3 Serial founders share their 'Success Hacks'

Last night I attended Founder Hacks III, the latest a series of STIRR mixers for entrepreneurs in San Francisco. These events are great for networking, but I especially like them because STIRR always has a few serial founders get up in front of the crowd and –in five minutes or less– share one of their personal “success hacks” learned along the way.

A sign of the times, last night’s panel was star-studded with social networking specialists:

Ev Williams, founder of the messaging phenomenon, Twitter, and Obvious, the incubator that hatched it; Jonathan Abrahms, late of Friendster, and now founder and “junior computer programmer” at party planning site, Socializr; and Michael Cerda, founder and CEO of web-enabled telephony play jangl.

Each gave a piece of advice that is definitely universal to all founders.

I. Ev Williams got the crowd’s attention with this: “A lot of what you do doesn’t matter.” Of course, he wasn’t referring to entrepreneurship, per se, but all those distractions that eat up a founder’s time. “The #1 problem you’ll have, is that you’ll end up doing work that isn’t really important [to your business].” A key factor in your success, he said, will be your ability to identify the work that really matters. Then Ev offered his


5 Hacks
for cutting down on work that doesn’t matter
:

  1. Be clear about your goals
  2. be disciplined [in tasks and time]
  3. be realistic about what you can accomplish (“We think we’ll get done more than we can” — so we take on too much.)
  4. Cut [way] down on external meetings with other companies [because] most of them don’t/won’t matter.
  5. Say ‘No’ as much as possible, event though that’s hard.

II. Jonathan Abrahms focused his talk on a few of the hapless career experiences which taught him, essentially, not to judge a book by its cover.

“When it comes to decision-making about how to raise money, or hiring, we are trained to look at the wrong things.”

For example, a decade ago, after Abrahms was laid-off from Netscape, he told the crowd about how he got a lead at a new startup from power-VC Steve Jurvetson. But Abrahm’s initial meeting with company didn’t ‘wow’ him, so, “I didn’t go back.” Instead, when a second company, one that Fortune magazine had endorsed as a “Cool Company,” came along, Abrahms took that opportunity instead. The first company is now a famous, billion-dollar success [he didn’t name it]. The second, where Abrahms elected to work, was later sold–without ‘wow-factor,’ Abrahms reports–to IBM.

The Hack: Don’t choose based on superficially attractive factors.

For example, Abrahms’ says, when you’re choosing a VC, don’t go with th firm with the big name. Why? Because more often than not, people with established name-recognition won’t work as hard, in part, because they have so much to lose.

“They tend to be mercenaries, not visionaries.” [Contrarily] “when you don’t have a name, you have to work with people who really like you and believe in you” [and people in whom you also have faith and trust.] When in doubt, he says, don’t “Go to the guy with the ‘bad haircut.'”

III. Michael Cerda, talked about the importance of constructing the right team.

“You’ll have plenty of adversity as a founder, and the last place you need [more]adversity in on your own team.”

As you’re building your company, there will be a demand, Cerda says, to hire all kinds of specialists — people with skills sets or experience that is different from your own, “because you need all kinds to make a [complete startup] team.” BUT, if you take this ethos too far, you’ll end up with “peopel with too many opposing agendas, and mindsets or views that are too divergent from your own.”

Cerda’s Hack: when it comes to hiring decisions, stick to the DNA that you know.

Cerda learned this lesson the hard way. He hired someone with “different DNA,” because he needed the person’s expertise. He wound up feeling betrayed (the person went behind his back to the board of directors) because, often different DNA also means differing agendas. In this way, consistent DNA among your team members is most important when it comes to establishing a circle of trust. Whatever you do, don’t go beyond that boundary of trust, merely to bring in someone with a specialized skill.

Please read more from Michael on innovation at Found|READ. Also see what Om had to say about Jangl here.

And you can read more success hacks here in our summary from Founder Hacks II, showcasing Patrick Koppula (Vadver), Scott Rafer (Lookery), and James Currier (Oogalabs).

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