Watch the Interview
Becoming a Successful Founder with Ryan Frederick
Ryan Frederick is a Founder and product person at heart. He has founded and grown several software and service companies from inception to viability, through to sustainability. He has been instrumental in capitalization activities and has even expanded into international markets. Ryan is an active angel investor, mentor, advisor, author, and speaker. He recently released a new book, The Founder’s Manual: A Guidebook for Becoming a Successful Entrepreneur. Ryan speaks frequently about product, Founder, and startup journeys.
The Founder’s Manual
Many aspects of being a Founder, creating a product, and building a company are counter-intuitive. In The Founder’s Manual, Ryan Frederick provides insights into how to deal with them including:
- Founders have to run to the fire, not away from it.
- Scale doesn’t matter until a small number of customers love what you are doing.
- You can’t solve a problem you don’t understand at an expert level.
- Customer Product Fit is better than Product Market Fit and why.
Read the Interview
Hugh Ballou: Greetings, welcome to The Nonprofit Exchange. It’s Hugh Ballou. This is a series of interviews we have been conducting for six and a half years. We’ve had some interesting guests over the years, and today is no exception. Today, we have Ryan Frederick, the author of a really great book, The Founder’s Manual. Ryan, tell people about who you are and about your passion for this founders thing that you talk about.
Ryan Frederick: Hugh, thanks for having me and for the opportunity to chat with you and get in front of your people. I never had any intention of being an entrepreneur and trying to build products and start companies. I think that’s true for most of us that end up wearing the founder label and going down an entrepreneurial path. What I am most interested in is that it’s not what most people think that it is. Most people glamorize it and think that it’s a path to riches, which it potentially can be. I just have a strong passion and interest for helping people really understand what it means to be an entrepreneur, what it means to be a founder, the realities of the situation, and why we’re not wired to do it successfully without a lot of consideration and work to understand the principles around it, to increase the odds of success, and to make it a bit more of a palatable journey.
Hugh: Why do you do this?
Ryan: One of the things I write about in the book is there is this hustle mantra/narrative out there right now, which I don’t think is very beneficial. We should hustle. We should be intentional. We should work hard at things that we’re interested in and serve people and solve problems. But hustle for the sake of hustle, and this hustle narrative, is pretty misguided and destructive. I see a lot of things happening around being founders and entrepreneurship that I think are just off base and don’t give people the real story and the real picture of what it’s like.
Hugh: It’s hard There are benefits and liabilities to founding any kind of organization. I am a founder and president of SynerVision Leadership Foundation. I have known people who are founders where it’s all about them and they can’t let go of it. They can’t replicate it, and no one else can run it. Now does that play into what you’re teaching?
Ryan: I think that’s a very good point. A lot of people think that being a founder and being an entrepreneur is and should be a very ego-driven endeavor. There is some level of ego as part of it for sure. You have to believe, and you have to have some conviction and confidence that you can solve a problem in a way that customers will value. You have to believe you are capable of delivering value to people. if it becomes about you, and if you’re not operating in the best interest of your customers or your team and the product and the company, and if you don’t put a set of stakeholders above your own interest and above yourself, then it probably won’t work out the way that you want it to.
It turns out that entrepreneurship is not an ego-driven endeavor to success. It is really more of an empathetic servant path to success because if you operate in your own best interests, then you are not going to be received by others in the way that you want to be received for your company to grow and be successful. That is a hard thing for people to wrap their heads around.
Being a founder in the start-ups we all hear about from the Facebooks to the Amazons to the Microsofts and on down the list, the people who get all the press and the notoriety are the founders. They take big risks. It’s warranted in some cases. But that’s not why those companies became successful. Bill Gates and other founders in that circle solved a problem in a way that a lot of people cared about, valued, and would pay for. Through his work with his foundation, he is showing the wealth he accumulated, he is distributing a lot of it. There is an ego-centric perspective around being a founder and entrepreneur that is off base and won’t serve people well if they are ego-driven. They probably won’t have the outcomes they want personally or professionally.
