Big personal news today: after 4+ years of helping build and grow a profitable bootstrapped company to $40M in annual revenues, I'm parting ways with my co-founders at Bump Health. I posted a short video with a little more context on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. 😅
[heads up: today's email is going to be a little longer than usual... I've got a lot on my mind. If you're short on time and interested in what's next, scroll to the bottom.]
New Podcast Episode: Rising CAC goes mainstream... and I lost a bet.
The fact of the matter is that I've spent the last 20+ years of my professional life bouncing between full-time investor and full-time founder.
Over the years, I noticed that there was a game that most people play through the arc of their career... but that the most successful people seemed to be playing a different game. I call it The Invisible Game.
There's no science or research behind any of this. I came up with these "rules" over a decade ago and they've helped me through my career. I'm sharing it because I hope it'll do the same for you.
And I'm intentionally referring to each of you as entrepreneurs in the text below. Because that's what your own professional career needs you to be... especially as we head into the latest recession.
So, let's get to it...
Get ready to learn the Invisible Game.
That’s probably why you’re still reading this email. You’ve felt that invisible game being played when you read about other entrepreneurs getting ahead and you want to earn that same success for yourself. You want your personal brand, your career, your business and everything you make, to be more effective. Becoming a great entrepreneur is your ticket to the next level.
To gain a better sense of how to improve your own entrepreneurial skills, you need to start listening to other great entrepreneurs -- but in a different way. You need to start paying attention to what great entrepreneurs do, not what they say. Don’t worry, we’re going to get into more of that later.
The invisible game isn’t something I was born knowing, it’s something that took me a long time to learn. Let’s rewind the clock back to early 2008 and let me share a bit of my story: Results Junkies didn't exist yet, 500 Startups didn’t exist yet and I was consulting for a small family office in San Antonio, TX where I was charged with managing the existing portfolio of tech investments and looking for new companies to invest in.
Every venture firm -- like every successful person -- has some form of uniqueness but, at their core, the most successful have two job functions: attract and hunt opportunities.
That sounds obvious, yet most get it wrong. My job as an investor and entrepreneur is to end up with financial stakes in successful companies and projects. Frankly, that’s not so different than what I -- and you -- need to create a successful career.
Here I was with my first opportunity in the venture capital industry and I had to figure out how to make a name for myself. I came up with three operating rules for myself that I still use to this day. I call these the Rules of the Invisible Game:
Invisible Game Rule #1: Your personal brand isn’t what you say it is. Rather, it’s how other people perceive you.
I grew up in the DC suburbs -- I didn’t have connections, contacts or experience -- I was an outsider to Silicon Valley, I didn’t know anyone. So I Googled them. I dug around their LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter profiles.
I studied everything about them: who they hung out with, what they were wearing and what they had accomplished in the past. What I noticed is that what they said and what they did seemed to be very, very different.
It turns out: who you know, what you wear and what you’ve done are certainly helpful but how you make people feel is extremely important.
Through that careful study, I also noticed something else: these people were very, very good at what they do. They understood that credibility was table stakes. Once you’re credible at something, you should focus on notability. In other words: once you’re good at something, it’s important that others view you as the expert.
So the key, once you understand that personal brand is how others perceive you, is to thoughtfully shape your personal brand.
Invisible Game Rule #2: Never pick a fight with an elephant head-on.
Regardless of the industry you’re in, there are two important facts to recognize: the incumbents will have more money and experience than you. They are your competition in an already-crowded market full of similar resumes, similar goals and a vested interest in staying on top -- they don’t care about you. I call these the elephants and you should never attack them head-on. It’s best to flank them.
If you want to be relevant, you need to say (and do) something that matters. This will be the base that you use to dominate the market.
In my industry, attacking the elephant head-on meant that I’d need to (1) blog about venture capital and (2) spend all my time in Silicon Valley. I chose to do neither of these -- I chose to flank the competition. I wrote the five most common things I saw them doing in their professional careers. Then I sat down to figure out what I should do that they weren’t already doing.
I chose to focus my efforts on spending time outside Silicon Valley and learning how to be a better public speaker. Neither of these were something that my competition wanted to do. (Seriously, when is the last time you saw a Partner at a major VC firm get on a flight to some small town in the Mid-West to meet with founders or speak publicly about something? When was the last time you listened to a VC on stage that wasn’t boring? Go ahead, I’ll wait.)
Unless you’ve got unlimited time and money, it’s best to out-skill the competition -- beat them before they ever see you coming.
Invisible Game Rule #3: Never forget the psychology of the person sitting across from you.
Humans are funny but predictable: we haven’t changed much since the beginning of time -- we want to get paid, made or laid.
Whether you’re hustling publicly or privately, remember that no one cares what you need. They only care about what they want. Your job is to figure out what they want and give it to them.
When I studied investors that did speak on stage, they tended to be boring, self-focused and (perhaps unwittingly) prone to using off-putting body language. These speakers gave little thought to their audiences. At times, I suspect they forgot there was an audience at all. Their missed opportunity was going to be my gain: I would shape my content and my presence to serve the listeners' needs. Pumping up my ego didn't need to be done on a stage.
Someone really smart once told me, “if you help other people get rich, you will too.” (I’m pretty sure his name was Hiten Shah. :) Again, the key is to focus on what your audience wants -- not what you need.
And so, that's it. I hope that understanding the Invisible Game is as helpful to you as it has been to me.
Okay, you made it this far into this email -- nice job. So, let's talk about what's next...
I don't know the specifics but, like I said earlier, I've spent the last 20+ years somewhere between a full-time investor and a full-time founder. I don't plan to move too far off that pendulum.
I do, however, know what I want the next few months to look like:
- I'll run a few 10Ks.
- I'll keep growing my portfolio of angel investments.
- I'll speak at a few conferences, meetups and other people's podcasts.
- I'll consult with a few friends working on interesting things.
- I'll launch a few online tools.
- And maybe I'll do something more with you.
If you have some advice or ideas on any of those things, hit reply on this email and let me know. I've got a lot more free time on my plate these days. 🤣
PS- if you read last week's email, you know I promised an update on the podcast search tool I built. I'll send a separate email about that some time next week.
PPS- if you replied to last week's email, thank you. I promise to respond to each and every one of those before the next email goes out. 🙏🏼