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I recently wrote about this idea of the “Product Person” and how important it is for startups to have visionary artist DNA in its founding team. They are truly rare and it’s a big reason why so few startups succeed.

But vision is only ONE PART of what it takes to be a great entrepreneur and build a successful company. I’ve spent the last 15 years working with and studying the patterns of great entrepreneurs. There’s a common trait:

Great entrepreneurs begin the journey as passionate artistic visionaries who ignore the counsel of many, and then EVOLVE to become excellent LISTENERS who make refinements based on feedback.

It’s more difficult than it might sound. Consider a familiar example. It took Michelangelo two years to complete David. Imagine if twelve months into it, his patrons and early viewers told him “Good, but not quite right. We’d prefer shorter hair, a slightly smaller nose, and would you mind throwing some pants on him?”

Entrepreneurs all face the same challenge. They leap into the unknown, often ignoring the warnings of trusted advisors and friends, and then are challenged to transform along the way to someone who makes decisions based on feedback from others. The great ones are able to embrace the evolution. They have the courage to be pragmatic about what customers want vs dogmatic about their vision for what the world needs.

Please dont misunderstand me. Great entrepreneurship all starts with Vision. But I believe that great entrepreneurs adapt over time which is why entrepreneurship is both art and science. Each year when I lead our summer fellows through the module on customer engagement, I remind them of the famous quote from Henry Ford: “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” As I’ve learned many times, customers know just what they want until you show them something better. The best entrepreneurs are those stubborn rebels who have the determination to go off and build something that is better than anything the rest of us mortals can imagine, but then have the courage and pragmatism to make refinements based on feedback.

The reality for startups is that if entrepreneurs don’t change from stubborn visionaries to maniacal customer pleasers, they forfeit their most important advantage. Entrepreneurs, because they had the courage to explore, are out in front of their competition. When you are leading the pack, you are able to learn faster than everyone else. And if you listen and adjust accordingly, you can use that information to your advantage and win. I am very fortunate to call Andy Rachleff a close friend and mentor, and he likes to say that all great startups pivot. But it requires a certain level of humility from the entrepreneur that isnt easy. I had a coach once who used to tell us:

“Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”

The great entrepreneurs dont stay married to 100% of the product vision they started with. They have empathy for their users and the humility to adjust their vision based on what others are telling them.

When I make an early stage investment, I often ask myself if I think this team of entrepreneurs will be able to make the switch – from visionary non-listeners to proactive listeners and refiners. It’s hard to know sometimes. But what I’ve learned is that all the great ones do it. So if you are an entrepreneur – what kind are you?

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Who is the Product person? When we talk about early stage venture capital at Lightspeed, this is the single most important question we can ask when making an investment.

Why?

Because the product person is the artist with the vision who sees a masterpiece where the rest of us see clay. After 10+ years of venture capital experience and two startup experiences of my own I’ve learned to appreciate how rare it is to find a truly stellar product person, and also that startups without a product person as a founder are much more likely to fail.

My belief is that great entrepreneurs are able to marry innovative technologies with macro changes in order to build disruptive products we love to use at the right time.  They see the opportunity and leap when the rest of us only see obstacles.  The world is calling them crazy, but its because they have the vision to see what the rest of us don’t that they have the conviction to try.

When I make a seed or Series A investment, it’s because I am excited about the market opportunity and the chance to be a concierge for a world class team (yes, that is the true job of a VC); and that team must have the product person.

The Product Person does four fundamental things:

  1. At a high level, they understand the macro forces (I call it the tail winds) that are driving the industry to change and allow for a new product to disrupt incumbents.
  2. They have the ability to understand technology at a level that enables them to see the flaws in existing products (in light of the macro changes occurring), and also appreciate the power of innovative technology for new products.
  3. Incredibly passionate about the customer experience.  Maniacal about features and detail.
  4. Ability to tell the story.  Great product people can succinctly explain the reason the company and product should exist.  And stories are what sell potential hires, investors and customers.