Hugh: That’s good advice. It boils down to leadership. Nothing happens without the right leadership. I’ve worked with a lot of start-ups over the past 32 years. Just because someone has a great idea, skill, product, or service- We are talking to social entrepreneurs who are leading cause-based charities, membership organizations, ministries. But they are doing something that is really critical for people’s lives. They have the idea, the methodology for the discipline of what they are doing. They are content specialists. Just because you study theology doesn’t mean you can run a church. Because you have a great product doesn’t mean you can build a service around it. There is a big gap in the ability to lead this.
We are innovators. We are curators. We are social entrepreneurs. What you’re saying is aligning with what we teach here: embrace good, sound business principles. You’re actually running a tax-exempt business. I remember when I was young reading about J.C. Penney being ousted from his own board of the company he founded. On the other hand, I have a friend who lives here in Lynchburg, Virginia who founded a worldwide charity that feeds people. it was called Stop Hunger Now when it was founded, but now it’s rebranded as Rise Against Hunger. They are all over the world. He goes in for special presentations to donors or programs. But it’s been replicated and run by people who have the ability to run it. He had the vision, launched it, and grew it to be a substantial organization. To his credit, he was able to create a succession plan so it will exist long after he’s gone. I don’t think many founders know how to do that.
Ryan: I agree with you. Whether you’re talking about starting a for-profit company that intends to scale rapidly and become a big enterprise or a social enterprise or a nonprofit, I don’t think that the founder journey and principles are all that different. It is incredibly hard to create something that doesn’t exist and make it viable and sustainable. Are there different challenges to making something super scalable and large versus something that remains small and a small business? Of course. But getting it off the ground, there are lots of similarities.
One of the challenges that many founders face is you have to quickly shift from being a founder to expecting that you’re a good operator of yourself. You can shift from, “I’m the one who had this idea or discovered the problem. I’m the one who took the risk to start the company. I’m the one who put capital into it.” All of those were personal choices and decisions that nobody forced you to make. You don’t get a medal or a badge of honor for taking those risks. You have to quickly migrate from that perspective and mentality of patting yourself on the back to being a good operator of the business. The best founders quickly become good operators and businesspeople. The worst founders never get out of that space of thinking they are the cat’s meow or a special snowflake for being a founder. There is no glory in that. The glory is in becoming a good operator and solving a problem that people value and hiring people who can now apply their craft inside this wrapper that we call a company. Many founders don’t ever make the transition from being a founder to a good operator. That’s what you’re talking about, right?
There are complications when you bring on investors into a business. Sometimes that means that founders end up not even operating companies that they started because they get diluted over time. Their say and impact and input gets diluted over time. They may have a smaller voice on the board. Another reason founders often get unplugged from the companies they founded is not just money and strategy things but because they don’t make this transition to being a good operator. There is a point where a founder has to realize if they are able to make the transition into being a good operator, or if they are more of a catalyst and identifier of a problem and can build an initial promise to solve that problem, but they are not the ones to run an ongoing enterprise around it. That is a very conscious decision that a founder and a founding team has to make. If they don’t make it, the board or investors might make that choice for them if the board doesn’t think they can evolve or aren’t evolving to being a good operator.
Hugh: The parallel in a nonprofit is we don’t have people who dilute our shares because there are no other shares. But there are investors who invest by donating with their time, talent, and money. The same dynamic can happen. If you aren’t competent, they will ask you to leave. Many founders can and do become a detriment to the organization. That happens in arts groups often. Someone who is competent in a performance art starts a nonprofit, but they are not competent in both directing music or a play and running the organization. I encourage a lot of people who found organizations to have an operations person because you can still be the visionary for this project that you started, but you really need someone who has the boots on the ground, tactical sense. The visionary skills and the tactical skills don’t always reside in the same person. What do you think about that?
