What is World Class?
What the best founders know and do.
Greetings, Chief Storytelling Officers.
Today's issue might make some people upset.
I'm not here to write a newsletter that lives in Imaginationland (yes that's a South Park reference).
Every week I want to help the best founders in the world on their journey to greatness. That means using what I've learned as a trial lawyer in 102 jury trials, as a consultant to founders that have raised $315m, and everything I continue to study.
Some of these things are harsh and uncomfortable to hear. It's not easy to be the best.
Let's get to it.
DEEP DIVE: Excuses are like...
Investors will move fast when they see two things: A world-class founder and a huge opportunity.
Here’s the truth—it’s pretty damn obvious when you see someone who’s world class. Think back to when Lebron James was playing in high school. When he was in 11th grade, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline: “The Chosen One.” James was so entertaining, ESPN broadcasted his high school games.
If you watched my high school game tape in high school, I guarantee you wouldn’t be calling me the chosen one. Lebron was different, and everybody knew it immediately.
The same happens when I meet a world-class founder. I'm lucky to be working with these founders every day, and I can tell within five minutes if they have what it takes.
My entire life has been about making quick and accurate judgments. As a trial lawyer in 102 jury trials, I had to choose the right jury to hear and decide my murder and child abuse cases. I was given 60 minutes to talk to 96 potential jurors.
Yes, that's less than 1 minute a person. I had to find the 12 people who would be the right fit to hear the case.
When I coached the National Mock Trial team at SMU Law School, I'd have over 200 students apply and tryout for 6 spots on my team. I had 5 minutes to hear their tryout and decide.
Those students went on to sweep the awards at the law school every year and compete across the country in the biggest tournaments.
So when I say it's possible to tell a world-class founder in 5 minutes, I mean it.
That may sound harsh to some of you. After all, we’ve been taught to not judge a book by its cover, that beauty is only skin deep, and that appearances may be deceiving.
I’m going to push back on that conventional wisdom, and here’s why: if you think investors aren’t going to judge you—sometimes unfairly—you are sorely mistaken. They’re judging your first impression, your second, your 100th. I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s the truth.
Lots of great founders get upset when they discover how hard it is to fundraise. Because they’re turned down—or, more likely, ghosted—they need to find some way to justify their failure.
But a lot of those justifications are excuses, and I shouldn’t have to tell you about what excuses are like.
You may never become the chosen one, but there are definitely steps you can take to get closer. Let's be clear, even Lebron James needed help to win his first championship. You don't have to be world-class to succeed in startups.
You do need to learn from the world-class founders and become great. Great founders build massive companies.
Here are three ways to adopt a world-class mindset:
Look In The Mirror
A few weeks back, I talked about the psychology of failure. Our brains are wired to protect us from feeling hurt, so we find ways to reconcile that cognitive dissonance. When an investor passes on our company, we concoct all kinds of ways to justify the decision—it’s the market, or the investor has too much on their plate. We might even think the investor is biased against us personally for one reason or another.
That’s when another form of cognitive prejudice rears its ugly head: confirmation bias. That’s our tendency to seek out information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. Confirmation bias prods us to find statistics that back up why the investor passed, so we can say “see? I KNEW it!”
Most of the time, the real reason for their failures are right there in front of them.
Have you ever listened to an athlete talk at a press conference after a tough loss? You might gloss right over the message because they tend to speak in sound bytes and cliches, but the best of the best ALWAYS take responsibility. It’s not about the field conditions or the unfair calls the referees made against them. World-class athletes talk about looking in the mirror and owning their performance.
“At the end of the day, I’ve got to be better. I’ve got to play better,” Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson said after Thursday night’s disappointing loss to the lowly Indianapolis Colts. “At the end of the day, throwing two interceptions can’t happen. It can’t happen. I let the team down tonight.”
Wilson is a nine-time Pro Bowler with a Super Bowl ring. He could’ve blamed his receivers for their errant drops or his offensive line for their poor pass protection. But he knows he was brought into Denver—and paid HANDSOMELY for it—to win.
What Would a Pro Do?
What’s the difference between an amateur and a professional? Author and creative guru Steven Pressfield has lots to say on the subject.
“The amateur plays for fun, the professional plays for keeps,” Pressfield writes in his book, The War of Art. “A professional loves her work. She is invested in it wholeheartedly. But she does not forget that the work is not her. She is tough-minded. In the face of indifference or adulation, she assesses her stuff coldly and objectively. Where it fell short, she’ll improve it. Where it triumphed, she’ll make it better still. She’ll work harder. She’ll be back tomorrow.”
