On May 16 I moderated a panel for the Purdue Research Foundation’s Office of Technology Commercialization’s annual Purdue Technology Showcase. The panel consisted of a venture capitalist, two industry executives, and a college dean. The questions for the panel centered around them sharing their experiences working with innovators.
The answers to one of the earlier questions in the panel basically centered around advice that a lone inventor needs to get out of their office, find a couple of collaborators from different fields, and talk to a lot of potential customers.
The answers to the next question basically centered around experiences of how large organizations can slow down or eventually even kill new, truly different ideas.
After the second answer, I turned from the panelists to the crowd and said, “Let me just explicitly acknowledge that our panelists have given contradictory answers to the last two questions.” A few of the audience members looked a little stunned I’d call out the panelists. But then I followed up with “They’re right!” As an inventor, entrepreneur, or anyone trying to build something new you need to find balance between being stuck in isolation and a crowd slowing you down.
I’ve found that balance in having 1-2 partners. Partners came up again today. I had an impromptu lunch with an employee. She told me she thinks I’ve done a lot of cool and successful things (side note, I told her let me know you about all the uncool failures sometime). More importantly, she noted that I’ve found some cool people to do those things with. So how did I find those people?
It got me thinking. What are the patterns to finding the partners I’ve acquired? Here’s roughly my three part answer to her.
Notice somebody smarter than you. Somebody that you leave the conversation where you learned something directly or they caused you to go off and learn things yourself. That most explicitly happened with Kyle Lutes. He was one of my software development professors. I was literally paying him (via Purdue) to teach me things at first. But I learned a whole lot more directly from him in the early years outside of class and in the early days of DelMar in conversations and emails with him. I also learned things in the emails he never received. It became routine for me to have a problem in the early days of DelMar and so I would begin writing an email to Kyle. But in the course of explaining the problem to him in the email I’d get to thinking about what his answers might and I’d solve the problem. Keep close the folks that make you better even when they’re not around.
Find people you align with on principles and values, but who have different experiences. My partners in creating MatchBOX are certainly that. Jason Tennenhouse had experience designing physical things. From toys to coffee shops. He also was more formally involved with work teams and community building than I was when I first met him. When I met Dennis Carson he had way more experience in local government, economic development, fund raising, and a whole host of other areas. But the three of us aligned on the principles of helping the tech and entrepreneurship community grow locally and the values by which would create a coworking space that eventually got called MatchBOX. We threw our different experiences into the pot and I believe the differences complemented each other well because of the shared values.
Step into the partnership slowly. Don’t get married on the first date. Daryl and I are more intertwined than any partnership I’ve ever had. Our time and finances and dreams are bet heavily on the other guy fulfilling numerous stated but also future, yet-to-be-determined promises. You don’t get to this point quickly. We’ve known each other for over a decade. We’ve been small group Bible study partners where we’ve talked theological topics and deeply personal decisions. I’ve been a vendor to him and he’s been a client to me. I’ve held invoices when his business was tight on cash. He enabled me to raise prices significantly and hire folks I couldn’t otherwise afford when his business was doing well. I’ve seen Daryl do the right thing by people when he could have done otherwise without anyone else knowing. Trust compounds just like capital.
To build anything of real significance, you need more than just your partners. There needs to be the next layer of 5-15 folks that are senior leaders and handle their domain areas of expertise better than any of the partners. But those partners are the key first ingredient. They are there early. They pinch hit. They call your bluff when you don’t really know what you’re talking about.
You can’t do it alone. Business is a (small) team sport.