Good Listeners

“Entrepreneurs are often given two pieces of contradictory advice: persistence and flexibility. Have a vision and pursue it through years of people telling you you’re out of your mind. Or, be flexible: look at data, iterate, and change based on the signals you’re getting. There isn’t an actual algorithm. You have an investment thesis about why this project is likely to work and have some outside result, and usually that’s expressed in a set of statements and hypotheses, that if you’re right about, adds up like a logical proof and gives you the output you’re looking for. And you can have varying level of confidence in how these pieces are adding up and supporting your theses.” “The challenge is to follow them both, but know which advice is most appropriate for which situation. You must know how to maintain flexible persistence.” –Reid Hoffman

I spoke at Startup School a few weeks ago. The theme of my talk was “what we look for” when evaluating startups. The executive summary of my talk: we look for founders first and we look for certain qualities in founders. One of the qualities I highlighted was being a good listener – strong-willed but flexible. [Endnote]

Reid’s quotes above illustrate the point better than I did. I defined a “good listener” as someone who synthesized different inputs and processed those inputs to help guide a decision. Synthesizing and processing these inputs is the listening part. And once s/he made that decision, the founder doesn’t waver (i.e., “strong-willed”). Founders get so many inputs these days: from their investors, employees, customers, friends, advisors, co-founder friends, blogs, tweets, etc. The noise can be deafening. Good listeners get the signal from the noise and process/synthesize accordingly. They understand that some advice or opinions from people smarter or more experienced than them can help guide but not dictate a decision. It takes an enormous amount of intelligence, humility and self-awareness. A bad listener either (a) can’t separate signal from noise and/or (b) ignores the inputs – particularly those that don’t resonate or align with their original vision. These people are the stubborn ones and usually fail.

[Endnote] The example I used in my talk was Rick Morrison from Comprehend Systems. I’m not the only one who feels this way. Warren Hogarth from Sequoia Capital called him the “most persistent founder he ever met.” Warren is Rick’s board member now. He rejected Rick’s pitch twice before investing.