The Journey

The Difference Between Very, Very Good Founders. And Truly Great Founders.

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Jason Lemkin

I consider myself a “Magna Cum Laude Minus” founder.  Nothing I’ve done has ever failed (although I’ve almost failed many times).  I returned 5x to my investors — twice.  Look, that’s pretty good.   And I think I was a pretty good CEO.  But not the very, very best.

And I didn’t really know what a Summa Cum Laude founder was early in my career.  Since then I’ve learned.

The first time was when I met Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber … back in ‘04. He will not remember me. This was pre-Uber and during Red Swoosh I think. He was not yet a “success”. His first start-up was shut down. The second was sold for a very small amount.

Charles_GoodyearAnd he explained the entire future of video on the internet. In 2004. It was mostly right, and even what wasn’t, was profoundly insightful.

I remember thinking I’d never had a conversation like that, and I’d worked with some pretty good CEOs and founders before.

I’ve since seen that other times. I saw it with Peter Gassner, CEO of Veeva, when I was also an Emergence Capital portfolio company, I got to meet him very early. He could see the future better than any of us. And Veeva was the most successful SaaS company of our batch, too. This is why I am having him speak at the ’17 SaaStr Annual (www.saastrannual.com)

While I don’t know him, clearly, Elon Musk is an extreme case here as well. My co-founder of my first company worked with him when he was an intern in a supercapacitor start-up. She said everyone thought he was kind of crazy and bit rough back then … but he was already seeing things years ahead of where they were. As an intern.

The very smartest of us can see the present incredibly well. They can answer every objection, have thought through anything about their business you could ever think about. The very smartest are never stumped. (And even when they are stumped, they know they are, because they’ve already thought about it and known they don’t know the answer.)

But … the super smartest go further. They can actually see the future in a way we can’t. Somehow.

These are the founders I try to invest in. The ones that can see the future. For real. Much better than I ever could.

This is why I think investing really is kind of easy. Combine someone like that, with a smidge of traction. Never ever bet against them in that case.

And try to work for one of these CEOs if you can.  The ones you believe can truly see the future.

Published on June 9, 2016
  • Benjamin Kott

    Nice post, and makes a lot of sense to me.

    I was very recently told by an (early stage, tech / SaaS focused, London based) VC half way into my pitch to him that “If you’re right, but you’re too early, you’re still wrong!”.

    I took it as a compliment, even though of course it meant he wouldn’t invest. I know timing matters. A lot. But it can be hard to see the future and having to explain it to people all the time in ways they can understand. And failing most of the time at it.

    • Randall Tinfow

      Normal.

      Vision is a solitary burden until it is successfully shared with others. If a successful author like Jeffrey Archer goes through 18 rewrites before handing a novel to his editor, how many iterations of Investor Summaries and Powerpoints and Overview Videos should we expect before our story is sold?

      I’m currently on round 7, getting closer on each version!

  • Dennis Ray Wingo

    The same is true with investors. The really good ones see beyond the pitch deck to the vision.

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