Playing with the big kids

I had a fun, wide-ranging conversation with one of my favorite founders yesterday. (She happens to be a woman, which figures in this story, but I didn’t want to suggest that I was qualifying the previous statement by limiting the set). We connected on a number of issues, but the broad theme was the importance of judging your performance by the objective standard, not just the local maximum.

For her, one frustration was being evaluated as an entrepreneur within a subclass – “the woman founder” – and not in the general set. While it’s flattering to be invited to speak as a founder, she always reminds herself that she’s not always being singled out for her performance, but rather because she represents a relatively rare subclass: the venture-backed woman CEO. What she wants, and drives herself every day to achieve, is to be a truly excellent founder – independent of any qualifiers – so if she’s recognized at all it’s because of her actual performance against objective benchmarks, not just for outperformance in a minority subclass.

Independent of gender, we shared similar views about our choice to pursue our work – building new technology companies – outside the primary global center of excellence for that practice. We both made a deliberate choice to build our lives here in Seattle, and to pursue excellence in our work, knowing full well that the center of gravity for that activity is, and will always remain, 900 miles to the south. We believe (and there’s plenty of evidence to support the view) that global-scale, best-in-class software companies can be created and scaled here. But we also experience every day the frictions of pursuing that work outside the Bay Area: from recruiting to fundraising to securing media coverage, every important task for a startup founder is either a little or a lot harder in secondary innovation markets like Seattle.

Regular readers of this blog know how proud I am of the Seattle startup ecosystem, and how I believe we’re building a city and region that are objectively different, and in many ways better, as a home for innovators and entrepreneurs than the Bay Area. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t acknowledge a fundamental truth: the global standard for performance – among both founders and funders – is set in that market. If you aspire to excellence in either role, the bar is set down there, and you forget that at your peril.

If you live and work in a secondary market, it’s always tempting to measure yourself by the local standard. “Achievements” are more easily won, and being the “best”, “fastest growing”, “most valuable” or “most admired” seems within reach for any participant who achieves even a little success. But that illusion is quickly shattered if you hold yourself to the standard of performance set in the leading market.

I pour my heart and soul into my work at Founders’ Co-op and Techstars Seattle. But every time I review the league tables of top venture investors, or try to get a Bay Area VC to return my calls or respond to my emails on behalf of a portfolio company, I’m reminded where I really stand. Every time my founder friend goes back to the Bay Area to connect with her peers, she feels the relentless drive – and the surprising humility – of founders who have outpaced her progress or achieved milestones she has yet to cross.

If you want to be truly great at what you do, no matter where you choose to do it, you have to understand where the bar is set and measure your performance there, not in your own backyard. As the youngest of three siblings I’ve spent my whole life playing with the big kids, and I know how it feels: it’s hard, and uncomfortable, and you have to get used to losing most of the time. But it also makes your wins – rare though they may be – that much more satisfying.