20 life-changing realizations from the world’s youngest VC by Alex Banayan

Pretty impressive and insightful thoughts from a young go-getter. Sometimes good advice comes from the least expected places – namely a teenager – because his view of the world has fewer filters.

20 life-changing realizations from the world’s youngest VC

20 life-changing realizations from the world’s youngest VC
August 14, 2012 8:00 AM
Alex Banayan
Alex Banayan is a 19-year-old associate at San Francisco-based venture capital firm Alsop Louie Partners. His upcoming book will feature 25 of the world’s most successful people and reveal the little things they did to propel their careers. He previously wrote about the five traits of radically successful people.

With only a few days left being a teenager, just thinking about what happened this past year gives me chills.

Before I continue, I have to warn you: this post is not for everyone. And this isn’t a tech-focused post, either. I’m writing this for that person out there who needs that extra reminder that anything is possible. If you want to know how my world flipped this year, and what surprising lessons I’ve learned along the way, keep reading.

The Transformation

This past year has been a whirlwind of life-changing events, but I don’t take credit for any of it. This all happened because of the people in my life who believed in me, guided me, and pulled me up. I wake up every day humbled by those people in my life. They are the successes, and I’m just riding the wave.

To give you some insight on what happened to me, I’ll share with you a few things that show how my life was a year ago and what it’s like now. But let’s be extremely clear: this isn’t a “things I’ve done” list, but rather a case study on what is possible—and if a scrappy teenager like me can pull it off, just imagine what you can do.

  1. A year ago I was 40lbs heavier and I couldn’t run for more than 10 minutes. Today, I’ve dropped the 40lbs (thanks to Tim Ferriss’ slow carb diet) and I’m now training for my first triathlon (never thought that would happen!).
  2. A year ago I sat my dorm room and dreamt about being in the “real world” of Silicon Valley. Today, I’m an associate at Alsop Louie Partners, a San Francisco-based high-tech venture capital firm.
  3. A year ago I only had three people confirmed for my book and I had to chase down people on the streets (literally) to get them to agree to do interviews. Today, I’m at eleven confirmed interviews and counting—and the momentum keeps on growing.
  4. A year ago, I wrote in my journal that I wished to meet some of my business heroes, which included people such as Tim Ferriss, Tony Hsieh, and Elliott Bisnow. Today, I’ve not only met them all, but I’ve even shadowed one of them, had dinner with another one, and traveled to Europe with the third (it was amazing!).

I never would have guessed any of this would happen. As childish as it sounds, I’ve learned that dreams can actually come true. It’s crazy when you think about it. You just have to be willing to lay each brick, one by one, until you eventually build up to the clouds.

The following are the lessons I’ve learned along the way that have made this all possible. I share them with you with the hope that they help you too.

The Lessons Learned

  1. Writing in a journal changed my life. Journaling helps me with two things—maintaining my happiness level (if you write about happy moments in your day, your brain literally relives it) and helping me discover ideas I didn’t even know I had. A motto of mine is: I read books to learn what others know, but I write in a journal to learn what I know.
  2. Lightning strikes those who run around in thunderstorms. The chances of you getting struck by lightening while sitting in your house is slim. But the odds go way up when you go outside, climb trees, and hang onto metal objects during a storm. Success works the same way. Go to conferences where big players are, say yes to opportunities, and tell your story everywhere. You can create your own luck.
  3. Family first, always. I’ve realized that the one constant factor in life is family. Friends change, jobs change, girlfriends change, but your family is your family forever. Invest the time to make the relationships with your siblings and parents truly special. And if you don’t have biological family- find a community (such as Summit Series) and treat them as such.
  4. Never save the “best for last.” Give it all you got from the start. And it’s okay to eat your dessert first.
  5. Life is just a people game. Institutions that seems larger than life (ie. The White House, Disney, Microsoft) are just made up of people. If you learn how to pull back the curtain and find the people operating the machine, and become friends with them, you can make the impossible – possible.
  6. “No” just means “not right now” or “you asked me the wrong way.” Just because someone says “no” today, doesn’t mean they will say “no” tomorrow.
  7. There really are good people in the world. People want to help people who remind them of themselves, demonstrate they have potential, and have genuine intentions. You would be surprised by how radically kind people are when you ask for help in the right way.
  8. Reading books is the single most underrated key to success. Seriously. My top six books recommendations are: Never Eat Alone, Delivering Happiness, 4-Hour Workweek, Pour Your Heart Into It, When I Stop Talking You’ll Know I’m Dead, and The Art of Possibilities.
  9. Most people’s email addresses can be found online in under a few minutes. The internet gives you access to contact people you can’t easily meet in person. Take advantage of that.
  10. Troubles are inevitable, but being stressed is a choice. I’ve learned to not worry about the little failures in life and focus on making the big success come true.
  11. Stop thinking about saving money and start thinking about making it. I’ve met people who spend hours cutting coupons and looking for ways to save a couple of dollars. If they spent that time working overtime or starting a business, the financial rewards would be much greater.
  12. “Networking”, passing out business cards, and attending mixers with people in suits is a waste of time. Focus instead on creating friendships with people who you really connect with. Networking makes me feel slimy and is no fun. Making friends is eternally fulfilling and enhances all aspects of your life and career.
  13. You are the reflection of the 20 people who give you the best advice. Try to get advice from the most wise and accomplished people you can get a hold of. Their hindsight can be your foresight.
  14. Life is not a zero sum game. Someone does not have to lose for you to win.
  15. Make time for free-time. Create time in your schedule to just explore, go on adventures, read something new, and talk to new people. I have way too many high-potential friends who are so busy spinning their wheels and working hard that they never actually do anything noteworthy. If you make time for free-time, you never know where your next big idea will come from.
  16. Accomplishments are not the driving force behind happiness. The happiness caused by the reaching the top of the mountain is momentary, but the happiness caused by the memory of climbing a fun mountain lasts a lifetime. The same applies to careers.
  17. Being funny and telling awesome stories can quickly turn strangers into new friends. Both of those are skills that can be learned and honed.
  18. “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is BS. Having friends in high places isn’t helpful if you have nothing to deliver. Success is 80% the product and 20% how you get it seen. Who you know is necessary for that critical 20%, but don’t neglect that fundamental 80%.
  19. Service workers and secretaries. Treat these two groups of people exceptionally well. It’s one of life’s little secrets.
  20. You will surprise yourself by what you can accomplish when your back is against the wall. Nothing is more motivating than treading on the edge of failure—it will make you do incredible feats that you didn’t think you could ever pull off. But you’ll only get to that point if you take unimaginable risks.

