The Founder’s Paradox

What is it that makes a founder extraordinary? A previous job? A previous lab? Those things are not as important to me as that paradoxical world they inhabit known as the “and.”

This idea runs counter to the common trope of the dogged founder, pursuing success against all odds, knocking down walls, distorting reality…achieving the impossible no matter what. I look for founders who are stubborn and flexible. Those who are tenacious and able to quickly and humbly adapt in the face of reality. Those who enjoy living with this tension.

I like to think that The Engine has assembled a group of founders who all live happily within this magical world. But the truth is, we’re all fallible, proud, and self-protective human beings. It is difficult for a Tough Tech founder, somebody who has created something categorically new — be it a gene engineering technology or a new energy source — to not hold their technology close. It must work. It must scale. I’ve invested so many years, too many hours to leave it on the table. Too much loyalty to a technology can lead a startup down an unproductive path.

In one of my initial meetings with Cellino, one of The Engine’s first investments, founders Nabiha Saklayen and Stan Wang showed me what looked to be a typical technology development roadmap. I inquired about a checkpoint about six months into the business. The team had proactively established a milestone to determine if their technology was, indeed, the best technology to accomplish their goals. They knew they may have to change and had built in a checkpoint to re-examine their path. They were deeply attached to their technology and deeply attached to the company mission and outcome. Their explicit expression of living in the “and” immediately made me want to support, and bet on, their success.

Paul Saffo, the legendary tech forecaster out of Stanford, coined a phrase and a philosophy that I find particularly apt (it is also an attitudinal model openly shared by Jeff Bezos)—the notion that some of the smartest people are willing to modify their views when confronted by differing, perhaps more valid perspectives. Saffo notes, in a blog post over a decade old, “More generally, ‘strong opinions weakly held’ is often a useful default perspective to adopt in the face of any issue with high levels of uncertainty, whether one is venturing a forecast or not.”

The good thing is that this philosophy, while innate in some, is totally teachable. It can help reframe the mindset of founders who are conditioned to operate in an academic environment in which time is free and money is scarce. It can help “unstick” founders who feel they need to have the right answer before they begin the journey. And it can help build highly collaborative and productive teams unafraid to give feedback in service of the larger mission.

  • Reed Sturtevant, General Partner