(Fun side note: My favorite book of all time is Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire. In fact, I have a signed first edition. It's a story about leadership and overcoming fear detailing the Spartans battle against the Persians.)
So where are you on the professional spectrum? Are you playing for keeps?
If you’re not sure, one thing that might help is putting yourself in the shoes of a pro.
You might remember the WWJD craze of the late ‘90s. Christian communities all over the world began sporting bracelets and clothing with the acronym, and in some circles it became a status symbol. But its base phrase, “What Would Jesus Do?” has been tossed around for nearly 600 years as a way to guide people through the decisions they made in their daily lives.
Take the religion out of that practice for a second and apply it to your professional life. What would Tom Brady do? Would he complain about the cold, or would he get his butt on the field and get the job done?
I know that’s yet another sports reference, but you can literally plug anyone into formula and use it as a barometer. What would Steve Jobs do? What would Oprah do? What would Malala do? What would Nelson Mandela do? It’s a good way to view your behaviors and habits through the lens of someone who’s world-class.
Coming out of college, comedian Bert Kreisher was on the fast-track to stardom. Rolling Stone profiled his life for an article that became the basis of the movie National Lampoon’s Van Wilder starring a pre-Marvel Ryan Reynolds. He inked a development deal with Will Smith for a sitcom.
And then…nothing. Kreisher appeared on a few forgettable Travel Channel shows. Even with a few specials under his belt, his stand up career languished in small clubs.
That is, until 2016, when he posted a 14 minute story on YouTube. It was called “The Machine,” and it detailed his involvement with the Russian mafia on a study abroad program. The story went viral—today it has almost 49 million views—and it catapulted Kreisher from dingy clubs to arenas.
“My mantra became ‘be undeniable,” Kreisher said on the Joe Rogan Podcast. “That was the only thing that made sense to me. Every time I stepped on stage, I thought ‘be undeniable.’ Murder top to bottom, no prisoners, be undeniable. I wrote that on my joke book, everywhere. ‘Be undeniable because this is the best thing you’ve ever done.’”
In other words, Kreisher adopted a world-class mindset. People may not like his comedy, but no one can look at what he does and think he’s an expert in his field. He is undeniable.
How do you become undeniable? Have the utmost confidence in yourself. Put in the work. Stop making excuses. Speak with conviction and paint a massive vision of the future.
If you do that day in and day out, you WILL attract the best people and motivate them to run through walls for you. You can lead a movement.
One way to become undeniable and speak with this level of conviction is to put in the work by preparing. I'll never forget when I heard an Eminem interview where he talked about his process to become the greatest rapper of all time (my view). He told Anderson Cooper how he read the dictionary cover to cover.
Because the only way he could make sure to rhyme any word is to know every word.
That's f'ing next level dedication.
So when founders come to me and complain about struggling to fundraise it's almost always a situation that requires taking a hard look in the mirror.
Nobody owes you (or me) anything.
Going after venture capital requires a specific type of founder. Make sure you’re one of those. The type that won’t let anything stop you. The type that says they’re the greatest of all time.
You have to earn it.
You have to make it happen.
RESOURCES for Founders and Storytellers
Steven Pressfield is a legend, and if you’ve never read any of his stuff, prepare to have your life changed. I mentioned The War of Art earlier, but all of his books are fantastic, including his most recent, Put Your Ass Where Your Heart Wants to Be. If ordering a book is too much of a commitment for you, check out this great interview with author Marie Forleo, where Steven outlines how to overcome creative obstacles in your life.
When pitching your startup to potential investors, you might feel the urge to claim your TAM is MUCH larger than it realistically is. The truth is, investors are smarter than that. This Tech Crunch article discusses how to talk about your TAM with investors in a way that’s both realistic and impressive.
Many VCs have said the AI and ML marketplace are solid bets even in an economic downturn, but a recent report from PitchBook might indicate otherwise. According to the report, cloud computing costs are coming under scrutiny, and general economic volatility is favoring startups that prioritize efficiency over those that focus on model accuracy and complexity. The largest startups will struggle to justify their valuations as growth slows.
I've used this quote before and it continues to be one of my favorites so I'll leave it here for you to think though this week.
"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain." -Dune
The Founder Fundraising Program is for venture backed founders looking to raise a Series A or later. For more information, you can learn more here.