Secret #9: Be Attractive. Don’t Be Unattractive.

As seen on LinkedIn

(This is the ninth in the 12-part series, “12 Secrets To Attracting Investors To Your Startup“)

It’s hard to believe that Saturday Night Live has been around for nearly 40 years. Critics rightfully debate the show’s quality and relevance over the decades, but as someone coming up on 40 myself, I tend to give SNL the benefit of the doubt: I’ve certainly had my own share of artistically dubious choices over the same period.

Ups and downs aside, Robert Smigel’s “TV Funhouse” segments have been a paragon of SNL consistency. His short videos and cartoons are some of the funniest things that have ever come out of 30 Rock. Toward the top of that stack, in my book anyway, is “Sexual Harassment and You,” a faux 1950’s General Electric training video that purports to guide male employee behavior in the brave new world of women in the workplace. Do yourself a favor and invest two minutes in this Tina Fey and Amy Poehler classic, but if you’re not able, the gist is this: An awkward guy hits on a girl at work and gets written up for harassment while New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady does the exact same thing (or worse) and gets a date.

The key takeaways:

  • Be Handsome
  • Be Attractive
  • Don’t Be Unattractive

Like most smart comedy, there’s an uncomfortable truth lurking under the laughs. In this case, it’s the idea that Who We Are has a pesky, unfair way of coloring people’s perception of What We Do.

Do VCs Invest In Who We Are Or What We Do?

It’s easily one of the biggest clichés in the investor community: “We don’t invest in startups; we invest in founders.” Or: “We don’t bet on the horse (car/building); we bet on the jockey (driver/builder).” These lines are tossed around with the best of intentions: “Don’t worry that your young business is objectively lousy, Jenny. You’re not lousy, and we’re betting on you.”

Whenever I hear this stuff, I find my face settling into something halfway between a scowl and an eye roll. It’s not that I think that the personal qualities of a founder aren’t important. They’re super-freaking important. I just bristle at the magical notion that “some folks just got it” and “some folks don’t.” This kind of binary thinking hurts both the supposed heroes (Tom Brady) and zeroes (Fred Armisen).

For one: Discounting potential founders because they don’t look the part, or have the right pedigree, is patently unethical and, frankly, illegal. I don’t need to belabor this point, as any search through the news will unearth the worst of favoritism, nepotism, racism, sexism and ageism. As Ferris Bueller taught us: Most -isms tend to be trouble.

One the flip side: Even those founders apparently straight out of central casting are fallible, and to deify them by putting them on a pedestal is to risk spoiling them and making them immune to feedback, learning and growth. I’ve heard it said that many child stars end up as train wrecks because they stop maturing at the age they first attain stardom (and last attain constructive criticism).

Beauty Is In The Eye Of The Business Model

So how can we be judicious without being judgmental? To fairly assess a founder’s attractiveness, we try to size up the degree to which their unique bag of skills and experiences specifically amplifies or inhibits their specific business strategy. Said another way: Are they the right person to drive this specific business? Is the “Who You Are” the best fit for “What You(r Business) Do(es)”?

The Three N’s: Noggin, Knowledge And Network

1. Noggin
It goes without saying that we prefer working with smarties. Because there are so many flavors of intelligence, and because I’d rather avoid a distracting digression, let’s leave it at this: No, we don’t issue IQ tests, and no, we don’t ask for transcripts. But yes, we’re silently correcting you’re your grammar, reviewing your reasoning and critiquing your creativity. If you’re building an analytics company, please be strong at math. If you’re building a project management platform, please be an organized thinker. Play to your natural intellectual strengths.

Critically, we’re also partial to kindness. I like to say that I’m after incandescence. Just as an old-school filament bulb gives off both light and warmth, folks who manage to bring both cognitive chops and friendliness to the table make for the very best partners and leaders. Whether you call it EQ, empathy or soft skills, the fact is this: Life is too short to work with jerks.

2. Knowledge
You might be a warm, bright bulb, but how much do you know about the domain you’re seeking to dominate? It amazes me how many (typically young) entrepreneurs seek to “disrupt” some sector that they know little to nothing about. There’s a stark difference between an expert who, fed up with best practices, invents a new and better way, and a novice (what’s a best practice?) who naively thunders in and breaks stuff. There can be a place for both, but suffice it to say: My favorite founders are those who my partner Mike Maddock calls “priests who left the church”: Respected gurus who realize they can improve the world even faster by moving outside the comfortable four walls of their former employer.

It’s not all about depth, however. The best innovators tend to have unexpected skills across seemingly random realms. Renaissance Men. Polymaths. Homo Universalis. Call them what you will, but I prefer folks who complement their expertise with some well-roundedness.

Per Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs “didn’t ever code. He wasn’t an engineer and he didn’t do any original design….” Jobs’ undisputable success came not from being a mediocre techie, but from being a passionate student of domains other than computer science. To hear him say it in his own words: “It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.”

If only Windows 8 were nearly that poetic.

There’s a tendency to pigeonhole folks as either specialists or generalists. The former implies extreme prowess, at the expense of little to no peripheral vision. The latter: A jack-of-all trades but master-of-none. My colleague Ryan LaSalle coined the term serial specialist for those rare birds who manage to pull off the best of both. The serial specialist develops hard-core skills and expertise in a given domain, makes a big impact, and then moves into a new space and repeats the feat. These folks bring the effort and focus of a specialist and the added ability to cross-pollinate ideas from their prior endeavors into their current work. Serial specialists have become a cornerstone of both my hiring and investment strategies.

3. Network
Before there was social networking, there was…networking. Connections can accelerate any enterprise, especially in a startup venture where your relationships and reputation might very well be the most tangible things you’ve got going for you. Taking a cue from political scientist Robert Putnam, we prefer to see that founders have two strong sets of distinct relationships: bonds and bridges.

Bonds are intimate, trust-based connections with past colleagues, partners and customers. If you have two to 20 brothers-in-arms in your corner who are willing to go to battle for you, you have the critical early basis in place to attract a strong team and an initial customer base. It’s hard to hire (or sell to) strangers when your business is in its infancy.

Bridges are your professional acquaintances—the long tail of folks #21 through #2,000 in your working life who can say good things about you behind your back and connect you to opportunities as a result. They may never be your teammates, customers or partners, but these folks are already subtly working as your advocates (or detractors) with or without your consent. Take care of them, because as Maya Angelou said best:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Bottom Line: We prefer to invest in founders with a history of success in a related domain. While past performance is no guarantee of future results, a serial specialist with the right noggin, knowledge and network can more easily attract a strong team and customer base.

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