The insane arrogance of startup investors

Most startup investors feel special. This post will tell you they are not. It will tell you that most investors evaluate startups using simple arrogance. In the process you will meet two groups of super humans, learn about one of the longest wars in history and get inside NASA. In the end startups will understand investors better. Hopefully investors will get inspiration on how to refine their selection. Improving is everything. Do it.

The world was at a war. And the president of the free world was losing it. But he was working on a secret project that would turn the tide. He called it Project Mercury.

He asked the military to find seven super humans. They should spearhead a new battle front. The elite group was found and became known as: The Original Seven.

The year was 1959, the president was Dwight D. Eisenhower and the new battle front was space. The Original Seven was the first team of NASA astronauts.

Since the Original Seven, NASA has graduated a total of 338 astronauts. However, this is a tiny amount compared to the large number of applicants. For 2017, NASA has received 18,300 candidate applications.

The thing is that only few people make world class astronauts. But you are about to learn something else. Even fewer people make world class startup founders.

The hunt for super human entrepreneurs

About the same time as Eisenhower was fighting the cold war in space. A man named Arthur Rock was fighting an equally important battle.

His battle field was Silicon Valley. The fight was over one of the most important inventions in history. The transistor.

Arthur Rock was gathering his own team of super humans. They became known as The Traitorous Eight.

The Traitorous Eight became the founding team at one of the most influential companies ever built. Fairchild Semiconductor. Together, they ignited the modern technology age and helped make Silicon Valley the world’s superpower of innovation hubs.

Like NASA, Arthur Rock continued to find more amazing people. When he did, he would fund their businesses. In the process he invented what we today know as venture capital.

Today venture capital is a global industry. There are thousands firms. Lately, accelerators and angels have joined the party. And they are all looking for the same rare teams of super humans.

But they are a rare breed indeed. It’s estimated that 150 million startups are attempted every year by 300 million people. The number of startups that gets venture funding is limited to couple of thousands. And out of those, only a fraction actually succeeds. Suddenly, becoming an astronaut looks easy peasy.

Overserving and understanding what to look for

Going with the numbers, identifying the outliars among startup teams is much harder than identifying the outliars among astronaut candidates. But that’s not reflected in the selection process.

NASA spends two years in rigorous and intense interaction with candidates before selecting who to send into space.

Comparably, many startup investors just spend a few hours in meetings with the startups before throwing a term sheet. The following due diligence process is mostly legal work. To outsiders this seems insane. And it is.

The problem is that investors are incredibly arrogant. Most of us believe we have developed a special gift. That our unique backgrounds enable us to spot winners on eye sight. Like Mike Markkula meeting Jobs and Wozniak in a garage and just knowing they will become a huge success. Obviously, it’s a delusion.

This delusion fools investors into believing that we just need a pitch. Then our gut will accurately predict the fate of the startup. But the facts disagree.

95% of all venture returns comes from only 20% of the firms. Most investors cannot pick the winners. Of course not. No space agency would ever pick astronauts from pitches and coffee meetings. Sure, they would develop a gut feel about the candidate, but they wouldn’t be arrogant enough to actually follow their intuition.

Instead, space agencies acknowledge that some of the skills and traits that make up excellent astronauts cannot be accurately evaluated in applications and during interviews. Only observing candidates under certain conditions will provide an accurate assessment.

Could the same be true for startups. That you actually need to observe the founder team in action to actually assess their chance of success? I suspect so.

In my work with startups I participate in team meetings, participate in customer meetings and listen in on investor pitches. I see how they make decisions, how they solve problems and how they interact. It’s like NASA observing astronaut candidates operate tools in a vacuum tube or docking in a simulator.

This gives me insights that I couldn’t have gotten otherwise. Insights so important that I often find myself correcting my initial gut feel about the startup.

Startups are built in real life. During prioritization meetings, customer meetings, cold calls and strategic pivots. Participating in real work with the founders provide a true picture of the startup.

At Accelerace we have institutionalized this in our selection and acceleration process. Our application form is minimal. We engage instead. We take in a bigger batch than we graduate. We work closely with the founder team. We reasses and challenge our inituition..

We know what we are looking for and we assign scores. It might not be the right parameters, but we are on our way of proving them. Most importantly, it reminds us to leave (most) arrogance behind.

(The scoreboard used under observation is developed together with my great colleagues at Accelerace. If you think you can help us refine it or make use of it, contact us)

Conclusions made:

  • World class startup founders are rarer than astronauts
  • Most startup investors believe they have a special gift because of their unique background
  • The delusion of a special gift makes investors do extremely shallow assessments of startups
  • Investor can learn from NASA and do more real life observation
  • Accelerace have institutionalized observation and have developed a specific scoreboard