Ryan: I totally agree. That is why most investors in start-ups don’t invest in single-founder start-ups anymore. They invest in founding teams because they know it takes more than one person to pull off something of consequence that will have long-term sustainability. Nonprofits are not that different from start-ups, especially new ones, because you have to go out and raise money. The money and funds come through different vehicles. They come through grants or foundations or corporate philanthropic operations. The act of fundraising for a nonprofit and the act of a start-up raising investment capital are not that distant because it really is about storytelling. Can you create a new reality in the head of the funder or investor that they can buy into because it’s believable and you connect the dots well? Can you establish who the antagonist and protagonist are, i.e. you and your product and your organization? Can you motivate them to action? The process of telling the story and getting good at it, being effective at it, is similar for founders of for-profit start-ups and people who are starting nonprofits.
Hugh: It’s identical in many ways. In your narrative about your book, there are a couple of things that got my attention. Founders have to run to the fire, not away from it. You have to face off these hard things. I see a lot of people wanting to start some sort of venture or enterprise. I would guess out of 100 people who have an idea, only three will do something about it. Only one will succeed. The statistics are pretty grim, and the challenges are pretty high. Funding an early-stage business is a hard sell. If you have a project, like if you want to feed hungry people, people don’t look around to see what else is there that you’re duplicating. Could you join another effort? And they don’t have that storytelling ability to talk about why we’re doing this and what the results of our work will be.
I guess entrepreneurs are all alike in a way that we have this fantasy brain, which is why we’re entrepreneurs, where we can envision the future. There is a big gap between what we envision and making it happen. It’s really getting our heads out of the clouds and developing the skillset so that you can run toward the fire. It’s still the same issues with people doing a start-up or a nonprofit because everyone can challenge you. People who have money have money because they have taken care to attract it. They’re not just going to hand it over to you if you don’t show up as competent. Scale doesn’t matter until a small number of people love what you’re doing. The early money is love money; they love you or your project, but you still have to show up, be sincere, look competent, or have a quantifiable plan in your pocket that you can share with them.
Ryan: By the very definition, being an entrepreneur is being a problem-solver. You are trying to solve a problem in a way that someone cares enough or values enough that they will pay for. You can have a commercially viable business solving that problem. It evolves to, as you talk about being a good operator and executing, an unending series of problems that every leader faces and every business faces and every organization faces, including nonprofits. We’re not really wired to, as I put it, run to the fire. The interpretation there is to run toward problems. We are wired for safety and security and protection and comfort.
If you’re going to be a successful entrepreneur and start a company or organization that is going to succeed and provide some impact and value to the constituents that you are serving, you have to be willing to develop the mindset that you will run toward problems, not shy away from them or run away from them. Too many people are not wired that way or trained that way. If you think about the hierarchy and nature and nurture, our parents protect us from problems. We try to create environments and lives for ourselves that are high on comfort and low on discomfort, which often mean we are not that skilled and adept at problem-solving. When a problem appears, confronting it head-on. If you are going to start a successful company or organization, you better be wired and develop the muscle and discipline to confront problems head-on, not think they will go away or that somehow someone else is going to come save the day and solve the problem for you.
Hugh: That’s worse with clergy and nonprofit leaders. We have this fantasy world that we are doing something worthy and people will put money in our pocket, and everyone will be happy. As a profession, clergy avoid conflict primarily, which makes it escalate. We are not given the skillset to say, “Approach the conflict. Move toward it calmly and openly. Speak to the facts. Engage people.” We have inherited some broken systems and been taught leadership wrong in the nonprofit sector because we have function at a low level. I used to have a lot of clients early on who were in crisis, and I would do crisis intervention or conflict management. You never saw that conflict is really energy. We have to learn to move toward it. We’re doing something that people don’t understand on the level that we do because it’s our baby, it’s our concept. Part of this is sticking with it. How many people give up? The story out of Think and Grow Rich of the guy who got the gold mine, gave up, sold it to a new guy who bought it, dug three feet further, and had the motherload. People give up just before they will succeed. That is a factor, too, the ability to stay with it.
