Mark Suster on careers, branding, and mentors


 

Rohan: I was introduced to Mark Suster’s blog by a friend and fellow technology enthusiast and took to it immediately. I loved Mark’s long and detailed posts – they all had a lot of “soul” in them and it felt Mark did really put his heart into them. I’ve been commenting on Mark’s blog for a couple of years now and we’ve had a few exchanges during the time. But, e-meeting Mark for the first time was a wonderful experience – one that I will remember for a long time. He was completely present, very gracious, and eager to share his experiences and learning. At the end of the conversation, I walked out feeling like I knew him for years..

I learnt a lot from my conversation with Mark and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


About Mark Suster

(We liked the bullet point version of his about!)

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• Grew up in NorCal (or Northern California)
• Graduate of UCSD (economics) and University of Chicago (MBA)
• First job: programmer at Accenture
• Startups: BuildOnline (sold to publicly traded French company) and Koral (sold to Salesforce.com)
• Now: Partner at Upfront Ventures, the largest venture capital firm in Southern California
• Current Investments / Boards: Maker Studios, RingRevenue, Adly, Awe.sm, Burstly, Pose, TextPlus, DataSift, MyTime, Gravity, Moonfrye
• Also: on the board of UCSD’s Rady School of Business Venture Capital Fund
• Founded Launchpad LA, a mentorship program designed to help the most promising LA-based companies get funded and become successful (and stay in Los Angeles!)

 


Interview transcript

 

(00:00)

Rohan:  There seem to be quite a few defining moments for you from when you left Accenture and moved to a start-up to becoming a VC.  What are the big defining moments in life that spurred those changes?  How would you rank them?  Why did they happen?

Mark:  Let me start with leaving Accenture where I was for nine years and going to do a start-up.  I left in November 1999.  I had wanted to leave since 1995-1996.  It’s a story I tell people especially in colleges and universities all the time.  My only regret in my entire journey is that I didn’t start my journey younger.  Not to discount the almost nine years that I spent at Accenture.  It was good, but I feel like I could have started getting involved with start-up activities earlier and I kept putting it off.  I put if off for all the wrong reasons.  I wanted to find the perfect idea and the perfect team, and frankly I was earning too much money.  The more money I earned, the more I kept thinking, can I really give this up?

Luckily, I realized that if I put it off any further the problem was just going to get worse because I was going to start making more money.  There’s a term for that; it’s called handcuffs.  I feel sorry for my friends who stayed too long and made too much money.  I guess that’s kind of ironic to say.  I feel like they ended up in soulless careers.  I think they would even admit to that.  Making money and having a soulless career, I don’t think anyone ends up being happy with that.  That was the defining moment.

If you actually want to know, and I’ve never told this story, I was sitting in a bath tub in Tokyo in a hotel.  I don’t take baths often so maybe that’s why this is memorable.  I was reading a Wired Magazine article about a company called Akamai.   Akamai had just been founded, so no one had ever heard of it.  They were describing something called a CDN, a Content Distribution Network.  I had been debating this exact idea as one of my start-up ideas.  Within a week I jumped on a plane and flew to Boston and met the founders.  I found a way to get on their schedules and decided that I wanted to go join that company.  When I tried to negotiate with them, they wanted to hire me but their terms didn’t make sense to me.  After I had done that and almost had a taste of almost joining Akamai, I said, “Okay, I have to get off my ass and go do this.”  That really was the defining moment.

 

(03:23)

Rohan:  There’s a theme of personal branding that I associate with you.    You speak a lot about how you went about executing your idea of being the both sides of the table brand.  That seems to have flowed to your company as well.  You re-branded from GRP to Upfront.  It’s the same people, but a different name.  How different has it been practically, and how different do you want it to be?  What do you think people ought to do or think about in terms of personal branding?  It would be great to get your opinion from an organizational point of view as well as from a personal point of view.

Mark:  I’m going to break that up into two components.  First I’m going to talk about Upfront Ventures, and then I’m going to talk about personal branding.  You could argue that already we had started to change our firm.  We had the name GRP.  GRP didn’t stand for what we did, and it wasn’t like we had some founders named Gordon, Rob, and Pete.  It didn’t mean anything that stood for us.  In part it was how we were already operating, and part of it was aspirational.  I felt that if we were going to have a brand and define a set of values, then that ought to define how we want to behave.  In fact, if you put out in the market place we’re Upfront Ventures and you’re not very upfront, people call you out on it.  In a way putting that as our brand was aspirational. 

