The quintessential founder attribute: GRIT
“You spend months trying to convince the authorithies to finance this initiative, and once the funds are available, they give it to someone else. I could not let it happen, you need to get your nails out and take what you deserve”. This was our founder explaining how she secured a long term contract for our startup. She inspired me, but most importantly she showed me that passion and perserverence are what it takes to move ahead, not one or the other.
Grit is one of those elusive attributes, clear when you see it but oh so hard to manufacture. When I read about startups, there is so much talk about talent. This always used to deflate me as it felt that we were not all born with the possibility to acheive. When I encountered the discourse around grit, it offered me the possibility to be the master of my own destiny.
I look forward to re-visiting this post in 6 months time and again in 2 years time, to see how my evolution has affected my perception of grit as a concept.
To explain grit, I borrow heavily from Angela Duckworth´s book wherein, a theory is proposed:
talent x effort = skill
skill x effort = achievement
Extrapolating (heavily) the arguments around this formula, let´s try and equate this to the startup experience:
Talent — this could be easily interepreted as the composition of the founding team. How do they look on paper and how well they present themselves. Critically it is how they describe nuances about the market, industry and technologies they are involved in and how as an expert they can see or explain what others cannot. If your asssessment of the team is strong, based on this analysis, then one can assume the team has TALENT
Are they skillful? I like to assess the association between the unique capabilities of the team and the relation they have to the problem/solution they are bringing to the market. If they can show measured evidence, either in the form of recurring revenue or customer success metrics, then to me it seems as though they have applied effort to their talent and thus DEMONSTRATED SKILL.
But before I go ahead a quick case review from one of our cohort startups.
Their initial idea was to create a B2B marketplace for used assets, mostly machinery and other movables that larger corporates could sell off to small and medium players with lower budgets. During the seed phase of the startup we were happily convinced that the founding team were a right mix of technology and finance know-how and previous startup experience. Their MVPs went well and they had test contracts with local corporates that had convinced us to participate in the seed round.
Although we beleived the team had skill, following the seed round they were not experiencing measured increased performence. The startup were missing milestones…funding had dried up [continues below]
Applying effort to skill to me is about lessons learned in the trenches from feedback cycles they create [think lean startup BUILD-MEASURE-LEARN loop]. It´s about improving on the speed and value earned out of iterations, experiments and a desire for continuous improved efficiencies from each execution. The measurements of their improvements and learning, in increasingly repetitive and greater scaled value = ACHIEVEMENT. In her book, Angela Duckworth explains this effort as “deliberate practice” and that gains compound over time. An anonymous contributer on a blog I follow, a VC (who purposely moonlights as an Uber driver in SiliconValley to interview prospect founders and see how they behave outside the board room #peopleareawesome) — explaines grit as:
Those with grit speak from being at the front lines of starting a business, and all the chaos, and challenges of making things happen. You see terror, determination and perseverance in their eyes, along with an occasional grim which screams “I’ve been there”. They have very specific responses to questions, and are in the weeds of real issues like landing their very first deal.
Sometimes we are quick to associate traction with success. I have come across startups that seemingly had traction in the form of partnerships and early clients. But these may have been the result of privileged connections, rather than continuous improvements in efficiencies. Therefore not all traction equals grit but demonstrable grit should lead to real traction.
Back to the story… 9 months later the startup came back with a new application. Over this time, they learned that corporates had no real need for a broker, so they abondoned those early “easy” introductions and sought to solve for a real problem. They shifted gears to a peer-to-peer marketplace for movable assets [mostly used cars] that required one party to provide short term financing for the other to purchase the asset. The platform would broker these transactions via partnerships with regional banks and insurances. It was a win-win for all involved as the parties needed a reliable third party to broker the transactions, the banks/insurances had a new distribution market and the platform had cash, clients and surprise … surprise … a handful of investors for their series A.
Thus achievement is not simply traction. Seeing grit is perception of passion and experience. It becomes easy to distinguish as it is evident in the battle scars of those who have earned the rewards from achievements.
The point I leave you with is that development of grit requires time to mature. Skill improves gradually over years of deliberate practice. It requires:
- a clearly defined strectch goal
- full concentration and effort
- immediate and informative feedback
- repetition with reflection and refinement
So as I embark on my personal journey I will be purposefully measuring my targeted continuous improvements. Nothing will give me more pleasure than to learn about any of yours.