Ryan: Part of confronting problems head-on. I don’t advise anyone to seek out a fight or seek out confrontation. I also don’t think that you can avoid confrontation. We often view confrontation as negative and somehow bad. We’re a bad person if we stand our ground or make our case. If you are well-intentioned, and if you believe in what you’re trying to accomplish, then you should fight for it. Being willing to fight for something and dealing with the problems associated with it, I don’t view as negative in any way. You’re acting responsibly to the mission and the objective and to your stakeholders. We’ve developed a negative connotation around confrontation that is unwarranted and doesn’t serve many people well who are trying to bring new things to bear because you are going to break some eggs through the process of making an omelet. There will be some people you won’t make happy during the process. There are some people who view you as competition. They will get a smaller slice of the pie now that you have access to the pie. That’s also healthy because in the end it makes everyone better and helps everyone improve.
There is a really delicate balance between being a nice person and a good person and being a person who is effective in a professional business context. At the product firm I am now a principal in, we had a situation where I had to jump in to help solve this problem. One of my partners, I have two, said to me, “You’re really good at not shying away from things, but also going into things very even-keeled and measured.” My comment to him was, “I’m never looking for a fight, but if you bring a fight to my door, I will sure be ready to fight.”
In my experience with nonprofits, sometimes nonprofits shy away from fighting for what they know is right and what they believe in and what will make their organization better and what will drive more impact and more outcomes. Nonprofits don’t have to equal, “We’re going to give in and not fight for what we believe in.” There needs to be more—aggression may be too strong—fight in some nonprofits.
Hugh: Assertive would be a little less than aggressive. I used to talk to potential clients about wanting to come in and talk about team execution. They got really excited because they thought we were going to get to shoot people.
Ryan: That’s a good one. I might steal that.
Hugh: I just made it up. I went from being a consultant to being an insultant to now being a resultant. Technically, to support your point, confront is with your front. It’s neither positive nor negative. It’s showing up in an engaging manner. Part of a leader is you have to do other things people aren’t willing to do. There will be conflict; it’s a sign of energy. Part of it we set up ourselves because we are not clear on our story, our vision, or defining outcomes.
Ryan: I can guarantee you that if you don’t run to the fire and you don’t confront problems head-on, those fires that start out as little embers will become infernos. Then you will have a conflict and confrontation that could have been much easier to deal with than if you had just run to the problem initially.
Hugh: It goes nuclear. When people get divorced over little things because they didn’t fix the precipice of that moment. You also say a lot of this is counterintuitive. What do you mean by that?
Ryan: It’s sort of like golf. It doesn’t make any sense to hit the ball down for it to go up. That’s one reason why golf is so challenging. It’s both physically and mentally counterintuitive. Being a founder is much of the same. When you think about the process of starting something and creating something, we think that the way it appears on the surface is the way that it is. The reason that the best golfers in the world are the best golfers in the world is because they have figured out and developed skill, knowledge, and expertise around the counterintuitive nature of golf that allows them to be the best in the world. Otherwise, anyone could go pick up a golf club and compete with them at their level.
One thing I think is counterintuitive around creating a new company is we often go seek validation for the problem that we’re trying to solve and our solution to the problem in a positive light. We will ask potential customers and users, or in the nonprofit space potential people they are trying to serve or funders, for validation in a positive connotation. We ask them things like, “What do you like about it? How will you value this? How important will this be to you? How will this change your life?” No one wants to give negative feedback to someone who is trying to create something new. We get a lot of false positives as part of that initial validation.
The way we should be framing that initial validation, and it should happen throughout, but it’s mostly centered at the beginning, is, “Tell me what you don’t like about what we’re doing. Tell me about why you wouldn’t use it. Tell me why you wouldn’t fund it. Tell me how this wouldn’t add any value for you. Tell me why this doesn’t matter to you. Tell me why we should stop working on this.” If you frame your early validation in the negative and allow people to be transparent, authentic, and honest with you, they will give you the legitimate responses you are looking for. You might not like them initially, but you can base decisions upon those real responses versus the false positives you get if you frame the validation just in the positive. Does that make sense?
