Heidi Roizen has been on both sides of the entrepreneur funding divide, so her advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is particularly potent. She’s an operating partner at venture capitalists DFJ, a lecturer in entrepreneurship at Stanford University and a successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Last month, I interviewed Roizen at the Commonwealth Club, Silicon Valley. That interview led to many more questions about what it takes to succeed, especially the need to build meaningful relationships. Here’s our deeper exploration:
van Diggelen: You teach entrepreneurship at Stanford University: What are the top 5 lessons for being a successful entrepreneur?
Roizen: When we study and meet with successful entrepreneurs, while each has a different path to success, they all exhibit similar mindsets. For one, they seem to go through life looking at problems as things for which there can be a solution — i.e. they do not accept the status quo, no matter how ingrained. Second, they are not afraid to iterate (or ‘fail’, i.e. learn from a mistake, course correct, and move on.) They tend to be tenacious, that is, they view the failures along the way as necessary steps in getting to success — not as indicators that they should stop. They tend to be very good at telling their stories, building a narrative about the problem, the solution, and what it takes to get there. Finally, successful entrepreneurs tend to know the importance of finding and motivating awesome people to join them in their journey.
van Diggelen: Talk about the importance of networks and the do’s and don’ts of finding and being a good mentor.
Roizen: Let me answer this by starting at the 100,000 foot level. I’ve done a lot of reading about human happiness and I boil the answer down to having meaningful work and meaningful relationships. I believe that if you can do meaningful work with others you build even more meaningful relationships. I hate the word “network” as it almost has a negative connotation — none of us want to be cornered by a ‘networker’ at an industry cocktail party! But, instead I think of ‘building a network’ as a lifelong process of forming relationships with people, finding ‘fellow travelers’ who may share a passion for the same problem that needs to be solved, a skillset that is complementary but appreciated, someone with good common sense to bounce ideas off of — whatever brings value and meaning to each of us in a human connection. For me, those people and those relationships — new and old — help me to keep learning and keep finding new opportunities for work, for growth, for meaning.
As for finding and being a mentor, my main piece of advice, for either the mentor or the mentee, is the relationship only works if there are shared values/ethics, and if there is something meaningful to work on together. That is why I personally believe asking someone to simply ‘be my mentor’ is far less productive than finding for example someone to work for who you can also see as becoming your mentor.
van Diggelen: What do you mean by “living a relationship driven life” versus “a transaction driven life”? Can you give some examples?
Roizen: I’m a big believer in leading a relationship-driven life and I’ve blogged about it here. In short, if you believe what I said above about meaningful relationships being the key to happiness (a big ask I know!) then it makes sense that every transaction in which there are one or more others involved becomes an opportunity to build a relationship. From my life experience, I run into the same people working in this industry over and over and over, so the quality of every transaction is important because it builds a relationship that transcends any individual transaction.
In business school, we learned that a negotiation should be viewed as ‘an opportunity to find the maximal intersection of mutual need.’ I love this concept, instead of a transaction being ‘zero sum’, we can actually achieve a better result for both of us by putting our two heads together to solve both our problems.
van Diggelen: What’s been your hardest challenge as an entrepreneur and how did you overcome it?
Roizen: Almost running out of money many times. Microsoft entering our market. Shipping a product with a lot of bugs. Emotional disagreements with cofounders and key contributors. In other words, there really is no hardest challenge in entrepreneurship, rather there are a whole series of ‘near-death’ experiences. They key is to not let them become ‘death’ experiences! There’s no overcoming, just pushing through, getting back up, learning from your mistakes, mending fences, and moving on. And if you fail in the big picture and your company ends up going out of business, do it with empathy and honor and in Silicon Valley, you will usually get another at-bat.
van Diggelen: How do you see Silicon Valley changing in the next 5-10 years?
Roizen: I think what makes Silicon Valley so special will continue to fuel our next 5-10 and many more years. I do think the valley is changing in a few ways. For one, we are spreading our attention from ‘the next cool iPhone app’ to solving some of the world’s bigger problems, which I find very exciting and frankly more fulfilling. We are seeing technology have a far greater impact on those diverse big problems — from health to food to energy. I am really excited to see what the next 20 years brings about!
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