An email I will never open

Foreword to Startup Opportunities: Know when to quit your day job by Brad Feld and Sean Wise

Last year, my good friend Brad Feld published Startup Opportunities: Know when to quit your day job, another in his series of incredibly helpful books for entrepreneurs. When I was getting started in the business, I hung on every word of Brad’s blog. So I was utterly flattered by his invitation to write the foreword to his book and thought it would be fun to share here…

“Dear Chris. I have an idea that will revolutionize a $34 billion industry…”

Do you know what that is? An email I will never open. No matter how elegant the prose that follows, I see a snippet like that in Gmail and immediately hit Archive.

Why? As you’ve heard me say for years, “Ideas are cheap. Execution is everything.”

As some point, each of us has had that moment where we say, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” Every single human being is capable of churning those out. In fact, I am certain some of you once thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if I could push a button and have a car and driver show up?” Wouldn’t it be cool if people could rent out their houses for just a couple of days at a time?” “Wouldn’t it be cool if there were an API for payments?” “Wouldn’t it be cool if you could make phone calls and text into your app by using just a little bit of HTML?”

You came up with those ideas, so why aren’t you a billionaire founder on the cover of a magazine? You even bought the endearingly vowel-free domain name, so why aren’t you going public?

Because all the value, all the magic, all the accomplishment, and everything else that matters in entrepreneurship comes in the grueling months and years following the “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” question.

Since I started making seed investments in 2007, I have been obsessively focused on founders. I spend tons of time with them and go deep in the areas I know well. I never worked on Wall Street or at P&G, and I suck at Excel. So, if we team up, I’m not your supply chain manager or ads optimizer, nor will you catch me estimating Q3 sales five years out.

If we work together, I am there to help you make your product easy and real.

Back in the day, it was expensive to start building a company. Software was proprietary, founders had to buy pricey servers, and they even had to run their own equipment racks in a speedy data center. All of this meant entrepreneurs needed to raise lots of money before they could build anything.

The result? Ideas were splayed across 60-page business plans written by investment banking trainees. Aspiring CEOs were forced to run the investor gauntlet and have every assumption questioned. Hand-wavey bullshit artists with dog-eared copies of Getting to Yes and Starting with No on their genuine faux leather coffee tables drove the painstakingly Socratic process.

Today, with open source, AWS, GitHub, and coffee shops with free Wi-Fi, there are few barriers to taking an impulse and slapping some code on it. Just $99 will get you a solid logo and smooth-looking homepage that makes it look like you know what you’re doing. No more professional networking connections needed, no fancy B-school degrees, and no slick-talking pitch doctors. These days, builders gonna build.

Raise a glass to the democratization of it all! And best of luck to all the now unnecessary investment bankers with incredible PowerPoint and personal grooming skills who have since moved back to New York City to apply their talents to some predatory lending scheme or mass layoff.

But the downside? Too many of you who are founding stuff are skipping the part where smart people beat the shit out of your idea over and over again before anything gets built.

When I first got into this investing business full-time, I was holed up at Brickhouse on Brannon in San Francisco hearing back-to-back pitches. Small teams who could show me live code were impressive. I loved being able to play with a site or an app rather than merely considering a hypothetical.

Yet, almost everything they showed me was irretrievably misguided from the get-go. I met hundreds of entrepreneurs who didn’t even know their own competitive landscape, let alone have the ability to describe to me in plain English why they would win the space. It was devastatingly clear: They hadn’t done the intellectual work that would be the foundation for everything that came next.

In 2008, I’d had enough of these frustrating conversations, so my wife and I moved to Truckee, a small mountain town near Lake Tahoe. Our thesis was that instead of running from coffee to coffee, we’d identify the most intriguing minds in startups and invite them up to our house for weekends. We would go deep with the founder whose thinking challenged ours. Whether we were skiing, hiking, cooking, playing music, or snowshoeing, we were also spending that time batting around visions and predictions and controversial points of view. For days at a time, we just jammed on ideas, pushing one another’s reasoning, testing assumptions, and forging moments of clarity and inspiration.

We soon realized that this worked elsewhere as well. Whether we were in Austin, San Francisco, Montana, New York, Paris, Oxford, Boulder, or Vancouver, making time for meaningful group discussion was not only the most fulfilling way to spend time, but it was leading to more genuine friendships and, ultimately, much better ideas across the board.

So who was in those jam sessions? Founders from Twitter, Instagram, Twilio, Uber, Lookout, Stripe–you get the picture. Sure they are legendary companies today, but consider what those early jams were like. For example, as obvious as Uber may seem today, extensive creativity, original thinking, and robust debate were necessary to hone in on the real problems in the industry and focus on a solution to build.

These great entrepreneurs didn’t just come up with a great idea. They started with a notion and bounced it around a lot before ever starting up the business. Who they bounced it around with was vital. Early co-founders, advisors, friends, and mentors made a huge difference. What they did with the idea mattered. If they just sat on it, it died. But if they ran around and talked to a bunch of prospective customers or users, it got better. If they actively listened to feedback and incorporated some into their plans, it got even better.

The most successful founders are listeners, thinkers, and tinkerers. They are iterative, reflective, and rigorous. They passionately believe they are right but enjoy when their assertions or conclusions are shredded. The very best feel that yes is boring, and they thrive when wrestling with no.

So take that cute, native idea of yours and throw it to the wolves. Ask your peers to tear it up. Meet with fellow entrepreneurs and invite them to bury it. Take what’s left after your mentors spit it out and head back to the whiteboard. Stay up all night jamming. Do this again and again and again, and you’ll realize why founders of billion-dollar companies may be lucky, but their success is never an accident.

I hope to see your name among theirs soon.