Mary Elisabeth

on Fridays I burn my fears…

There is No “I” in Team

This may be another sports analogy, but not entirely. In sports, “There is no ‘I’ in team” is a common statement from coaches, captains, and parents (though not always practiced). In reality, it’s true in sports and in entrepreneurship.

In sports, a team that depends heavily on one player is unlikely to reach sustainable success. This past weekend, the University of Michigan versus Michigan State University football game illustrates this point. Even though a team that depends on one person may experience a few victories early on, as the team faces more challenging competitors it will be difficult to continue a winning streak.

With entrepreneurship, a one person team may work out for awhile, early on, but as the company needs more resources and the one person finds her/himself strapped for time (and sleep!) the company is not likely to succeed without building the team.

This all being said, there are always exceptions to the rule. For the most part though, there is no “I” in team, but there is ‘us’ in success!

MEL aka Venture Gal

Selling Stripes to a Zebra

Have you ever tried “selling stripes to a zebra?” If you answered no to this seemingly ridiculous question, you may be surprised (after reading this post) to find out that you have gone down this path.

This advice stands true for entrepreneurs across industries – talk to your customers! It is surprising how many entrepreneurs venture out with a business idea skipping this crucial part of business development. A sleek business plan and investor deck, detailed financials, 5 year plans, strong management team, are only a piece of the puzzle when it comes to planning to start a company. How are you supposed to know if your product or service creates value for your customers if you do not talk with them?

Regardless of whether you are selling ice cream or medical devices (and I’ve been in the entrepreneur chair speaking to customers of both) it is equally important to know your customer and talk to your customers.
Let me illustrate a fictitious scenario to stress the importance of this point – say you are selling a blanket that fits perfectly over human legs (think Snuggie for legs) with the intention that this blanket could be used by passengers on airplanes. You do some research, run some numbers, and everything looks great on paper. You hire a product designer to craft a prototype blanket and someone else to build the website on which you will sell your product. $50,000 (of your own money) later you are ready to sell these puppies like hot cakes! You post your website link to all of you and your team’s social network profiles and you visit the airport with some products to show people. It is through this that you discover that passengers that fly via plan are not interested in a special blanket for their legs. If they use the blankets at all, they are perfectly satisfied with the blankets that are already provided on the plane, and see no need for any other shape, size, color, of blanket. Bummer for you!

In sum, when you have an idea for a new business venture, identify your customers and the pain point that your venture is addressing. Then, find and talk with those customers. A simple 5 minute conversation can save you from trying to sell something (e.g. stripes) to a customer (e.g. zebra) that has no want or need for your product/service. This will save you time, money, and your business!

MEL aka Venture Gal

It’s Not What You Say – It’s How You Say It. Or Is It?

Over the years I have come to believe that it is not so much what someone says, as it is how it is said. A mediocre story told in a powerful way could be more impactful than a powerful story told in a mediocre way, right?

Not always.

Yesterday my thinking about this was challenged. I watched a CEO of a venture-backed startup company present his company. His slides were simple, his messaging was clear, and his graphics were minimal. He spoke calmly and clearly. What he said was phenomenal though. He spit out relevant data and he very clearly articulated the problem the company solves, the size of that problem, how the company solves the problem, the value proposition to all parties involved, the advantages of his company’s solution over other solutions, and the future of the company. He said all of this with grace and confidence, but at the end, the audience was wowed because of the content of his discussion.

Of course, depending on the type of interaction, content or appearance may be more or less important. Each presentation, conversation, audition, etc, should be evaluated for this purpose. A presentation to a group of bankers will likely require a different degree of content than would an inspirational speech to a group of students. Evaluate the context, determine the appropriate balance of content and sparkle, practice, and then shine!

MEL aka Venture Gal

BS is Bad Stuff

Word of advice for any entrepreneur pitching to a VC – do not pretend to know what you do not know. Unless you went to school to study theater or are an extremely convincing storyteller, your bull crap is very apparent to VCs.

Let me give you a fictitious example: Your company sells inventory management software to small grocery store managers. After your presentation, the VC asks you if you have spoken with any customers in your market. The worst thing you can do in this situation is to start making stuff up completely. Responding “Yes” and then trying to elaborate on your “fake” discussions with grocery store managers is not a good idea. If you haven’t spoken with grocery store managers, say so. Be honest about where you are and what you have done. If the VC doesn’t realize right away that you are exaggerating the truth, and if the discussions go beyond the first meeting, the VC will eventually find out during deeper diligence. And would you invest your money into people that do not tell you the truth? Hopefully not.

Outrageous claims about market size are also transparent. The book “How to Lie With Statistics” among others make it clear that numbers can be twisted in different ways to make a case.

Predicting large market share in a short time frame is also a lofty statement. Do your homework. Be realistic. Be honest about what is achievable and what the risks are.

Best not to develop a reputation as the entrepreneur that makes exogenous claims either. The VC industry is pretty tight knit, so if you get a bad rep at one, word is likely to spread, making your fundraising that much more difficult.

That all said, honesty is the best policy. Period.

What do basketball, yoga, and entrepreneurship have in common?

