On Wednesday, Shana Fisher, managing partner of High Line Venture Partners, spoke to a crowd of aspiring entrepreneurs at Y Combinator’s Startup School in New York City.
Fisher is highly renowned as one of the earliest investors in companies including Pinterest, ShopHers, Makerbot, Vine, and Refinery29.
Fisher mentioned that she has often been told she gives founders surprising advice, which she outlined in her talk.
Here are some of the unconventional lessons she offers entrepreneurs:
Take as much time as you need. A few years ago, Fisher would have advised startup founders to launch their product as soon as possible. Now, she realises it’s not smart to rush products. She says, “If it takes a year to get it right, take a year.”
In today’s competitive environment, with so many companies striving for attention, it’s much more important to have a quality product that customers truly love. Fisher points out that it takes Pixar five years to make a movie, and that’s why they are the best.
Make mistakes early. Of course, everyone makes mistakes, and they will be part of the story of how they grow. However, it’s better to experiment and make mistakes during the first few stages of a startup, so people can easily correct their failures and learn from them. The worst source of stress is when mistakes occur during a critical time.
Nobody can predict success. Fisher notes that most people initially weren’t interested in the companies she funded, even though they ended up becoming wildly successful. Even investors can’t always predict what’s going to do well, because they tend to be personal and subjective in what they like. When an idea is so new or revolutionary that nobody can evaluate it, those are the times when great things happen.
Don’t focus on raising money for the short term. When people think about their “startup runway,” which is the amount of money they need to get their company off the ground, they tend to think about raising money that will last for several months. However, Fisher advises people to figure out how to get as far as they can with the money they have. Fisher says, “I don’t like people raising money for runway. I want people raising money to make sure this thing happens by any means.”
You control your destiny when you control your money. The two ways to control money is through raising it and making it. Most early-stage startups raise money from external funding. However, Fisher uses the metaphor of the equinox, which is the tipping point for when you have to start making money.
There is no greater value in what you do than when people are willing to pay for it. As a founder, you can’t get stuck in your phase of simply having potential — at some point, you need to cross the equinox and start bringing real money in.
Target the investors who haven’t made deals in a while. You should look at the last couple of deals an investor makes. If they haven’t invested in a while, they will probably have a more open mind and will be in a better headspace for your idea. Be strategic about who you talk to.
It’s not always a good idea to have cofounders. Fisher likes to see people who can go the distance with their company, and sometimes that means being a single founder is the better choice. You don’t always have to follow convention.
Don’t overlap skills with other people in your company. If you have a similar skillset as your cofounder or other high-position people, it will end up being redundant. In startups, you have to critically think about how many people you truly need.
You’re not creating a product, you’re creating a team. Fisher warns, “If you don’t take care of managing your team, it’s going to come over you like a tidal wave.” Most people who lead startups don’t know how to manage people. In Fisher’s words, it’s really important to perfect how you manage them — one by one.
Hire one person first, and then perfect the way you will work with that person before hiring another. If you really learn how to hire and retain people, nobody will ever want to kick you out of your position as CEO. Fisher recommends the SCARF method for learning how to be a better leader.
Watch out for the dreaded question, “Can I talk to you for a minute?” When employees are trying to take you aside to ask about their role in the company or suggest new ideas, it is a major warning sign that you’re not giving your employees enough attention. The only reason they would need to go out of their way to talk to you would be if you aren’t managing people well. If you see yourself hearing this phrase over and over, you need to step back and figure out what’s happening.
Diversity of thought is crucial. If you look around and the people in your company all look the same, you probably don’t have enough viewpoints in your company. Find the best person for each job, but also think about bringing different people into the company, even if you have to train them. Working with people who don’t think like you is one of the best decisions you can make.
Use the great cosmos as inspiration. We don’t understand the edge of the observable universe yet. In the same way, there is no limit to what you can create. Fisher loves to see breakthrough ideas and believes that people truly are going to achieve as big as they dream.
She doesn’t want entrepreneurs wasting time making “just another app.” Rather, she wants you to do something meaningful. Don’t always look for patterns, because they will simply lead you to things you’ve seen before.
Stop striving for “great design.” These days, everyone seems to be using the same CSS template for their websites. Of course it makes them clean and beautiful, but Fisher reminds people that they don’t always have to look like everyone else. She also believes that working on design should always come last.
Fisher warns that startup founders often get trapped in the skin-deep appearance of a product and that they don’t worry enough about the breakthrough they’re trying to achieve underneath. In the past, she has funded a lot of companies that didn’t look good, because she knew that the iceberg of the product was more important than the surface. In her words, “We’re all ready for a new look.”
Lose perspective. A lot of startup founders lose perspective in other areas of their life, like their family time or health, as they become more and more consumed with their company. However, this isn’t entirely a negative thing, as long as it isn’t for a long period of time. When you lose perspective, she says, you enter a stage where you can do superhuman things.
Realise that finding a job is the easier path to take. If you wanted to make money and have an easy life, you could simply work for another company. However, if you are inspired and want to dream big, you need to recognise that startups are really hard. Fisher says, “If you’re gonna do it, you gotta go for it, and that’s what I want to see.”
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