Let me also say that I’m trying to define a brand for 20 years.  We’re going to recruit a whole new group of people over the next 20 years, and there’s going to be changes so we have to set up our goal of what we want to hold ourselves to.  But I also would say to you that we added one new partner.  His name is Greg Cantonelli.  He comes from an operational background like me.  We’re about to announce a second one next week, so watch for that.  I hope that announcement will come out Thursday or Friday next week, and I’ve got another one in the works.

We are also investing in a lot of infrastructure.  I told my investors, our LP’s, that we were going to do this.  We said that we’re going to invest more of the money that you give us in our community and in a platform and put less in our pockets.  We’re going to set out to define what we hope to be the market leading brand in Los Angeles.  I think we’ve done that.  We are going to bring new staff in, new young blood.  We hired four new associates in the last 15 months alone.  We are about to hire a couple of operational people on our team to help us run a platform.  I feel like in part we’ve done it and in part it’s aspirational.   The reason we changed is that we want to hold ourselves accountable for how we feel we need to behave in the market.

The second question you asked was about personal branding.  You are branded whether you like it or not, so the only question is do you want to take control of it?  If you are an Indian kid sitting in Singapore, people are going to define you whether you like it or not.  They’re going to define you by your age bracket, education, ethnicity, geography.  Given that people are going to define you anyways, wouldn’t you rather take control of that?  

Let’s look at me.  I’ve talked about some of this publicly.  I graduated with a degree of economics, but I had been programming from the time I was 13 years old until I was 23 years old when I graduated from college.  Yet I graduated with a degree in economics, so people had me pegged as a business guy.  I didn’t want to be pegged as a business guy.  I was interested in technology.  This was in 1991.  Technology wasn’t in vogue yet.  I truly was a geek, but I was a geek who threw keg parties.  I wanted to be perceived as technical.  It was important to me.  The only way I could do that was to do more technical work.

I pushed for more than two years to get transferred into the technical part of Accenture just so people would take me seriously.  It took a long time but once I was in the technical part of Accenture (it was called Andersen Consulting back then) then everyone saw me as tech geek.  I thought, hang on a second, I’ve got business jobs.  I’ve actually done marketing, pricing, and e-regulation work.  You get pigeon-holed.  People want to pigeon-hole you and define you.  I don’t think that’s a bad thing; I think it’s just human nature.  My recommendation to people is to find where you want to be in five or eight years.  What do you want to be perceived as, and how are you going to get there?  What is the journey?  The more you tell people politely what it is that you are, the more people will start to repeat it.  I know it sounds dumb, but I promise it’s true.

Your branding has to somewhat match reality.  I can’t define myself as an NBA basketball player.  I’m 5’10’’, and that’s on a windy day.  My wife calls it Jewish 5”10”My branding to be an NBA player doesn’t match with my actual skill sets.  Those are just too far off.  I do think reality has to come into this.  But it is really important that you define the brand.

I just want to give you one more piece of advice that I was given when I was young.  It’s something that you probably do naturally.  I can tell you’re wearing a nice shirt right now.  It’s 7:00 in the morning your time, and yet you’re looking professional; I’m looking scrappy.  I’ve got my Maker T-shirt on.  I’ve reached a point in my career where it’s acceptable, and ironically sometimes important for me to dress down rather than dress up.  Yet for young people dressing up a little bit can give you credibility.  The advice I was given when I was young was to always dress like the part one level above where you are, where you want to be.  That’s part of people perceiving you as the next level up when you act and behave like that. 

When you’re young, you always bring your managers problems.  You go and say that this, this, and this is wrong.  My cousin is 23 years old and she works for Maker Studios.  She said to me, “Mark, this is what’s wrong.”

And I said, “Okay, go do something about it. Why don’t you go schedule a meeting with a bunch of people in your company and come up with solutions to some of your problems?  Why don’t you instead go to your bosses and say, ‘you know we thought about the problems our company has.  Everybody knows what those are, but here are three ideas of how we could make things better.’”

Part of personal branding is also living the brand because branding can’t just be what you apply to yourself.  You have to live it and start living the brand you want to be one level above where you’re at. 

 

(11:56)

Rohan:  You posted about how when you were a junior somebody told you not to just ask one question at a time, but to put together a point sheet and ask ten questions all at once and some of them will even disappear.  That’s what got me started reading your blogs, so thank you for that. 

You’ve said that you believe sales talent is largely innate.  Of course there are some parts that can be taught.  There’s that philosophy of nature versus nurture coming in.  You’ve mentioned that theme when it comes to leadership and entrepreneurship.  How does that influence you as a father of two kids? And how does it influence you as somebody who is advising many CEO’s?  How does that change the way that you prepare and advise people?

