I was a classic example of somebody who was a non-technical lover of tech who transitioned into the sales and marketing side of technology, from golf of all places.
I was a professional golfer, and I always thought that was all I would ever do. But as fate would have it, I got bored, and I moved into technology sales. I caught the bug, and then I became a founder. Since then I’ve founded five companies. I’ve had three good wins and two valuable learning experiences along the way.
I think the biggest and most important lesson I’ve learned is that it’s not the software, but the hardware that wins. It’s people first. That’s a core value at GrowthX. You have to have amazing people that are fully aligned and have shared values that complement each other and work strength to strength.
GrowthX as a brand is a little more than a year old, but my partners and I met previously where I had built a startup MBA program for sales professionals who wanted to transition into tech.
I’m primarily responsible for leading our market acceleration program. I’m also involved on the fund side, the investments, but I’m mostly focused on companies in the portfolio who want our help to grow. We invest at the seed stage in companies across a wide variety of industries, in products and markets that are showing early customers and early revenue, and a glimmer of light towards product-market fit. We hope that’s daylight, and not an oncoming train.
You have to look inward and find what you’re passionate about as a human first, and then figure out how to translate that into the work that you do—and most importantly with whom you do it. It’s not companies that we go to work for, it’s people.
We don’t leave companies—companies don’t make us miserable or angry—people do. So make sure that you figure out what you love, how to translate that into what you do, and with the kind of people that you want to do it with. If you do that, you will excel. Happiness doesn’t come from success, success comes from happiness. So choose happiness.
I do still golf. It’s the last remaining vice in my life. I try to do it as much as I can, but I have two teenage children—my little startups at home, with my wife as my co-founder—a company, and now we’re launching GrowthX Academy, which is an academy for startup sales, business development, growth hacking, and digital marketing, launching right here at Galvanize, starting in July.
I give a lot of time to my kids’ schools. Being a family in San Francisco can sometimes be a challenge, so we have a tendency to stay close together, and try to raise well-adjusted children. We love to travel, and I do a lot of workshops and teaching at various accelerators and startup events around the world, as a way to help and give back, as this is my opportunity to do that. My wife is from London, so we love to spend time over there. The little time that I have, that is. Time goes by very quickly.
As you get older, I call it pruning the activity tree. You’ve got to keep focused. You have more responsibilities, and there’s more things in your life that pull you in certain directions, and it’s tough sometimes to stay prioritized on those things.
I think I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart. I make the joke that my first company was that I was an arms dealer as a grade-schooler. I used to buy Chinese throwing stars out of the back of Black Belt magazine. Then my friends wanted to buy them, so the next thing I knew I was selling them at school. I made enough money as a seventh grader to pay for my family to stay an extra day at Disneyland that summer.
Being a golfer was being an entrepreneur, but it’s a solitary experience. When you’re paying for a paycheck, it’s a really solitary slog. I had the work ethic, but it’s not social at all. Playing golf with your friends and not caring about your score, it’s very social. So I think that’s where the burnout came from.
We live in what we like to call ‘the age of applied technology.’ While there still is technology with deep barriers to entry being developed in a lot of different ways, building a startup today costs ten cents on the dollar from what it did 15 years ago.
Back then, I helped start a company and raised $8.3 million just to get to MVP. If I did that same company today—intelligent BGP routing and IP traffic management—I could do it for $400,000. So the biggest change, in my opinion, is you can learn faster whether or not what you have is a thing, and as a result you see more venture capitalists spreading smaller amounts of money across a wider amount of deals—at least that’s part of our portfolio area. So that we can see how people learn, and can they get to product-market-fit quickly and efficiently.
It’s a very different set of attributes and characteristics that a human needs to have to be successful in getting a company from zero to one, than from one to ten.
-Sean Sheppard, founding partner at GrowthX in San Francisco, California. You can find him on LinkedIn.
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