When Small Things Aren't Small

February 3, 2020


In our work with entrepreneurs, Kevin and I spend a great deal of time trying to understand which traits are the best leading indicators that a person has what it takes to build and scale a potentially industry-changing business.  There are, of course, many facets to that equation regarding temperament and skills.  Being a founder can be a long and lonely road with a distant and often all-too-small prospects for success.


It’s difficult to assess characteristics that drive good outcomes when successful entrepreneurs come from such an apparently diverse array of backgrounds and personality types.  Much has been written about the motivations and personalities of the founders of great businesses, and I won’t rehash that abundant literature here.


While the diversity among successful founders makes it difficult to draw conclusions on personality types likely to have the necessary grit to weather the inevitable storms of building a business, I am increasingly noticing some signals that I believe may be leading indicators of future success.  If you’ve spent much time with the team at Intelis Capital, you’ve likely heard us use the phrase “new-age craftsmanship.”  


Steve Jobs once said: “It’s the disease of thinking that a really great idea is 90% of the work. And the problem with that is that there’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product.”


At the core, when we speak about new-age craftsmanship, we're talking about virtuosity.  For these purposes, a working definition of virtuosity is performing the common uncommonly well.  This is something we can observe in athletics.  The athlete with the most technically proficient running stride tends to compound that advantage over race distance.  When everyone is “good” and has capacity, this is a significant differentiator.  



In business this can manifest itself in a number of ways: entrepreneurs who always send a relevant follow up message after a call, send out a weekly or monthly update on what the team has accomplished and what they’ll be working on the next week, or show a depth of thought in how they portray themselves as personal ambassadors of their businesses.  The applications of this principle on the product design process are obvious.  But it can also be as simple as the clarity and efficiency with which you communicate your availability and schedule a conference call.  This is FAR from an exhaustive list.  


But the essence is that some percentage of the founder population seems to thrive on creating appropriate-weight processes that optimize outcomes within the tiny day-to-day struggles that come with running a business.  These are the little, often unnoticed skills that save time, optimize sales funnels, help close a candidate for a senior leadership position, etc.  In my experience, the most effective leaders, executives and mentors I’ve been fortunate to work with have displayed virtuosity because it allows you the time and a model for how to focus on the big things.


At Intelis Capital, we love entrepreneurs that display virtuosity.  It is a characteristic we actively seek out.  In our experience, how you do anything is how you do everything.  I want to be clear: I’m not suggesting that everything matters equally.  I also don’t believe you need a process designed for GE in order to lead your 5 person seed-stage team.  In fact, that could be a negative signal, since we’d like to see an entrepreneur understand the importance of right-sized decision architecture.  But we find that when it comes to soft skills or building processes, it seems like there is significant skill crossover to how you run other areas of your business.


That appearance of polish and effortless ease is in fact one of the most high-effort practices an entrepreneur can have.  We hypothesize that the skills necessary to seem “buttoned up” on those fronts translate strongly across stage, and are one of the few measurable characteristics at the earliest phases of a business that are predictive of a founding team’s long term scalability.  The intellectual diligence you use to approach the little things may be a signal for how you’ll approach the big things.


There isn’t one right way to do these things.  It’s just a matter of attention and perspective.  We’ve worked with entrepreneurs who were extraordinarily organized, and those with messy desks…  But they all understood the magic of the small details.


One of the most exciting aspects of our work with founders is that we get to see so many perspectives on leadership and business, and I look forward to seeing how our thinking on this will evolve through those ongoing experiences.  But as always, we are grateful to have a front row seat to learn from and partner with amazing entrepreneurs on that journey.

If you enjoyed this piece and want to read more of my musings on venture capital, product management, artificial intelligence and the future in general, please check them out here or follow me on twitter: @jm_crowd


"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood, don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
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