Mark:  Before you have kids, you believe that life in general is 70-90% nurture and 10-30% nature.  After you have kids, you think the exact opposite.  There’s no doubt in my mind that a larger portion is nature than we like to acknowledge.  It’s DNA and we’re hard-wired.  Of course we’re all products of our environment and our up-bringing.

As a father, it’s important for me to encourage my kids to break the rules.  My job as a father is to get them to follow my rules, but I secretly applaud when they break the rules.  You probably know this from my blog, but one of my proudest moments was when my son went into a bakery with my wife and my wife didn’t want to ask the people to slice up a cake to give him a piece of cake.  She said “You need to order a piece of cake that’s already cut.”

He said, “But I want the chocolate.”

And she said, “But it’s not cut.” 

His response was, “Well why don’t we ask them to cut it?” 

The parable for me is that if you don’t ask, you don’t get.  So my wife said, “Okay, if you want it then you ask.” 

So my son said to the lady, “Could I please have a slice of chocolate cake?” 

And the lady said, “Of course.” 

And she went back and cut it.  My wife just wouldn’t have asked.  She would acknowledge that too.  She acknowledges that story.  I want to encourage my two kids to not just accept what they’re told in life in a polite, respectful way.  That’s very important to me.  I think you can ingrain people to learn right from wrong and teach them good working practices.

It’s the same with a CEO.  So much of it is lead by example.  There’s an old saying that says that you should praise people publically and reprimand them privately.  If you’re the kind of person that is always praising your best people in public to the whole company, and then when you’re upset with someone you pull them aside and tell them why, then other people in your company will model that behavior.  You can really teach people through good behavior.

Of course none of us are perfect, myself included.  There is a lot that can be taught.  I’ve been asked in the past if there are fundamental things that can’t be fixed.  I just believe that’s the case.  Another thing I haven’t really talked about publicly is that there are two schools of thought with your strengths and weaknesses.  Historically, we were taught that you need to do an assessment of your strengths and weaknesses and you need to fix your weaknesses.  A new school of thought came out that said not to fix your weaknesses, but play to your strengths.  I’m a much bigger believer in that.  Over the years I’ve realized that.

On my sales matrix I talked about innate sales skills and ability to follow a process.  I basically said that if you have really high innate sales skills and you can follow a process really well, you will be a great sales leader.  Those are the absolute superstars, but they’re very rare.  If you’re like me, and you have innate sales skills but you’re terrible at process, that’s what I call the maverick.  Mavericks make really bad sales managers.  I was a bad sales manager, but I could close business. 

Then I said that there were people who had really high innate ability to follow processes but low innate sales skills.  I called them journeymen.  The problem is that journeyman just doesn’t have an innate ability to sell, but he can follow the rules.  If you’re great at process, go with process. I think if I spend tons of my effort trying to be great at process, I’m going to ruin my innate sales skills.  I’m not saying to do nothing to improve your weaknesses.  That would be silly.  I just think that you should spend more time catering to your strengths.  What I do is, because life is about working with other people, I always surround myself with people who are good at the things that I’m not.  Because I’m terrible at process, you will not find me doing anything with anybody where I don’t have a good process person with me, including my wife.  She’s the process person in the Suster household.

 

(18:18)

Rohan:  You mentioned time and time again that you had lots of mentors from GRP, Accenture, etc. that helped you out.  How do you make sure you go out and seek, find, and connect with mentors?  Is this something that you do, or is it purely happenstance? 

Mark:  That is a great question.  It would be nice to believe that there are a bunch of good people out there who just want to mentor young leaders.  They’re out there, but if you want to sit around and wait for great mentors to come out and find you and offer themselves up, good luck.  I have two things that I recommend.

Number one is the easy answer.  You should form peer groups and get peer mentorship.  I did that when I was a first-time entrepreneur.  I would simply have luncheons and I would invite other CEO’s and it would be private off-the-record.  I always started by opening up first.  I would say things like, “We raised money at a $31.5 million valuation.  We took 40% dilution and we had 2X liquidation preferences.  That wasn’t very good.  I’m trying to figure out how I should do my next round.  Should I do a down round?  Should I do a flat round?  Should I get rid of my liquidation preferences?  Should I go try to raise a bunch of money?  What should I do?”

And people were shocked that I was that open.  People protect all of that information.  Then someone else would say, “Well, we don’t talk about that publicly.”

My response was, “Dude, I’m not a journalist.  I’m not writing this in the press.  This is about us learning.”