When teams come into pitch and they talk about hiring a Chief Product Officer or a VP of Product during the Series A timeline, that’s a signal to me that they may not have the complete DNA.  At the heart of the company is the product vision.  Trying to hire a person to be the product visionary, to obsess about the customer experience, to drive the right feature prioritization and strategy — well, I think that has to come from a Founder.  Because only founders have the gravity in a company to make those choices and tradeoffs that a startup must in order to succeed.

If you are thinking of starting a company, or are currently working at a startup, ask yourself – Who is THE Product Person?  If the answer isnt obvious, perhaps you should think a little more about your decision.

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Our freshly minted investment in Comprehend (www.comprehend.com) was announced today. We are thrilled to back co-founders Rick Morrison and Jud Gardner and their team as they continue their mission to use next generation data analytics to help life science companies transform the way they bring products to market.

Like many of our most successful companies, what Comprehend does is simple yet powerful and has a profound impact on their customers. Basically all the life science companies out there have a really difficult time seeing and analyzing the data they need to navigate the clinical trial process. This is the lifeblood of their business — getting products to market — yet they are flying blind! There are so many data sources and the data changes so rapidly, and traditional data warehousing and integration technologies simply cannot adapt to that change. Comprehend has developed a next generation data analytics platform that readily adapts to all this change. Their customers such as Boston Scientific have implemented Comprehend’s SaaS service in less than a month and thereafter the system keeps up as the data and needs for analysis change. Comprehend allows life science companies to successfully get new products out faster with less risk.

Comprehend hits on one of the major themes that Lightspeed has been seeking out investments in. We first invested in Big Data infrastructure companies such as Hadoop (MapR) and Cassandra (DataStax). This infrastructure, together with other advances in processor power, in-memory data storage (Fusion-io, Nutanix, Nimble), and software delivery in turn enable a next generation set of Big Data and data analytics application companies. We have been actively making investments in this overall area in companies such as Numerify (cloud-based analytical apps for IT operations), BloomReach (Big Data marketing applications), EverString (Big Data-driven B2B demand generation) and ThoughtSpot (data search).

When Rick and his team shared their story with us, we knew instantly that we wanted to work with them. We were delighted to be chosen by Comprehend to be their partners, and look forward to helping them on their journey to transform the way life companies bring much needed next generation treatments and devices to patients around the world.

 

 

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We are excited to announce our new Series A investment in EverString (www.everstring.com)!  CEO and co-founder Vincent Yang, a mathematician by training, had built a system while he was at Summit Partners, a private equity firm, to comb …

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Business Intelligence (BI) is the gift that keeps on giving. For years, startups have popped up, promising better insights and faster decision making capabilities, consistently resulting in new waves of highly valued companies. Take a look at the past decade, …

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Congratulations to Tony Fadell, Matt Rogers and the world class team at Nest!  Today Nest announced that it has agreed to be acquired by Google.   As investors in the company since the early days, we here at Lightspeed have been …

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Today is an exciting day for Nimble Storage. We are fortunate to be early investors and partners to the company, having made our initial investment during the depths of the global financial collapse in late 2008. Nimble successfully completed its …

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New content sites like Buzzfeed, Upworthy, ViralNova and PolicyMic*are growing fast through social sharing. Yesterday Facebook made some changes to their newsfeed algorithm that will deprecate low quality memes and highlight high quality stories that get clicked and read a …

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Bitcoin has been on a nice run over the last few months, currently trading above $500 USD/BTC.

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A large driver of the run up has been growing demand for Bitcoin in China. BTC China has always been …

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In yesterday’s Facebook earnings call, a lot of concern has been raised about how teen usage on Facebook has dropped slightly. Said Facebook’s CFO:

“Our best analysis of youth engagement in the U.S. reveals that usage of Facebook among

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