Watch out for these entrepreneurial blind spots: ex-BFTP investor Alan Kraus - Technical.ly Philly

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Sep. 22, 2016 11:36 am

Watch out for these entrepreneurial blind spots: ex-BFTP investor Alan Kraus

18 years and 180 investments later, Alan Kraus, Ben Franklin Technology Partner's outgoing director of IT investments, has a few words of advice for founders.

Alan Kraus at a BFTP event.

(Courtesy photo)

This is a guest post by Alan Kraus, former director of investments in information technology for state-backed investment firm Ben Franklin Technology Partners.

Earlier this month, after 18 years, I left Ben Franklin Technology Partners. Where did these 18 years ago?  They just flew by — and it’s been a great ride!

In 1998, after graduating from Temple with my MBA and having worked full time in the Small Business Development Center there both as a consultant and manager of staff development, I knew I wanted to continue working with entrepreneurs in some capacity, but at least at that time, I wasn’t passionate in becoming one. I was fortunate to have met my predecessor, Earl Sissell, at several networking events and he recruited me when he decided to move on.

I had no idea that I would hit the jackpot and find such a perfect fit right from the start, though clearly there was a steep learning curve. I didn’t know what the term venture capital meant when I started, as the industry was just beginning to take off.  It was, after all, pre-internet bubble, and nobody knew where the Internet was headed or how to make money on it.

I expected I would perhaps stay a few years. However, soon the organization began to evolve under Ben’s long-time CEO RoseAnn Rosenthal, who had arrived just a couple of years earlier, and Terry Hicks, the VP of the Investment Group who retired earlier this year. In a few short years, Ben’s investments were transformed from a royalty-based repayment structure to instead utilizing a wide variety of investment vehicles, most with some equity component. I found the direction we were taking fascinating and exciting and before I knew it, a few years, turned into many more. Scott Nissenbaum, now the Chief Investment Officer, is already making his mark, and I’m confident in the organization’s ability to continue evolving to meet the needs of the community.

With the incredible support of many people, I was responsible for closing about 180 investments in nearly 120 different companies, like Boomi (sold to Dell), CoreDial, Greenphire, InstaMed, LiftDNA (sold to OpenX), Neat, OneTwoSee (sold to Comcast), Vistar Media and Zonoff.

Evaluating companies and making the investment, however, were just the beginning steps as then it was time to help the companies grow.  With strong assistance from a group of consultant portfolio managers, particularly Michele Zujkowski (I call her my goddess!), we did our best to provide business guidance, mentorship, feedback, introductions and a willingness to listen.

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From my experience guiding startups, here are some thoughts on what I call entrepreneurial “blind spots,” personality factors that are not good or bad by definition but that can often contribute to problems.

Insecurity

I’ve heard many a successful manager talk about how they’ve felt like a fraud deep down, afraid that someone will figure it out. In my experience, entrepreneurs also feel this way at times. This could be manifested in a variety of ways, in resistance to forming a board of talented people or not asking for help from investors/advisors for fear of looking bad.

Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of taking risks. We all have fears — those that succeed learn how to discuss, confront and manage them — not stuff them down or pretend they don’t exist.

Confidence vs. arrogance

Appearing confident is one of those ingredients that is almost required of the successful entrepreneur in attracting employees, customers, partners, investors, etc., even at times when it is manifested as arrogance. However, arrogance can also cause dissension or at least hinder partnerships of all types.

Further, arrogance can lead to rejecting or not seeking advice or contributing to team members feeling stupid and perhaps not even bothering to try to participate in an important conversation. A big ego can also manifest as the need to win or be right and that can create ill will from those that have equally strong egos, such that perhaps both parties dig in their heels and no agreement is reached when a win-win opportunity is available.

Good gut in evaluating people and situations

I know one entrepreneur who continued to make bad hiring decisions until turning it over to someone who seemed to have a sixth sense about people — their talent, work ethic, cultural fit, etc.

Good diversity of skills on the team

Many entrepreneurs are visionary and can come up with great ideas nearly every day, week or month. To succeed, they likely will need to have good execution talent on the team. Problem often is that some are attracted to people who think like or look like them.

Beliefs around the value of money

Bootstrapping is admirable, and often required, but regardless of funding available in those first few years, figuring out where being too frugal hurts the company and when one needs to hold the line is a challenge entrepreneurs constantly face.

Taking a bus or an Uber seems simple enough but the money adds up when including whether to meet a potential client for lunch or coffee and who should pick up the check, or how much rent is appropriate vs. space/location/amenities. Or bigger expenses, like how close to market-rate salaries to pay vs. equity. Or whether to hold off hiring for another couple of months for someone critical to the team until one more deal or funding round is closed at the risk of losing the talent.

This isn’t about advocating one way or the other, as each decision is different for each company. There are always tradeoffs. But how those decisions are made can have profound impact and it is important that everyone within the organization operate under a similar value system.

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Clearly, nobody is perfect, and none of these characteristics or the hundreds of other potential examples I could have used can necessarily be classified as good or bad. However, each can lead to undesirable outcomes under the right circumstances — and could be a critical blind spot of that entrepreneur, for that company, at that particular time.

Why don't entrepreneurs spend more time on introspection?

As frequently experienced in other facets of life, whatever damage we experienced as children will frequently play itself out in some way in our relationships as adults. So I’m curious why entrepreneurs don’t spend more time on introspection and in encouraging honest feedback from their team and others around them. Beyond not making the time for it, given all the other items on the to-do list, I’m guessing it is in good part because we are all afraid of hurting other’s feelings and getting our feelings hurt.

But what if we realized that feedback is just someone’s opinion? Not something to be taken negatively and that it is up to each of us to appropriately evaluate that feedback and determine what action to take next, given the information available, our experience and instincts.

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