I felt that when I was being open and willing to talk to other people about what my issues were and then tried to solicit from them, that the table actually discussed things.  That’s the best way, and I have a group in LA that I run once a month where I share breakfast meetings with investors.  I just set it up and I started running it.  I got seen as the guy who was doing that.  You can do that.  Anyone can do that.  Even if you don’t feel that you have the right skills, if you can invite six other people around the table who are CEO material, or if you’re a product person and you want to have a product round table, or you’re an engineer, or you’re a marketing person, there’s no reason you can’t invite five people who do what you do and start a peer mentorship program.

With regards to finding more senior mentors, most people actually want to help people.  They want to give back.  They want to find ways to be meaningful and useful.  The problem is that there are too many people approaching you, so how do you decide?  Then there are just the people who are extra-friendly and extra-persistent.  They seem like they’re good people and they give back.  You end up just finding a way to be their mentor.

If I could tell people to follow somebody, I would say to follow Rohan.  What is it that you’ve done?  You write regular comments on my blog.  You write regular comments on Fred Wilson’s blog.  You obviously have gotten to know his wife.  You initiated a 25th Anniversary card.  I see you doing these things in the community.  We know each other remotely but not intimately.  I see you doing all of that, and then you asked me to take a half hour out of my schedule to do a Skype call.  You didn’t say, “Mark, would you do a Skype call to help me figure out how to make more money?  Would you do a Skype call to tell me how to get promoted?”

You said, “Will you do a Skype call so that I can learn a bit about you for the community?  I can teach the community; I can get you on record and hopefully that will help some people.”

I’m all for that.  I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but the fact that you’ve done this just makes it that much easier for you to call me again and say, “Mark, I kind of something personal I need help on.  Would you help me with that?”

You’ve already earned that right.  The way you got the Skype call was three reasons.  One is that I see what you do in the community, so I assume that you’re a good person.  Are you a good person?  You seem like a nice guy (haha) . Number two is that you were persistent.  You just kept asking, you were super polite about it, and I just regret that I didn’t get it done two months ago.  I really wanted to.  Persistence pays off over time.  Number three is that your ask was a community ask.  There are so many ways to meet people and to make it easy for those people, and to allow those people to give back in an unselfish way.  I suspect that’s why you’re good at networking.

 

(24:02)

Rohan:  What are your favorite books, movies, and TV shows?  What do you do in your free time?  What do you enjoy and why?

Mark:  I love reading.  I have a long history of liking two types of books.  I like nonfiction; I love history and politics.  The second thing is I like historical fiction.  Those are my two favorites.  Some of my all-time favorites are The Unbearable Lightness of Being which is by Milan Kundera.  One I’ve written about before that I really just love is a Philip Roth book called American Pastoral.  What’s wonderful about American Pastoral is that it’s a historical work of fiction that talks about entrepreneurship and it talks about generations of families and the fabric that holds us all together.  It talks about city decline and the decline of the urban environment and globalization.  It won the Pulitzer Prize which is a top prize for writing in the United States.  It’s a wonderful book.  Philip Roth is one of the best authors.

I also love expanding my mind on world issues.  Two of the most influential nonfiction books that I’ve ever read were by the same person.  His name is Jared Diamond.  He wrote a book called Guns, Germs, and Steel.  That talks about the historical context of why the west became so powerful and why other places developed less power.  The second is called Collapse.  He studied all of the civilizations in the world and why they declined.  They all declined for the same reason, which was depletion of resources.  He asks if that is going to affect us today.  The answer is yes.  It’s a scary read, but it’s an important read.  Those are just some examples of what I like to read.

I’m currently listening to a book on tape.  It’s about the transition of power between John F. Kennedy when he gets assassinated and Lyndon B. Johnson.  It’s a wonderful story about leadership, politics, and political maneuvering.  There are a great many lessons in it.  I’m really enjoying it.

On the film side, I hate blockbusters.  I love independent film.  I love learning about different places and different cultures so I watch a lot of international film.  Particularly, I like French film.  I think they do a great job.  I like a lot of British film.  One of my favorite films of all time is a film very few people know.  It’s called Secrets and Lies.  I’m planning on writing about it at some point in time.  The lady who was in Secrets and Lies won an Oscar for it.  It’s a story about the human condition.  What I mean is that we all have little secrets and lies about ourselves that we don’t tell other people.  There are things that we hold dear to ourselves like I have a big fear of public speaking, or I can’t have children, or my father was an alcoholic.  None of those things are true about me.  Whatever secrets and lies we have, the more we hold them inside, the less happy in life we are.  The more we share our secrets and lies with others, the more we realize that nobody cares.  You can be a very open, free, happy person if you don’t keep secrets and lies to yourself.  It’s a wonderful film by one of the greatest British film writers and directors that there is.  I recommend it to anyone.

