Lunch With Mark Suster

Mark SusterI recently had lunch with Mark Suster, General Partner at GRP Partners, blogger extraordinaire and overall cool dude. I am writing this entry at 4:00 AM. Mark’s kindness and insights moved me to roll out of bed, fire up my laptop and share my thoughts while they are still fresh.

 

Mark recently wrote a blog entry titled “Whom Should You Hire At A Startup” that was forwarded to me by about a dozen people, including several of my former students. If you have not read it, please take a quick moment to check it out. Reading it will provide you with a good frame of reference for the remainder of this post.

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Attitude Over Aptitude

Mark and I have been friends for several years and our mutual affinity is no surprise. We sit on RingRevenue’s Board together and we are co-investors in Burstly. We are likeminded in many ways: both of us are serial entrepreneurs who are now Venture Capitalists, we are about the same age (I am a bit older, chronologically and visually!) and we both believe that entrepreneurs do not work at the behest of their investors.

We also share a number of similar views regarding the startup hiring process. As my former students know, I preach that at a startup, Your Greatest Ability Is Often Your Availability, and that you should seek out A+ Players who will help everyone on your team excel. I also tell my portfolio companies that they should, “always be hiring,” great people. Hence the number of people who forwarded me Mark’s post.

I remember when Mark told me that he was going to start blogging. He had previously written a blog when he was a startup CEO several years prior, but at that time, he was too immersed in his company’s daily operations to make the blog a priority.

I wished Mark well with his new blog. At that time, I had been blogging (under the pseudonym Uncle Saul) for about two years. With no promotion, I had achieved a small, but loyal following of readers. My peak monthly readership when Mark launched BothSidesOfTheTable was approximately 18,500, largely due to traffic generated by readers who posted my articles to Hacker News.

Over the following two years, I watched Mark’s blog EXPLODE. His readership is currently approaching 500,000 monthly visitors, making him arguably the widest-read startup blogger on the planet. I now routinely meet people who say, with a bit of wonderment, “You know Mark Suster?” My response is usually, “Yeah, I knew him before he was the Lady Gaga of startup blogging.”

Back To Lunch

During our lunch, Mark and I had a great chance to catch up regarding the VC landscape, our respective investments, the Santa Barbara startup scene, etc. As lunch was nearing its end, I said, “Mark, I know you need to get back to LA, but I wanted to quickly chat with you about my blog.”

What Mark did next was worth gold to me. He leaned back, smiled and said, “John, I have as much time as you need. Let’s talk.” I know that Mark has 10,000 tasks more pressing than talking with me about my blog, but at that moment, he gave me his full attention, something many busy entrepreneurs find difficult to do.

We then spent the next 30 minutes or so discussing how he grew his audience (hard work) and what motives him to write (desire to share). Although I picked up a number of invaluable blogging tips-and-tricks, my primary takeaway was that Mark approaches blogging with a highly defined sense of purpose.

His purpose is not to drive as much traffic as humanly possible to his site. If this were the case, he would not write for third-party sites like BusinessWire or TechCrunch. His purpose is not to make money. If he wanted to monetize his site, he could seek pay-to-play company promotions, sell sponsorships, display ads, etc. His sense of purpose is simple: to expose his insights and experiences to as many budding entrepreneurs as possible, irrespective of the forum or who gets credit for the pageviews.

Lady Gaga In The Shower

Lady GagaAfter saying goodbye to Mark and walking to my car, I realized that my blogging sense of purpose was writing content that interested me, without an emphasis on proactively sharing it with emerging entrepreneurs. This is akin to Lady Gaga singing in the shower and never attempting to garner an army of “Little Monsters.” While a lifetime of shower sonatas might be entertaining for her (and her neighbors), it is hardly a lofty sense of purpose. If she viewed her music solely as a means of self-entertainment, few people would have been exposed to her “talents”.

