Southern European start-ups are especially prone to stubbornness and macho posturing, says Alex Barrera. But founders should listen carefully to advice, even if they decide not to take it.
Let’s be clear: being stubborn is not a bad quality to have, especially in the start-up world. Many times, founders will face hordes of non-believers, weaklings and scared people who will try to, directly or indirectly, derail your start-up. In such situations, stubbornness is a great tool. If I’d collected a euro every time someone told me I should be working for a multinational corporation, I would have made a small fortune by now. Motivation is the Holy Grail for a founder, and being stubborn is one of our shields.
That said, when used incorrectly, stubbornness can also kill your project. Many times I’ve told entrepreneurs that the reason start-ups die is because the founding team shoot themselves in the head. Plenty of people blame society, competitors, the press or the VCs for their failures, but deep down, they know they are the ones to blame. And guess what? More often than not, stubbornness has played a role.
As a former investor and active mentor for many start-up programs, I normally see two types of start-ups. There are those that are extremely humble about feedback and those that are extremely stubborn about it. While I do agree with what my Kernel colleague Tim Grimsditch recently wrote about carefully choosing the advice you follow, sometimes a founder’s reaction to it is a clear indicator of the fate of the start-up.
While there are rogue mentors, most of the people trying to help start-ups do it for free because, in most cases, they want to give back. And although some, yes, do it for glory and drinks party invitations, that often doesn’t matter: it doesn’t mean they are out to catch you and they might even be of use. It’s up to you to deem their advice worthless, useless or even weird, but the goal of the advice is not generally to hamper the start-up. It’s worth remembering that, since we all know how ego gets the best of everyone. Start-up founders are no different, and may be even more susceptible to it than most.
They say that experience is the mother of all science, and there is a lot of truth to that. If you ever listen closely to a chat between an investor and a start-up, the questions the investor asks are always the same, and in the same order. It’s like a dance. It has its steps, its moves and its rhythm and tempo. If the start-up knows how to dance, the investor will skip the basic steps and move to the double axle moves. One of the first baby steps any investor or mentor tries is asking the founders if they are like competitor X. Experienced dancers will execute this move with speed and swiftness. Been there, done that. They have danced this dance before and they were expecting it.
Inexperienced start-ups will probably trip over themselves. There is nothing wrong with this. Mentors will advise you on how to execute the steps and then will invite you to iron out your roughness and come back when you’re ready. Investors, on the other hand, will dismiss you politely, but will ask you to come back when you have a clearer idea what type of dancer you are.
There is a third type of start-up, though. The we-know-better-than-you one. When confronted with such a question, they react violently, defending their start-up with ferocious stubbornness. Sometimes they even mock the person asking a perfectly legitimate question. If you are unable to dance the dance, you should not be doing a start-up. There is a close correlation between how clueless the founders are about the market and how stubborn they become. Of course, being clueless about something is the starting point for many of us and need not imply you will be stubborn about feedback. On the other hand, being stubborn without good reason – or the facts – is a mark of ignorance.
While this behaviour is common everywhere, it is especially common in countries like Spain. Spanish culture is all about jealousy and eschewing foreign culture. The fact that most Spaniards do not speak English hampers their chances of travelling around the globe learning about other cultures, cities, or hubs.
This in return narrows their views on what the market, the competition or even their customers look like. This localised mentality can provoke a deep sense of jealousy toward anyone who seems to know more than us. In most cases it is so ingrained into our culture that it’s an unconscious reaction, but it’s one that seriously hurts start-ups in Spain. And no, if you are reading this piece, I’m obviously not talking about you.
Needless to say, this lack of vision also extends to the local venture capital industry. While there are fantastic investors in Spain, many of them are… a joke. I’m naming no names, for now. Too many investors are as stubborn, or even more so, than start-up founders. Especially when these investors come from a background like investment banking. Too many times I’ve heard the phrase: “we buy these start-ups because we can”. Yeah, that’s a great investment strategy.
I keep seeing investments in start-ups that have three or four clones within a 1000 kilometre radius, with teams not bothering to work with the start-up to define their point of differentiation. I’m sorry, but having a social network and spelling your logo backwards doesn’t make your start-up different from Facebook.
What I’m trying to say is: if you’re a start-up, please, be humble. There is a moment for being stubborn (like dealing with VCs over the term sheet), but when someone is trying to help you, it is often not the wisest move. I’ve had good friends with a lot of resources at their disposal shimmying away from start-ups because the founders refused to even listen to suggestions to address their evident problems. The smartest people I know all do the same things: they read, they travel and they talk to people.
Be smart, be humble, listen and learn. Confronting people who want to help you will only alienate them. Keep the macho attitude for when it is really needed.