This article was originally published on Oasis.
Our LinkedIn feeds are packed with success stories of founders who close million-dollar funding deals. The internet is a megaphone for tales of making a quick buck. Within this signaling, “passion” is a word that’s thrown around ubiquitously by entrepreneurs.
We sat down with Jussi Salovaara, co-founder and managing partner for Asia at Antler, a global early-stage VC, for a glimpse into the dark side of entrepreneurial passion and how he manages expectations with founders.
This interview has been edited and consolidated for clarity and brevity.
Oasis (OS): Antler operates in multiple geographies. You’re personally leading the Southeast Asia division and managing a number of country leads. How do you deal with situations where you observe that a partner is going in a direction that is not strategic? How do you contend with the fact that he or she may be more familiar with the market than you?
Jussi Salovaara (JS): I think management needs to be done in a relatively transparent and logical way, and it always needs to be grounded in the business. At the end of the day, you’re representing your investors and the organization. The business strategy should not be about what individuals want, rather what’s good for the business. If I feel like a certain direction is an incorrect one, then I would start by asking questions and challenging the founders.
Coming from Finland, I like having honest, transparent discussions. I believe they are good in the long term, but painful in the short term. This is an interesting area, where one has to respect the cultural differences in communication.
OS: Startups’ lore often includes mentions of passion. What are your thoughts on this?
JS: Passion alone will never be enough. But then if you’re willing to work super hard, if you’re smart and have passion, you can learn almost anything. So, I turn the question around and ask, if you don’t have passion, what would the situation look like? I would expect that you’re going to quit at the first speed bump. The likelihood that you will quit when times are tough is very high too, if you don’t have passion for what you’re doing.
On the other hand, I’ve also seen unhealthy resilience where founders are a bit too passionate. There are founders who do not give up even when they probably should.
OS: How do you tell founders that it’s time for them to give up?
JS: It’s all about argumentation, rationality, and being constructive.
Entrepreneurs are notoriously bad at listening to others; they’re rooted in their own passion. At some point, you might have to say, “This startup is no longer good for you and it’s not going anywhere.” I do this by asking probing questions and recommend setting a milestone.
Let’s say someone is bootstrapping, or they’re in a grind where they work 80 hours a week but can barely pay rent. It’s clear that this phase is not healthy for them. If someone has done that for three years in a row and the company is not moving, I recommend doing something completely different. Set targets. Then, quitting now is not based on an emotional response. This is a constructive way to open their eyes to what’s realistic.
OS: There’s a power imbalance between entrepreneurs and VCs. The latter often has the upper hand at pitch days and startups often have to swallow their pride for a shot at funding. What’s your take on this?
JS: It’s funny because that changes very fast. When an entrepreneur becomes successful, then the VCs are kissing their ass. I like to believe that what comes around goes around. If you operate in an unethical, arrogant way, people will remember that.
It’s good to remember that a VC is basically doing one financing round. Excluding the founder, anyone who says that they had a huge role in building a company is just bullshitting. I can see why a VC gets glorified, because you have this individual person who is a decision node that can affect the lives on the other side. They do hold power in that sense. But it is funny to see the tables turn when you have special founders with a hot idea.
OS: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
JS: Ten years ago, Magnus Grimeland, my co-founder and Antler’s CEO, was my senior colleague at McKinsey. We always had mentor-style sessions and he told me to select an area that I was excited about, and then work to become the world’s expert at that thing. The point was that we shouldn’t settle for being the best at a national level. Go global and take the world by storm. Never settle for something small. Be uncomfortably ambitious.
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