Posted on October 17, 2012. Filed under: startups, venture capital |

Vision fascinates me.  It is what I focus on when considering investment in a founder and it is my primary competency as a founder.  No startup realm is cut and dry, but within the dimensions of a startup, vision is by my own admission most nebulous, fleeting and difficult to measure.  After about a year building our team at Hyperpublic, we got pretty good at measuring engineering talent.  Our interview process was a series of meetings and conversations, as well as a technical test.  There is, however, no test for measuring vision.  One reason why “visionary talent” is difficult to assess is because it is not “evenly distributed” between the near and distant future.  Said another way, a founder may have strength within a certain focal length (i.e. near term vs long term), but weakness at a different length.

Near Term Vision

Some people “see” the present very clearly.  This is near term vision.  “Today” expires before a thought or decision can manifest, so let’s say the window of value for a founder with strong near term vision, is defined as tomorrow through 90 days.  Near term vision is easier to calibrate than long term vision, for no other reason than a founder’s current product is a manifestation of her near term vision.  How well she sees today is translated into a solution that she builds which, if her near term vision is strong, is consistent with the current state of today/the market/the user/the problem.  The founder archetype who builds to solve the problem that she has today, or to scratch her own itch, or who begins with a simple feature and develops a startup around it, I believe has a more developed near term lens. This is not to say she lacks in the medium to long distance view, but she tends not to lack in her view of the present and near future.  If her product does not build traction, or clearly violates some truth or realty in the present, that is a reasonable sign that her near term vision is not extremely developed.

Medium Term Vision

Push out beyond the tomorrow, or the 90 day window, and vision becomes harder to measure.  There is no tangible manifestation of the way a founder sees the world unfolding…short of her plan.  Now this plan is not just a product roadmap, it is also a company roadmap.  The medium term we can define as 90 days – 12 months.  In measuring medium term vision, the conversation must orient around not just current product extensions, but also company positioning.  Does the founder have a sense not just of how things exist in current form (user preference, consumer behavior, market behavior, etc), but also the direction or change that is occurring or happening to the present.  Directionally, is a set of characteristics or phenomena moving toward or away from a given point? What dimensions or aspects of her product will be successful as the phenomena moves on that more macro curve and what will become stale or irrelevant. What are competitors and tangentially related companies building and how will their evolution change both her user’s thought/behavior as well as her future user’s thought and behavior (I use “user” interchangeably with “customer” and recognize that this principle applies to non-consumer facing companies as well)?  A founder with strong medium term vision can see and articulate the “bridge” between where she is today and where she will be in a year. She is able to define a plan based on let’s call it “one round of financing” (or 12 months) that does not violate directional changes in the market and population, so as to ensure that she is as relevant or more relevant in one year than she is in the present.  Medium term vision is essential to interaction with the capital markets and the M&A markets who tend to measure not just the value of a startup to the present market, but the expected value of that startup down the road.

Long Term Vision

Long term vision is closest to my heart and hardest to calibrate.  In long term vision, metrics and heuristics cross the chasm from logical to spiritual.  The inputs that influence a founders view of the future when we look, say 5 years out, are nuanced and often inarticulable.  Often these inputs, while real, and definitely consumed and processed by a founder, get rolled up into justifications around “feeling”, “gut”, and belief.  The founder with true long term vision both consciously and unconsciously consumes and processes signal from the population and market that most will not process for years to come.  Medium term trends will bring this signal to the forefront of market consciousness on the ascribed timelines, but the founder with developed long term vision has a jump.  Excellence in this realm can be particularly hard to identify, as the timeline of relevance is long enough that any articulation of long term vision can and often will violate near and even medium term realities.  A founder with conviction In their long term vision can ignore and disregard the very signal that is driving the rest of the market.  Once Joel Cutler described to me a founder that “can see around corners.”  It is a phrase that has stuck with me.  The long term thinker’s life is not easy.  Communicating the future to the present and medium term thinkers can be exhausting and challenging and isolating.  But she who sees around the 5 year corner, if competent but not necessarily excellent in the near and medium term, takes all.

Often, the founder with true long term vision makes up for the disconnect between her vision and the present with passion.  She must amass resource not around the solution she has in hand, but around a persuasion of all that she correctly sees something invisible….and the challenge of anyone who might hitch their wagon to this founder (be it a challenge to a recruit, or investor, or partner, or lover) is to identify who amongst the snake oil salesmen is actually the prophet.

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3 Responses to “Vision”

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this makes me think of the golden rule—seeing is believing. i love how you define long term vision. i would take it even a step further and say that real vision (the prophetic kind) is actually more like a 50 year view (or maybe really without time…more on that later) because real visionaries aren’t just looking around the corner, they SEE the world when it is operating in accordance with how they have re-imagined it.

the most difficult challenge for real visionaries isn’t communicating the future because you are rabid about your vision and all you want to do is share.

the most difficult challenge is finding people who want to change the world, who want to alter and impact the course the planet is on and who aren’t visionaries themselves but have the right resources to help you build out one part of that view so the WORLD can SEE it and they can FEEL the impact of their involvement.

i feel like most investors today think (way too much) like bankers – or these days like day traders in the currency markets. i think the trick to minimizing the snake oil salesmen vs. prophet risk for investors and other wagon hitchers is to evaluate the vision of the entrepreneur against your own desire for impact – or need for change. but too many investors use dollar value as their metric for impact when it is not. and they hide or have become complacent or overly comfortable within their preferred verticals so that anything that doesn’t look exactly like that vertical is a pass. there is a place for them, but the problem is we need more Queens of Spain (was taught the world was flat, funded Columbus) and Western Unions (had a lot of money invested in ponies, funded Edison’s telegraph) and Peter Thiels (can’t fly a rocket, funded Space X).

vision is a calling borne out of imagination that has been fed by desire. hungry people wanted a better way to store food longer. cold people wanted warm houses. hot people wanted cool houses. sick people wanted to be cured. parents wanted to stop their children from dying. people on land wanted to fly in the air. people separated by distance wanted to hear the voices of their loved ones. people with horses wanted to travel further, faster and carry more stuff. people in the dark, wanted light.

my fear is that most people’s context for “the next big thing” is hitched to the over-hyped myths of Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram or similar copy cats. i’m happy for the success of their respective teams – entrepreneurs, investors, developers, etc.

and even though they have made for themselves – and their investors – mad cash, the net effect seems to be the genesis of an entire ecosystem of entrepreneurs and investors who are painfully near sighted.

not exactly the environment within which visionaries flourish – much less bring their vision to reality. in fact, it just might be that the worst thing that could happen to a visionary now is that she get an audience with potential investors because she’ll probably waste time, energy, and money getting rejected that would have been better spent building out her vision.

how many investors do you know who invest to change the world, to have an impact that revolutionizes how business (theirs or others) gets done?

i bet you know more who invest in fashion startups than you do who invest in space trash cleanup. or biometric payment transfers. or customized gene therapies for cancer treatment. or wireless electricity. or clothing that turned your body into a solar powered fuel cell.

you would like my friend Hemant. he invests along the axis you articulate at the end of your comment. thanks for writing that, great post…

i love being around/connected to people who think differently.
and thanks for your gracious comments. little embarrassed that my reply was so long… got caught up in my thoughts and hit the button :O)

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    I’m a NYC based investor and entrepreneur. I've started a few companies and a venture capital firm. You can email me at (p.s. i don’t use spell check…deal with it)


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