The music industry is similar to the startup world. To excel, entrepreneurs need an aggressive, lofty purpose. Without one, your adVenture is likely doomed to be a self-fulfilling hobby from which few people will ever benefit. We can all learn from Mark’s blogging success. Combining talent, diligent effort, and a motivational sense of purpose is a powerful recipe.

A Mark Suster Blogging Tip In Action: If you are not yet following me on Twitter or Quora you can do so here and here. You can also receive my posts via email here.

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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  • Great post. I really like your honesty and how you are still open to learn from others. Its very clear that one apparent commonality between you two is that you both are very genuine in what you do or want to do.

    Having experienced it myself, aptitude is now my only top criteria for new hires because there is nothing better to have someone as your colleague who can believe with you that anything is possible.

  • I met Mark at a startup meeting at Stanford a couple of months ago and he kindly stayed after his presentation for a good hour, meeting entrepreneurs, listening to pitches, handing out free advice. He’s the Energizer Bunny of the startup world and, more importantly, his blog insights are invaluable for entrepreneurs trying to find their footing in an environment that can be treacherous. A true gentleman and a hero for many of us.

  • Directed here by a tweet of Mark’s and glad to have so done: Now choosing to “follow” you on twitter as a result.

    As a long-time-ago musician in the UK, and erstwhile entrepreneur on both sides of the Pond, I directly relate to your “The music industry is similar to the startup world. To excel, entrepreneurs need an aggressive, lofty purpose. Without one, your adVenture is likely doomed to be a self-fulfilling hobby from which few people will ever benefit. We can all learn from Mark’s blogging success. Combining talent, diligent effort, and a motivational sense of purpose is a powerful recipe.” ~ So very true.

    Since Mark wrote his excellent piece about Aptitude vs Attitude in “Whom You Should Hire At A Startup”, I have been meaning to (trackback) add my six-pennyworth from a blog on a related aspect that I wrote several months ago entitled “Team Meritocracy? Team Diversity? ~ Can the former be achieved if the latter is a constraint?” http://bit.ly/96ZKw7 Now prompted by Mark’s recent post about the value and principles of blogging, like you I feel encouraged to adopt his recommendations.

    Along those lines, John, if I may be so informal and bold, given Mark’s recommendations, when are you adding DISQUS to your blog? {grin}

  • John Greathouse

    Haris – thanks for the kind words. Part of my Quora description is “Freshman in the school of life” and it is not faux modesty. Most entrepreneurs relish learning new things and I am no exception. As soon as you feel you have nothing left to learn, you are doomed to get your a$$ kicked by your competition.

    John

  • John Greathouse

    Jerry – Amen Brother. Mark is a selfless giver to the entrepreneurial community. The impact he is making is tremendous.

  • John Greathouse

    Peter – I am literally laughing. DISQUS was one of Mark’s recommendations. I have it on my short list, but your comment just pushed it to the top…

    Thanks for the follow and for taking the time to share your thoughts here. A Sense Of Purpose is a powerful thing…often times the most difficult aspect is to define the “Purpose” element of one’s actions. 😉

  • “A Sense Of Purpose is a powerful thing…often times the most difficult aspect is to define the ‘Purpose’ element of one’s actions” ~ so true; so fundamental!

    And thank you John + you’re welcome.

  • James Harradence

    John:

    I do not know you or Mark personally and I am sure you are highly energized, curious and generous people. However, the last time I checked, Mark was a rookie VC trying to claw quality deal flow away from the Valley and into GRP.

    I love his strategy and his execution. He is doing an excellent job of aligning his personal purpose to greater (wider scope of benefactors & larger overall benefit) purposes (SoCal venture community, entrepreneurs in general). He is not hiding the fact that he benefits from being generous, which is probably why it is so easy for him to be that way. You know him, I don’t !

    It is absolutely a win/win proposition, but I think you are steering the issue a little off course by focusing on the purpose and not the alignment of purposes.

