This post is about finding great founders and deciding to back them.
When I’m talking to founders and trying to decide which ones to fund, I concentrate above all on one question: Does this person see the ball?
I got the concept of “seeing the ball” from an outstanding baseball book called The Mental Keys to Hitting, by H.A. Dorfman (a famous baseball hitting coach). He writes:
“In dealing with the mental approach to hitting, a player must establish his priority—his core understanding of what’s at the top of the list of requirements for being a skilled hitter. I’ve told countless professional players, ‘However good your mechanics may be, you won’t succeed if I blindfold you.’ First things first: see the ball! ‘Track it and whack it,’ as I have often shouted from the dugout.”
Pretty much exactly the same principle applies to founders. Their number-one priority, the thing they need to be doing every waking hour, as Elon Musk put it, is seeing the ball.
For a founder, this means:
Talking and thinking about their business during every conversation, and in those conversations, listening to others’ perspectives
Late nights solving hard problems, with teams or alone
Identifying the most important things to accomplish, and completing them
Talking to customers as often as possible
Sourcing potential customers all the time
Staying up late and waking up early
Surrounding themselves with the right people for their quest
Reading books purposefully—to get answers
Exercising to keep their brains functioning
Trying everything for the sake of the company
Taking mistakes in stride, constantly moving forward (in the words of Thomas Edison: “I haven’t failed; I’ve found 10,000 ways that won’t work”)
Having a persistent fly in their ear, provoking radical action to solve the one problem they set out to solve
No individual item on this list constitutes seeing the ball, but these are the patterns. I myself can’t see the ball. As an investor, I get glimpses into moments of all these things, but I’m not at bat. So I’m looking for external signals that indicate they’re seeing it.
Seeing the ball means knowing when you need to make a short-term sacrifice for the long-term success of the business. Part of it is knowing what the most important thing is today, so you can get to where you need to be next year.
Coinbase founder Brian Armstrong spent almost 40% of his early funding on a legal letter that would allow Coinbase to get a bank account—without it, they would never have gotten off the ground.
Robinhood Founders (Vlad Tenev and Baiju Bhatt) didn’t pay themselves until they were able to get a broker-dealer license (1 year+).
The Favor team (Ben Doherty and Zac Maurais) lived in every office they ever had.
Talia Frenkel (Founder of ThisIsL) funded her first shipment of product with her savings as a photojournalist, and kept the company super lean to get to profitability. They were a team of 7 when acquired by P&G.
Spenser Skates slept on a mattress on Curtis Liu’s floor for a few months after moving from Chicago to found Amplitude—and for the following two years, they didn’t pay themselves and lived off their savings.
What’s the most important thing today, for the long-term survival of the company? Founders who see the ball can answer this question.
In my experience, founders who see the ball are best equipped to magnetically attract the most dynamic people through three avenues: mission, product, and charisma. In crypto, especially early on, the people involved were driven chiefly by the mission. Many founders are builders at heart, and they rally people around their product because they love building useful things. And charisma is the ability to inspire. Great leaders inspire the team to persevere, and they also inspire customers to believe in what they’re doing.
At the end of the day, a company is just an organism to attract the most capable people to further the founder’s quest.
When I’m talking to a founder, trying to figure out whether they’re seeing the ball, I routinely ask myself these questions:
Do they have the energy to make it 10 years on this?
They need energy, commitment, courage and authenticity—which one do they have an asymmetric amount of?
Do they have sufficient confidence in their own ability to solve problems, and/or in the mission of the company? Something needs to power their battery through the years when there’s no external validation or reward.
Do they have a unique insight about this specific market?
Do they teach me something about the world?
Am I captivated by the idea, or by the person? The idea alone is never enough. The founder is a huge part of the bet. This person needs to be a strong hitter.
Are they consistent?
Are they going to get distracted by “shiny object syndrome”?
Have they been punched in the face, and are they still moving forward?
Have they failed in the pursuit of this project before? (It’s good if they have, it means they still want to see this concept through)
After the meeting, do I want to talk about them or their company with others?
Do I feel like I have a firm idea of what they are attempting to do?
In the end, it’s an educated guess. VCs will always miss some of the strongest hitters; it’s the nature of the business. But it helps to have principles, and finding the person who’s “seeing the ball” is one of mine.
Well written Adam. I see a lot of cross offer between the sporting world and VC's. Passion, a desire to win, work ethic, and moving on quickly if something goes sideways. I like the question/statement " After the meeting, do I want to talk about them or their company with others?" That's a big one!
Spot on, Adam. Good to know that I am officially "seeing the ball" :). On a serious note, this is why some of us remain serial entrepreneurs. I tried to function as VC but couldn't last long. Maybe in another life - or when I am growing old. :)