Hugh: When you launch, you’re not asking your spouse or your mother.
Ryan: Correct. You should be asking people who are independent of whether it succeeds or not.
Hugh: I will ask some of our viewers to weigh in with some comments and questions if that is okay with you.
Hugh: But first, anyone has an idea, so anyone can be a founder, right?
Ryan: Yep, anyone can label themselves as a founder. Anyone can change their LinkedIn headline to say they are a founder. That part of it is completely irrelevant.
Hugh: You also say in your narrative that not everyone should be a founder.
Ryan: Yeah, most people shouldn’t. As you referenced some stats about the number of people who should actually do something, this isn’t scientific, this is just my Kentucky windage. Something like less than 2% of the population should be entrepreneurs and founders. It’s mostly because people think it’s different than what it is. They think it will be easier than what it is. They are not wired to do it and to handle the realities of what it is. Most people shouldn’t do it. To some degree, we do a disservice to people talking about how anybody can be an entrepreneur and everyone should be. That’s like saying everyone should be a firefighter or a heart surgeon. It doesn’t mean that everyone should be one. I don’t think that just because anyone can call themselves a founder or entrepreneur that they necessarily have the makeup, the potential, the skills to do it effectively and well.
Hugh: *Sponsored by SynerVision Leadership Foundation’s Community*
Bob Hopkins, do you have a comment or a question for our guest today?
Bob Hopkins: Yeah, thank you very much. Ryan, what is the name of your book?
Ryan: It’s called The Founder’s Manual.
Bob: That’s pretty easy. Where do you find it?
Ryan: It’s on Amazon and the publisher’s site. If you go to TheFoundersManual.com, there are links out there.
Bob: I founded a magazine at one time, and I wish I had read your book first and maybe had some other courses. I flew by the seat of my pants. I was told by many though that it’s a good thing I didn’t know anything. I broke all the rules, and it seemed to work. I don’t know if you have any relationship about that or not. Sometimes you get overeducated about the topic and get scared to try new things because you are told to stay within this box. You shouldn’t be a founder unless you do this, this, and this. Those people who find things and are successful at them don’t have any information whatsoever; they just go with their intuition as you mentioned. Can you comment on knowing what you’re doing as opposed to not?
Ryan: It’s a mix of that is the best recipe. As there is with any topic now, there is lots of content around being a founder and starting companies. Some of it is good, and some of it is not so good. It can be confusing to people. One thing we are challenged with right now is trying to figure out how to educate entrepreneurs and train people to be entrepreneurs. There are entrepreneurship majors at colleges and universities. There are accelerators trying to take these very early-stage companies and have them come out more mature with higher potential. I don’t know that any of that is going to prove very worthwhile and effective because I still think that entrepreneurship is still a very individual, even if it’s a team of two or three people starting an endeavor, effort of a very small group of people that remain very intentional and disciplined through the process who just keep figuring it out.
A friend of mine who started a company, he is famous for saying, “Every day, I want to fall in the right direction.” That sums it up. If you can generally fall in the right direction every day, you are making positive progress, even if you don’t necessarily know what the finish line is or what you’re doing through the process. It’s a balance there. I do think there are some things people should be aware of that will help them make the process and the journey easier and have it be less volatile and certainly less thrashing through the process. But I do think ultimately this comes down to a very small team of people saying, “My goodness, we will find a way to figure this out, and it will be ugly along the way. We will get more wrong than we get right, but we just won’t give up.”
Hugh: That’s a good synopsis. There is a balance between “Yes, we’re going to be the champion for our vision. We will be relentless in making sure it’s fully implemented.” However, we don’t turn our eyes or our ears off. We have surrounded ourselves with capable people. We want to be able to listen, but we don’t give up our authority level in making decisions. If we surround ourselves with the right people, that is the trick. The old saying is if you’re the smartest person on your team, you need a new team.