Finally, my favorite TV show is House of Cards because I love politics and drama. And I’d be lying if I didn’t say I love Game of Thrones.

 

(28:52)

Rohan:  We are huge Game of Thrones fans here –  we love the board game and the books.  It’s incredible. 

You do so much. You’re a VC, you speak to so many people, and you write blog posts.  What are some very practical productivity hacks that you use to keep yourself moving productively?

Mark:  I know not everyone is going to like my hack, but don’t answer all of your email.  I mean it truthfully.  It’s one of those things that I say in public, but people don’t like to hear this.  For whatever reason, I could put my mobile phone number on the internet and very few people will call me on it because they understand that it’s not okay to peer into my private life and just reach out to me on my cell phone.  It’s not a social norm.  For whatever reason everyone believes that it’s a social norm that they can write you an email and expect a response.

I just ask you if you’re not a high volume email person to do the math.  If you get just a hundred emails a day, it takes you two minutes to read each email, you respond to 50 of them, and it takes you two minutes to respond to 50 emails each imagine how many hours a day you are a slave to email.  The problem with email is it’s very reactive.  It’s about all the people who want me to do something today, not all the things I need to do in my life today.

What I like to call email is my to-do list that you get to add to.  The problem with you is that you is the world.  Any random person can just write to me and they’re on my to-do list.  That’s not okay.  I think way too many people spend way too much time as slaves to email.

What I did is I segmented my email into public and private.  I have a public email address like anyone.  It’s pretty easy to guess and a lot of people do guess it.  The truth is I read all of them.  I just don’t respond to all of them.  I have an auto responder that says that this is my public email address, thank you very much for getting in touch.  If you are someone I know closely please write me at my private email address and if I don’t know you, I will do my best to get back to you.  If I don’t, just write me again.  Then on my private email address because it’s not easily guessed, I tend to mostly only get business.  Therefore I service those emails with higher frequency.  I respond to them better because it’s not mixed in with everything else.  Those are some of the things that I do.

 

(31:52)

Rohan:  What is an idea that inspires you that you would like to share?

Mark:  I will tell you the most important thing that I think needs to be solved right now.  Anyone making strides to solve this problem is near and dear to me.  Because I live in America, I will say that it’s education in America.  I mean education of the young masses of America.  I feel like determining one’s life trajectory in 2013 is so much determined by what you learn when you’re young.  Like everything else, your path is mostly set out for you.

I feel like we do a particularly bad job in America.  First of all, many of them are just dropping out of school.  I think the idea that we are encouraging all these young people to get on a track that they have to go to a 4-year university and that they have to take on $50,000 of debt is a travesty.

If you want to see a film that will bring tears to your eyes, it’s Waiting for Superman.  I’ve seen it twice and I cried both times.  Well, I didn’t cry loudly.  I’m not that big of a baby (haha).  It’s heartbreaking when you see families that want to educate their children that don’t have the financial resources to do so.  They want to make better and they don’t have the resources.  Whenever I get the opportunity to give back, I try to do it through Donors Choose which is run by a gentleman named Charles Best.  I think he deserves sainthood.  He is truly inspirational and one of a kind.  He is both an entrepreneur and person who does charitable acts.  Anything that we can do to try to figure out how to provide better education for young people is near and dear to me.

I think that the education system we have in the United States is so antiquated.  It was created for the system that existed in the 1950’s and we’re perpetuating it.  I think we need to break the model.  What I’m encouraged by is that parts of the model have started to break.  What I mean by that is that if you’re a developer in 2013, legitimately nobody gives a shit where you went to college or even if you went to college.  They just don’t care because there are enough tools online to evaluate your skillset.  Again, you contact me and say, “Would you have a Skype call to talk to our community?”

For all I know, you dropped out of school at 12.  I have no idea, and I don’t care.  I can judge you by who you are in the community through the public sphere.  Unfortunately, most parts of our economy are very backwards and very conservative so they still need to judge you based on credentials rather than judge you based on capabilities.  The more we can break down that model and judge people based on capabilities, the further away we’re going to get from breeding indentured servants who graduate with debt and end up in dead-end careers and jobs.


This interview was SO filled with insights, we could not stop highlighting. Thank you so much for talking to our community, Mark!

Real Leaders Team

  • http://pranavpiyush.com/ Pranav Piyush

    Wonderful interview – good job folks! Loved the comment about education naturally!

    • RealLeaders

      Hehe. of course!

  • http://ananthsreflections.blogspot.com thisisananth

    Thank you very much for the interview Rohan and real leaders team.

    • RealLeaders

      And thank YOU for taking the time to comment, Ananth!