Wrapping Up

The coolest part of all this is that I’m actually not particularly special. Anything I did, you could do too – and probably better. The only reason all this happened to me is because I was crazy enough to try.

I am not an example of a lucky exception, but rather proof of what is possible.

What happened to me this past year can happen to any of you if you want it bad enough.

My hope is that with this article, I could touch the life of someone who is on the verge of taking that next big jump. Just over a year ago, when I dropped being a pre-med in college, it was the inspiration from others that helped me make that much needed leap.

Nothing is more powerful than the human soul on fire—and I hope I could help spark yours.

First-Time Startup Entrepreneurs: Stop F*cking Around by Paul Stamatiou

Great post by Paul Stamatiou on TechCrunch about the importance of getting work done. Ideas, while great, count for nothing if you fail to execute.

Reminisce with me for a bit. Do you remember the first time you got an Internet connection? Before your computer was always connected and when going online was a thing you had to plan. The joys of seeing new browsers like Phoenix emerge. Your excitement when you first experienced the Web with your new high-speed connection. It was a time when sites rarely had any JavaScript and DHTML was the buzzword of the year. Now it’s hard to believe that Chrome is just a few years old.

When I first visited California for my Yahoo! internship (news of which immediately hit Valleywag, remember that site?) I knew I had to move out here eventually. I came back every year visiting friends and checking out startups.

Every time I drive into San Francisco and see the skyline, it’s a strong reminder that I’m fortunate to be in a time and place where I have wanted to be for so long, with such a vibrant and strong tech community. And that I better not fuck it up wasting time and being unproductive. I’m not here to talk about your startup idea, offer Backbone.js tips, discuss how to find your first customers or offer tips to pimp out your AngelList profile. I just want to say a few words on how to work. This is a post to new entrepreneurs about getting shit done.

This is all started with a tweet of mine. I was annoyed some friends that just began working on a startup were slacking off. Over 150 retweets later, I decided to elaborate on my thoughts here.

i’m going to teach a course for first-time startup entrepreneurs called stop fucking around and get back to work.

— Paul Stamatiou (@Stammy) April 23, 2012

We are in an amazing time right now — perhaps the perfect time to build companies. And it pains me to see first-time entrepreneurs flush away this huge opportunity getting caught in the hype of how cool it is to do a startup, going to endless meetups and spending entirely too much time on Maserati problems when they’re not busy cargo cult coding. Startups are a grind. It may end with having to get a job, or it may end with a big smile and a Section 280G, but either way you’ll have learned a ton.

YOUR WORKDAYS ARE SACRED

Think about the opportunity cost here. You could be off making six figures but you decided to swing for the fences with your startup. That takes guts. So why would you slack off and waste time? This is not a 9-5 job. You’re only hurting yourself if you don’t suck it up and work your ass off. So please avoid all those endless meetups you go to for the sake of meeting up. Like Michael Arrington says, “use all that free time to start spending time with the serious people, doing serious things.”

Someone wants to meet during the week? Unless its actually business-related, turn it down or move it to the weekend. If they really want to meet, they will sacrifice some of their weekend too.

I will make one exception though. I’m a big believer in paying it forward. If someone needs genuine help I’m always down to lend a hand. It’s my way of returning the favor that people like George Zachary, Dan Martell, Hiten Shah and Noah Kagan that have spent countless hours helping entrepreneurs like me for as long as I can remember.

GET READY FOR UPS AND DOWNS

You will have days that suck. Getting accustomed to this will be a challenge for any new entrepreneur. I once tracked my mood everyday for a few months while I was working on my last startup (this was when we were fundraising).

