VCs tend to want to invest in founders that are visionary. But what exactly does that mean? Should I be looking for that one in a million person with a near certain picture of the future in their head and a near certain plan of how to get there? The prototypical visionary with fully formed innovation in mind. Or should I be looking for founders with a less superhuman kind of vision? One that mixes the big picture with incrementalism and grinding effort that eventually leads to meaningful innovation.
While the first kind of visionary seems like an obvious choice, one thing I know is there aren’t as many grand visionaries as there are opportunities to create value and change. And in my limited experience, those unreasonable men that want the world to adapt them - the borderline spectrum genius types – they are pretty insufferable to work with. So maybe it is not so obvious.
With this as a backdrop, there are a couple ideas I’ve found thought provoking lately. The first is contained in a quote by Jason Calacanis, a highly regarded angel investor. The quote is:
“In the Internet industry, it's not about grand innovation, it's about a lot of little innovations: every day, every week, every month, making something a little bit better.”
The idea here is that there is a winning formula for grinders who ‘every day making something a little bit better’. The argument is that to make a vision into reality takes the ability to not quit, make forward progress and create big change out of incremental changes. These intangible qualities seem pretty important.
This quote clicked with me when I heard the Malcolm Gladwell podcast (Revisionist History – episode 07) which focuses mainly on the two songs “Deportee” by Elvis Costello and “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. The podcast explores the role that time and iteration play in the production of genius, and how some of the most memorable works of art had modest and undistinguished births.
Gladwell asks the question, ‘were these two songwriters conceptual innovators or experimental innovators?’ In other words, were they prototypical visionaries or were they ‘every day making something a little bit better’. Did they burst onto the scene with works of staggering genius fully formed, or did they grind out profound greatness by adjusting their work over time. The podcast concludes, not surprisingly, that both songwriters took the experimental innovation path. And that this work is every bit as good as that of the conceptual innovator.
To answer my own question, I think these ideas provide a lens with which to look at visionaries. There might be that odd, certifiably brilliant founder that knows how it all comes together from the onset. I might find that conceptual innovator / prototypical visionary to invest in. But more often I’ll run across the experimental innovators, those that are willing to grind out multiple iterations to get it right - the iterative genius. And those types of visionaries can be equally good to invest in.