  • John Greathouse

    James,

    Dang dude. I bet your nickname in High School was “buzzkill” 😉 Just kidding.

    You raise a totally valid point. I wasn’t try to obfuscate the fact that you can do well by doing good. I wouldn’t go so far as characterizing Mark’s actions as, “clawing deal flow”, but you are correct, being nice certainly helps one fulfill their own person objectives.

    With that said, I believe very few people are so Machiavellian that they can consistently “be nice” just to reach their own personal ends. I am sure those people exist, I may have gone to Wharton with some of those people, but as you imply, it sure is easier to be nice when it aligns with a set of broader, over arching goals.

    Thanks for adding your thoughts here. Most appreciated. Looking forward to your future comments!

  • John:

    I became a bit of a buzzkill after my third ‘wide eyed / purpose driven / details and reality optional’ entrepreneur ran me (and people I had convinced to join) into the wall :p

    They were all pretty nice until things went sideways. So, I tend to see things from more than one angle, these days, so that I avoid the walls before I get going at a high rate of speed 😉

    Alignment is on the short list of my favourite words and Mark appears to have it cased. I just assumed he was both smart enough and experienced enough to have planned that out.

    I would bet that Machiavelli was a treat to work with…… 😉

    Look forward to more on your blog.

  • John Greathouse

    James – well said. I get it. You tend to ‘really’ get to know people when things are not going well. I have been in a similar spot myself.

    Pls stay engage here – I enjoy your insights.

  • Good call, Peter! (Disqus recommendation)

    BTW, you are pretty ubiquitous these days!

    It’s funny how much I learn about you through your comments. I think I’ve pieced together your history — now adding “musician” to the puzzle. 😉

    (I’ve learned bad habits over at AVC.com — using the comment stream for my own purposes like saying “hi” to my friends.)

  • Great post, John. Love the tone…and the thoughts. I’ve appreciated you on Twitter, Quora and the blog posts I’ve read. Adding Disqus is a very nice touch and hopefully will further maximize your positive influence. I believe you could be another great “voice” for the Southern California startup ecosystem as well as what you are contributing (through Rincon) by funding some very interesting companies.

    Figures that you and Suster are friends.

  • John Greathouse

    Donna – thank you for your kind words, as well as your past Tweets, upvotes on Quora, etc. Your feedback is fuel that helps to energize my online activities. Most appreciated.

    Great to hear your ‘voice’ here on my blog!

    Cheers,

    John

  • James, re: “rookie” – 100% correct. Just 4 years in.
    re: “trying to claw quality deal flow from Valley” – hardly. Our last fund was the single best performing fund in the US and only one winner was from the Valley. Your perception reinforces incorrect biases. We had 2x NY winners, 2x Chicago, 1x Baltimore, 2x Europe, 1x Las Vegas, 1x Los Angeles and 1x Silicon Valley.

  • JamesHRH

    Mark – missed this post. Thank you for the correction. Surprised, a little, by the geo dispersal here.

  • John Greathouse

    Some day I will write a post entitled, “Why Silicon Valley Is So Overrated.”

  • Anonymous

    John – totally agree that the Valley is vastly overrated, for a laundry list of reasons.

    I mildly regret the flippant wording of the post Mark responded to: I wish I had said that he was a rookie VC willing to add more value – by taking the lid off of the VC black box – to find top quality deal flow. That is more precisely how I see Both Side of the Table (and AVC / Feld Thoughts, etc., for that matter).Regardless, the original comment I stand behind: I don’t know Mark (yet ;-), but he has done an excellent job of ‘professional alignment’ (his market position, professional purpose and marketing programs).You mentioned his actions are also in alignment with who he is as a person, which I accept at face value, given your personal history. That makes his situation even stronger – he’s professionally and personally aligned.If he can do that for himself, ………..

  • John Greathouse

    Mark is the real deal – very authentic. The kind of guy you would want in your foxhole when the chips are down.

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