From the Source: Startup Advice From GrowthX Founding Partner Max Menke

Max Manke-6673

This is From the Source, a regular series where you hear the stories of the Galvanize community straight from the source. This week, GrowthX founding partner Max Menke discusses his time spent living in China, GrowthX’s acceleration strategy, and a few pieces of great advice for budding startups.

After spending about four years living in China doing a lot of nitty-gritting sales work, I moved back to the Bay Area without too much of a plan other than knowing I wanted to get my foot in the door in tech, and still be on a sales sort of track. That’s when I met Sean and the others, and together we started working on helping small startups grow. We weren’t really sure what we had when we started working on it.

My intention actually was to get the skill set to go into enterprise sales. I wanted to work for the biggest, baddest cloud computing companies out there. This was about two years ago, and at the time there were these cloud wars, and it was a hot, sexy industry. I was all about it. But the more and more exposure I had to the opposite end of the spectrum, which is these earliest-stage companies, the more I realized this was really my passion—setting these early-stage companies on a path to predictable and scalable growth.

I run our market acceleration program. So some of the companies we invest in, me and my team really dive in on the day-to-day, and we help them grow exponentially faster they would if we were just invested in them. It’s really part of our overall hypothesis as a venture capital firm. We really want to be hands-on and not just provide advice and a network to people, but we want to provide our expertise. We like to say that products and markets are different, but the road to product-market fit is actually quite the same.

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The best part about my job is working with really great founders and their teams. Obviously we have no focus—we don’t limit ourselves to certain industries or products. What we want is to work with people who can work with us. We’ve learned that we can either do our program for companies, or teach them to do it, but the really happy zone is this “do-with” place. If we can work with a company to build a road to scalability, that’s where we really see the best impact of our work.

So people is the very first thing. Are they hustlers? Are they intelligent and kind and humble? The second thing is we go through a very open-ended process of finding whether or not our team has the right talent to grow a company very quickly. It’s a very fun and interesting process, and we don’t always know where we’re going to go. But for the companies we work with, we eventually have an “a-ha” moment where we see where they are now, and we see absolutely where we can take them in a few months. Once that clarity hits, it’s very obvious where we’re going and how to get there.

When you’re a venture capital firm, people are very excited to come work with you. We try to be very careful and suss out if they’re in it because they actually believe in our program and the work we can do with them? Or are they just in it to maybe get an investment, or get in the network. It just comes down to honest people. Are we aligned in our vision together? We try to test that as often as possible. When you work with people who are smart and intelligent, and actually believe in what we’re doing, it just makes the process that much more fruitful.

I was studying abroad in China during the 2008 Chinese Olympics. The energy there was incredible. I was literally sitting in my college dorm room when the markets crashed, and the writing was on the wall. Everything in China was booming, it couldn’t have been any better, and back in America everything was on fire. It just became very clear. At the time I was getting into politics and started studying economics, and I just pivoted everything toward getting a mastery of the modern Chinese political and economic situation. Upon graduation, I took what little savings I had, crashed with a friend who lived near Hong Kong and looked for a job.

My first job was a kindergarten teacher. I had 31 students who were all four and five years old. I was the sort of assistant teacher. My Chinese was O.K. at best, and that was a really fun experience. It taught me a lot about communication. When you’re dealing not only with children, with short attention spans and difficulty understanding larger concepts, but also the language barrier, it really teaches you a lot about communication.

From that I actually spun up my own tutoring business. It was really cool, I started my own business. Again, getting into startups without realizing it was a startup. I then moved to Shanghai and got into a really cool startup that was also in the English-teaching industry, and I ended up being the COO of that, before it crashed. Looking back now, we made every mistake that we would now advise a company to never make.

My last job was a financial advisor for locals and expats. It was brutal, cold-calling, sales commision job. When I joined there were 20 or so people, and when I left there were four. The culture was awful. I was commission-only, and I didn’t make a sale for the first eight months. It was just awful. But that’s what ended up driving me here.

I’m a big sports guy. Live sports, I’ll attend anything I can. I love playing lacrosse. Love running. San Francisco is such a great place for running, so many places to explore. That was one of my favorite things to do in China. I loved to just run and kind of get lost and try to find new neighborhoods, though the street food isn’t as good here.

Recently I’ve really gotten into puzzles. Puzzles are particularly challenging for me, because I’m really colorblind. I have to find ways where I can’t just be matching the box. But those are really good pieces of time where I just focus in. It’s a good challenge.

Be prepared to fail. If you step out with that understanding, you’ll be O.K. I think one of the best things to happen to the present startup generation is video games. The reason why, is it teaches you to work a problem, fail, learn from why you failed, and then try to do it again. When I explain that, a lot of people understand that logic, but people start off, they fail, and it’s a small failure, like they said something wrong during a pitch meeting, or some line of code isn’t perfect, and it blows up and they think this is a huge deal. A lot of time and emotional energy gets wasted. If you just set out knowing there’s going to be setbacks, there’s going to be punches in the gut. Some are going to hurt more than others, some you can’t prepare for, but as long as you’re able to be aware that those are going to happen, you’ll be much more suited to take them on and lose less time and momentum. It’s a learning process. It doesn’t just go up and to the left all the time.

My biggest advice is to just seek information. Everybody wants to go really, really fast. One piece of advice we give companies is that our help, as GrowthX, isn’t to take one part of your company and increase it 20 percent overnight. A large part of the system is to optimize all the little one or two percent pieces around your company. It’s the little pieces of drag. You don’t need to have a tremendous turnaround, but there’s all these places where if you hold a mirror up to your business, you can do little things that make the customer journey easier, or make your messaging easier. Things that make the entire flow of your business easier for your customers to get involved with.

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