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Grab a piece of paper and the nearest pen. That’s how my last note to our portfolio founders started. One of the Valor’s weekly rhythms, and one I always look forward to, is writing a personal letter to our portfolio. Often a group letter develops from there, with side chats of support from founder to founder.  What I’ve noticed over years of this weekly rhythm is that founders are passionately married to the change they are making in the world. Crisis, rather than dampening that, rekindles the passion of their purpose. I’ve seen more progress on product, more iteration on team feedback and morale, and more entrenching in core values in the past 30 days than in ever before in my 38 years of startup life–including the previous crises in 2000 and 2008. (And yes, I am 100% counting the years I spent in my parent’s business because they were uniquely formative. I’m proud of the work I did there and the lessons I learned.)

Founders and crisis

This week, I thought I’d share some of my letter to our founders for other founders out there and active seed-stage investors like we are, that are deeply involved in supporting their portfolio:

In the last 30 days, what has your company done BETTER than you expected? What new strengths / new skills has “quaranteam” revealed?  Keep writing. What else? Is there more? Spend a few minutes without this screen in front of you, and focus on the strength, resilience and dynamic power of your company. Jot down everything that comes to mind.

Right now is a unique time. In the last 30-45 days, our teams have been doing hand-to-hand combat in the crucible of the “quaranteam” economy. Startups are always a chancy proposition when it comes to survival. Then layer on a global pandemic, and suddenly startup life, already a hustle, is Hunger Games. Founders are uniquely called to this time. I’m seeing incredible progress from almost every portfolio company. Many have had their best month just this last month. Many others, whose numbers are struggling, still had their best month ever in terms of personal growth and leadership.

My letter continued —

I want to congratulate you on that resilience. You’re a heck of a leader, you know? Share some of that pride in their strength with your team when you kick off next week. As a leader, showing your team you see them is one of the most powerful things you can do.

Now, I want to turn the focus to just you. There are things about the economy right now that are threatening your peace. Trying to dance on your pillow at night. It’s in your nature to solve problems and in times of uncertainty, entrepreneurs are particularly pulled into the drama. It’s in our DNA. We are what the human civilization evolved as a “type of person” to help society adapt. So, to some extent, it’s just in your nature to be particularly “engaged” in the problems. Lucky us!

Founders, crisis, and change

I learned a new technique for bigger-than-average problems these last few weeks. I’ll cut to the chase–here’s the technique:

1) Write down your big sweaty problem that is outside of your experience to solve, or solve as rapidly as you generally like to

2) Now that it’s defined, think about all the different angles on the problem needling you. I think in geometry a lot better than algebra so I imagine my problems like warped dodecahedrons. Just whatever works for you. What are all the annoying ways you don’t know how to figure it out? If you are critical of yourself, this is an easy exercise (teasing). Legal angles, sales angles, dev capacity angles, team spirit angles, what else?

3) Now, think of all the people around you. Drop a person’s name on each weakness–a person who is stronger in that area than you OR has the experience on the ground you don’t. Can’t associate a team name? Maybe there’s a colleague from outside of your firm or an advisor.

4) Bingo, now you have a working group. Snag these folks on Zoom for a 3-part session to open your mind to ways to solve the problem. Ideally, these meetings are one day apart.

  1. Meeting A, 30 minutes: you share the problem and everyone shares their own experience with a similar frustration or that issue.  This is a meeting to jell the team and the only outcome is a group focus on helping you and liking each other. Everyone speaks. Bringing the group into the emotional mind of the problem opens deep connections in their memories to ways they’ve coped or survived in similar situations, so don’t discount the need for this part. You want to engage their limbic system.
  2. Meeting B, 30 minutes – Everyone speaks on ways they have seen this type of problem solved. Not ideas or brainstorms. Actual experiences. This opens you up to the life-as-lived by others.  It’s like they are reading you “the audio book” about this type of problem.” Homework from this meeting is to have each person independently come up with 1 way to solve your issue–and submit it by email to the group before the next meeting in 3 bullets or less than a page. This is frontal cortex work and it’s only as good as the depth of the input you called out of them in Meeting 1. Extroverts, introverts–doesn’t matter, they each bring a proposed solution to the collective table before the next meeting.
  3. Meeting C, 30 minutes. Having read all the emails in advance, everyone gives their input on what they felt were the 3 best solutions and how to implement them.  Everyone speaks. The focus is not to critique the ideas or judge them–do not use words like good or bad–just highlight the 3 solutions each person preferred and how they each advise to implement. This meeting closes with an expression of appreciation from you–not a decision.

You make the decision–after the meeting–with a larger mind. 

The torch founders bring to uncertainty

If you’re reading this and you’re not in our portfolio, I want to encourage you too. As you move through this unique period of time, pause and smell the flowers of your successes. You may not be able to reach the Q2 numbers you told your board end of Q42019. (Or maybe you’re blowing past them–it is happening for quite a few in Valor’s portfolio.)

One thing in this time of uncertainty is fundamentally true. Your resilience, strength and passion as a founder can’t be taken away from you. It’s like a bloom, a new shoot of strength, a torch in the dark, and you should appreciate yourself and your team for it. Take a moment now, while it’s fresh, and reflect on the strangely bright gifts these tough times have for your company and for yourself.

This moment in time won’t happen again–it’s already evolving past the first bite. I know that in the future, we’ll look back on now and find the heroic in each of us had an opportunity to glow. The light of the solutions forged now are still red-hot, still forming, still being worked through fire.  Especially for the founders reading, one thing I am certain of is your capacity for and passionate for positive change. I salute your courage.