“Faster, push yourself,” my basketball coach used to yell to me. At basketball camps during drills I remember when the coach pulled the players aside and told us to always push ourselves during practice. “When dribbling two basketballs at once do not be afraid to go a little faster. It’s okay if the balls hit each other and then scatter across the gym. It’s the best way to improve,” the coach would say. “If you do not push your limits how are you going to get any better?!”

My coach made a good point that not only applies to basketball (and clearly knew what he was talking about since he now coaches at a Big 10 university).

If you stay in your “comfort zone” playing basketball, then how are you supposed to improve? You cannot let a fear of making mistakes stop you from improving your game.

The same holds true for yoga. I practice yoga regularly, and it is common for the instructor to recommend students push their limits during the practice. For instance, in a posture like standing splits challenging the body to stretch deeper and lift the leg up higher improves the practice and our bodies. It’s okay if we fall. Falling is a part of getting better. If you do not push your limits, to the point where you lose balance or even fall, how are you supposed to know what your limits are? When you push your limits you may fall, but you get back up and continue with your practice. You cannot let a fear of falling prevent you from improving your practice.

How does this apply to entrepreneurship? Entrepreneurs must push their limits to reach success. If you are afraid to fail then you will not take the calculated risk needed to make your venture succeed. For instance, consider if you are investigating a new business venture, and realize that you may not recoup your investment, you may not reach your sales target, or the technology/product may not work after you fully develop it. If you do not take the chance…the chance of failing…then what have you learned? Not much. If you push yourself, start the venture, and then it ends up not working out, that sucks, but it is okay. Hopefully you learned from the experience – learned from pushing your limits, what works and what doesn’t work, and learned what your limits are. You cannot let the fear of failing prevent you from starting a company.

My philosophy is to push myself in whatever I do. Whether its basketball, yoga, or entrepreneurship – if I do not push myself, challenge my thinking, or do something I’ve never done before, how will I know what is possible?!

I challenge you to push your limits. Find your edge. If you fail, fail fast, learn from it, and get back on track!

MEL aka VentureGal

Why Venture?

First, let me define venture…

Courtesy of Dictionary.com – a venture is “an undertaking involving uncertainty as to the outcome, especially a risky or dangerous one.”

So by “venture” I am not exclusively referring to venture capital. Venture encompasses starting a company, working on a project within a company, adventuring to a new country, trying some crazy food, and then some.

In a general sense, I ‘venture’ because I love it. The adrenaline from some uncertainty, mixed with passion, calculated risk taking, creativity, potential for huge impact, and results is satisfying and addicting.

More specifically, it does just so happen that I work in venture capital, a very common interpretation for the word ‘venture’.

People often ask me why I am interested in venture capital and entrepreneurship. There is a long and short answer to the question.

The short answer is that I want to change the world. And I believe that entrepreneurs have changed, do change, and will continue to change the world. By investing in companies like Google and Amazon, venture capitalists plant a seed with the potential to grow and make a tremendous impact on the world.

If that wasn’t enough to satisfy your curiosity, here’s the long answer:

After starting a company in high school I caught the entrepreneurial bug. Similarly, in high school I was exposed to venture capital, when I attended the Michigan Growth Capital Symposium. A family friend and venture capitalist in Silicon Valley told me about the event and recommended I attend given my interest in entrepreneurship and recent acceptance to the University of Michigan. So I went.

Besides the fact that I stood out like a sore thumb (I was a 17 year old girl that looked age 13 when the average age of participants was probably between 40 and 50), I learned a lot and connected with some great people that continue to be my mentors.

Early on at the University of Michigan I got involved in entrepreneurial-related activities on campus – participating in business plan competitions, studying feasibility of business proposals, and working with student start-up companies. Each year I continued to attend the Michigan Growth Capital Symposium, as well as other related events, from which I made the connection between venture capital and entrepreneurship and my passion to make a positive impact on the world. My experiences with start-ups and the financing side of things (at the Michigan Certified Development Corporation and Michigan Economic Development Corporation – yes, I know, it’s a lot of ‘Development’ and ‘Corporation’ for one sentence), rounded out my skill set and bolstered my interest in melding my interests to create positive change in the world.

Beyond venture capital though, some other cool ventures I have experienced include:
– Rock climbing and surfing
– Traveling to Patagonia, Bulgaria, and Italy
– Acting in Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut
– Eating cow tongue
– Attending the Clinton Global Initiative in Austin, TX
– Working for one of the “coolest small companies in America”
– Delivering a sandwich to Oprah’s best friend, multiple times, to be filmed for Oprah’s show

Expect my posts to pull from my past and current venture experiences, to reflect what I am learning now, ultimately to develop an archive of advice and stories that can be looked back on in the future and hopefully be relevant and useful.

MEL aka VentureGal

Welcome!

Welcome to my new blog, VentureGal.com!  I started Venture Gal as a way to share my learnings from my ventures as a recent college graduate working at an early stage venture capital firm in Michigan, from my experience working with several start-up companies, and from other ‘ventures’ in my life.  I have a lot to learn and Venture Gal is a way to record what I learn for reference to look back on, and also to share them with others!