We’re living in an age afflicted with founder fever.
Over $12 billion of venture capital was deployed to the startup ecosystem in just the first quarter of this year, according to the National Venture Capital Association’s MoneyTree report. That’s the ninth consecutive quarter of more than $10 billion in venture capital investments. More than ever, we are aspiring to be creators, change agents, and to have the freedom to potentially disrupt [insert X industry here] with our ideas, products and services. Our ultimate hope is to enter the Unicorn club – the elite status achieved when startups are valued at a billion dollars or more.
But a key part of the Founder playbook that’s often misunderstood – and hotly debated- is the buzzword “passion.” We see time and time again that millennials are out to start companies – any company, especially ones built to be acquired by big tech companies like Google or the like. But what about passion? Are we passionate about a product, an idea, or a company and the entrepreneur lifestyle? Is there a difference?
So I sat down with venture capitalist and tech visionary Marc Andreessen to address this very question. He said this is a key challenge he faces when evaluating startups and their founders for his $4 billion firm, Andreessen Horowitz.
“The way we think about it is that there are products that become startups, and then there are startups that try to build a product,” he said.
“Products that become startups tend to do much better overall – [where you have] a founder that has built something, often in an academic setting or on nights and weekends, that is now working, and needs to be turned into a company to continue. Examples of this include Facebook, Google, eBay, Yahoo and Netscape,” says Andreessen; referring to the web browser he created 20 years ago that first launched the Internet boom.
Andreessen believes that founders passionate to be their own bosses often aim to simply “start a company” as their goal, whereas founders passionate about the actual idea tend to have already built it when they start their companies.
“Startups that don’t start with a product but instead try to build one from scratch often, but not always, lack the passion you’re talking about. They can work; particularly if the founder is good enough… but when they fail they will often feel sterile and contrived the entire way.”
“There is a big difference that can ripple over into every aspect of the company,” he adds.
Words of wisdom coming from the man who pivoted from rock star tech entrepreneur to creator of one of the most successful venture capital firms in the Valley himself.
Andreessen’s own track record is hard to beat. He was a seed investor in Facebook and Twitter. He has also invested in other big hits like Instagram and Oculus VR, both of which were sold to Facebook, as well Skype, which was acquired by Microsoft.
His current portfolio includes over 120 names, including Pinterest, Stripe, Airbnb, Buzzfeed and Github.
So following Andreessen’s advice, how should one decide if they should pursue their own passion, work for a startup, or work for a large company?
When I asked him about this, he raised a good point.
“Contrary to mythology, the truly great founders tend to be highly trained in their field before they start their companies. Even the prototypical Mark Zuckerberg type who starts a company straight out of college has often been programming at a professional level for 10+ years by the time they start their first companies. And VCs like us genuinely look for professional training and achievement in their backgrounds of our founders,” he said.
He boils it down to this: “So my general advice is always ‘go get relevant experience’ for what you think you want to do –for [at least] 5-10 years before striking out on your own.”
As to where you will find that, Andreessen believes that the best training for startup founders tend to be at fast-growing mid-sized companies, more than other startups or big companies.
“These companies offer the best combination of entrepreneurial and management training for an aspiring founder.”
So to all of the aspiring founders out there, words of wisdom from one of Silicon Valley’s most prolific figures: focus on the idea or product you’re passionate to build first, and then go get the right experience before striking out on your own — not the other way around.