FIND YOUR THING

This is one of the things Marissa Mayer has mentioned for how to prevent burnout and I have found it to ring exceptionally true. What do you need to do for yourself every week to keep your sanity? For me that’s running a few hours per week and seeing the occasional electronic dance music show with my cofounder. These things leave me feeling more energized and happier, something you can’t often say about attending lots of tech meetups and conferences.

WHAT’S YOUR PLAN?

Picplum is my third startup and if there’s one main difference between my last startups, it’s definitely our planning. I’ll be the first to say that I have a bad habit of always wanting to build first. New idea? Start with javascript. Wrong! Fortunately I have a great cofounder that keeps me in check and reminds me to spec things out first. Unless you are blessed with building a product that is solving your own problem and you are your target user, chances are you need to take a step back to throw away all of your assumptions.

Pick some sort of task/project management tool and use it. Whether it’s Trello, Hackpad, Asana, Flow, Sprintly or what have you — just pick one. Keep track of every idea, feature request or bug but rigorously prioritize. Do not allow anyone else to use their own system, because they’ll never check the company Asana and always be one step behind.

Not sure if it’s worth your time to fix something right now? Hiten Shah of KISSmetrics once told me something a few years ago that stuck:

For those customers that email about small feature requests or tweaks: Don’t fix it until you get one passionate user complaining about it/emailing you an essay.

One thing I learned about myself is that if we set an amount of time a new feature or update should take, I’m more likely to think through everything involved and spec out all the steps. This applies for at least anything that touches the UI. For example, we recently designed and built a new share page for the new Picplum. When I first started working on it, I was in the mindset that this was going to be a simple afternoon project that I would just hook up with current layouts and maybe extending one Backbone view. Easy.

While that could have been the route we took, we decided to take a step back and define the goal of this page. What was the first thing we wanted the user to do? Did it need to use the same layout as other pages? What followed was a productive 30 minute product chat with some sketches that resulted in a much better idea of what we wanted the user to experience. I mocked up 5 variations in Photoshop, had quick back & forths on the designs then built the one we decided on.

By mentally setting the length of this task from a hasty “I need to push this tonight” to a more effective “lets plan this out and take more time if necessary” the end result was much more robust. A better product and better code that you won’t have to end up rewriting twice later on.

The opposite of this is spending days or weeks “planning” a single feature and feeling like that is actual work. Thinking about how to do something won’t actually get it built. I’ve seen one too many startups that are way too happy about all the notes they’ve scribbled down over the last week about what they want to do. Just go do them, and surprise me when you’re making real progress.

GET MORE FEEDBACK

I used to do this all the time: I’d spend hours or days building what I thought was the perfect feature only to realize my cofounder and I had different thoughts on how it should all piece together.

Get more feedback, more often.

But how do you get quick feedback without sounding condescending and nagging for status updates from your cofounders? Just make it a habit. Anytime one of us asks “What are you working on?” or “How is X going?” it’s not a translation for “WTF is he doing” but rather just some friendly accountability and an offer to help. Make sure you and your cofounders keep each other in check with this simple habit.

The best part about these tiny status updates here and there? Less meetings.

Keep it light and iterative. For me this is often sharing a screenshot in Campfire with Akshay or flipping my monitor around to talk through something. One thing that stuck with me is Jeffrey Veen’s talk Designing for Disaster. He talked about how to conduct product reviews and keep them constructive:

The review is not a forum for expressing opinions. It is a forum for solving problems.

Instead of I don’t like blue, ask “what is the reason this is blue?”. Ask if this is a convergent discussion or a divergent discussion. If you need a decision made, make it. If you need ideas make that clear, and have a divergent conversation.

 BE DECISIVE

There’s nothing worse than trying to spec out that new feature or product and ending up with more questions. “Yeah we could do that” is not an acceptable answer. Entrepreneurs need to be able to make quick decisions and move forward with them. Delaying will not make the decision any easier (unless of course you’re waiting a few days for more data on that A/B test or more visitor metrics for your data-driven decision). Make a decision, put it in your Asana, assign people to it and get back to work.

WHEN YOU GET STUCK

If you can’t figure something out in 20 minutes, move on if it’s not blocking or ask your cofounders. My cofounder Akshay is big on this “20 minute rule” of his. If you’re spending 2 hours trying to properly bind events on a collection or figure out why your RequireJS optimized build isn’t working on production, you are both wasting time and not putting your resources to good use. By resources I mean your smart cofounders. A pair of fresh eyes always helps.

RESPECT THE ZONE

Find out how you work best. It may be a bit eccentric but when I really want to get work done I do things like hide the clock in OS X, close anything that can make sound (except Spotify of course), close all unrelated browser tabs, and make sure nothing else is cluttering my mind, like any small nagging tasks that I should probably finish first. Perhaps you need to perfect your coding cave.

Picplum office

Make sure you know what you and your cofounders need to be productive. If that means designating a specific “wired in” work period every day when there are no distractions, then so be it.

GOOD LUCK!

You can be so bad at so many things… and as long as you stay focused on how you’re providing value to your users and customers, and you have something that is unique and valuable… you get through all that stuff.

– Mark Zuckerberg