Frédérique Scavennec, VP of Global Talent Acquisition, replied me: “Today, it’s mostly you who choose your company, not the other way round. I’m not fighting against Danone, Nestle, Dior, or Chanel anymore. I’m now fighting against Google, Microsoft, Blablacar, or Uber.

I'll write later about the key competencies on which L'OREAL is hiring, but except for positions requiring very specific skills such as finance or IT, they do not have any job descriptions. They do a lot of exploration starting from the person: they discover a talent, and then try to find a good position for her/him, acting as what they describe as a “business driver” who anticipates business needs. So very early in the process, it’s all about projecting a profile somewhere inside the Group. “If you want to move walls, you move walls.” L'OREAL always finds a solution for high potentials they are afraid to lose. It’s a continuous “ping-pong game” between the Group and the collaborator to define where they go together.

If HR can be lean in a 80,000-people organization, I am sure lean startups can organize HR.

Brian Balfour explains he has come very close to a few very big wins in his career, but never turned them into “home runs” because of focus – or the lack of thereof.

Focus isn’t about being short sighted, nor sticking to the same thing for a really long time. To him, focus is basically zooming out, then in, then out again:

  1. Identifying one longer term meaningful goal
  2. Distilling the most important thing we need to be doing right now to make progress towards that goal
  3. Doing that one thing for a long enough period to get information/data
  4. Editing the longer term goal based on the information we receive

When we focus we move faster, because we spend less time deciding, the decision coming down to: which option contributes to our focus the most? We also learn more, because we can dig to the deeper layers to come up with good insights. As we learn more and are able to iterate quickly, we achieve more. It helps us building confidence reinforcing the cycle of focus which finally makes us more valuable.

Focusing can be uncomfortable because we will always have multiple options, never have perfect information, and never be 100% certain in any of the options. The answer to this fear of missing out is to be lean enough to iterate on our learnings and finally get to the right answer. Sticking on a focus is also challenging because there is always pressures from many directions that try to side track us. Do not under estimate the execution difficulties of those paths and maintain our focus. But remain at ease with changing it if our choice doesn't prove it right.

To conclude, even if we pick the initial wrong focus, the act of focusing produces a higher likelihood that we will pick the right focus next time based on what we learned. So using a repeatable system will help us. Balfour suggests:

  1. Absorb available information and distill it into a leading focus hypothesis
  2. Identify the assumptions in that hypothesis
  3. Identify a way to measure progress against those assumptions
  4. Set a time period to try and make progress against those assumptions
  5. Extract the learnings
  6. Feed the learnings back into the first step

A smart application of the OKR methodology might be an answer.

Source: http://www.coelevate.com/essays/why-focus-wins

If one day you ask Thibault Viort – founder of Wipolo, mentor and investor – how to assess entrepreneurs' motivation, he will come up with this tripod:

  • CHANGE – Changing the world
  • INDEPENDENCE – Having the power to make some impact and be independent
  • MONEY – Making money

I prefer to translate his framework as a tripod instead of a triptych, because it is really a three-legged stand for entrepreneurs to wake up everyday. They are hardly ever 100% driven by one reason. It's always a combination of all, and it evolves depending on their personal situation at any moment of their life. It's actually a good point to discuss with someone you want to partner with on your next project.

Maybe young entrepreneurs will focus early in their careers on guaranteeing themselves some “fuck you money” – I'll come back on this concept in a later post –, while Elon Musk is changing the world and exploring new ones.

How would you weight each leg?