Ryan: Start-up teams, and this is probably true for nonprofits as well, look very much like, and I don’t like the war/violence connotation but it’s the clearest one to connect the dots, a team of Navy SEALs. Highly capable, expertise off the charts. One thing in a team of Navy SEALs that is amazing is leadership switches based upon the context of the situation and the problem at hand. The communication expert on the Navy SEAL team is going to take the lead at a different point than the munitions expert. They switch out leadership based upon the demands of the situation and a moment at time. That is power. That means everybody is in it together, everyone has checked their ego at the door. That means the mission matters more than any other individual’s role and the role they play. Start-up teams and teams of any construct that have that mentality and are made up of people with that level of skill are really hard to beat in the end.
Hugh: That’s a critical area. I write about transformational leadership, which you just described. It was defined by two authors in the ‘80s, and the military was one of the models. You don’t micro-manage people in combat. It’s a highly trained skilled team. I use the analogy of an orchestra. You try to fix things in rehearsal. Sometimes, unexpected things happen. You have created this culture that is about the music, not the conductor or the performers. It’s about the mission. You have a tactical mission. You have an objective. That’s a good business model. Having a clear vision for where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, plus having an alignment with your people, and you have to have the fortitude to follow through with it because it won’t be like what you expect.
We have this fantasy of people who are successful who just popped up as such. I have never seen that happen. I remember seeing Van Cliburn, one of the early performers who became nationally noted for piano. I said, “He makes it look easy.” My piano teacher said, “That’s because he rehearsed a lot. He’s mastered it. If it looked hard, he wasn’t prepared.” It’s exactly about what you’re talking about: getting the core team and developing that skillset to lead that team.
Ryan: For sure. The New England Patriots are a great story. No one would say, outside of maybe Tom Brady the quarterback, that they had the best skill. There were teams with much greater skill, better players across the board than the Patriots. But no one was as disciplined or prepares to the level that they prepare. Skill is certainly a component, but if you have innate skill and are less prepared, you probably won’t be as competitive. I think there are lots of lessons to be learned in looking at successes in other disciplines and areas from our own. What lessons and principles are they applying to be an effective Navy SEAL team or an NFL team? Looking at those fundamental principles and abstracting those and applying those to what we’re trying to do.
Those principles are where the real meaning and meat is. It’s those principles that allow those organizations to perform at a very high level. The organizations that don’t perform at a high level either are unaware of the principles, or they don’t act in accordance with the principles. That then comes back to discipline. Discipline is an underappreciated attribute and quality in people and in organizations. The universe honors discipline. It has to because discipline calls on you to do what you know needs to be done when it needs to be done, irrespective of how you feel about the task or the issue or the problem. If you don’t, the universe sees that you’re undisciplined. It will punish you in respect to that. Most people are undisciplined, and most organizations therefore are undisciplined.
There is an easy way to know this. When I give this talk at conferences, one thing I do is poll the audience and say, “Does everyone agree that the two fundamental things to be relatively healthy and fit are you eat relatively good food in reasonable proportions and you get a reasonable amount of strenuous exercise?” The audience says, “Yes.” I then say, “Okay. How many of you here are as healthy as you want to be?” 1% of people stand up. There is typically a triathlete in the room. That means that on some very basic, important thing to us as humans, we know what the fundamental two principles are, yet we are undisciplined on the execution of those fundamentals, even though it is incredibly important to our lives to be relatively fit and healthy. It is impossible to accomplish anything meaningful if your team is undisciplined or if your leader and organization are undisciplined as a whole.
Hugh: That is so wise. You look at the best musical ensembles in the world, and they rehearse for every performance. They are extremely disciplined. Drama groups. Sports teams. There is a consistency throughout any kind of performance art. You have to be disciplined.
Ryan: Hugh, let me ask you this. If we know that’s true in sports and in performing arts and in the military, then why do we not expect and hold ourselves to the same standard in business?
Hugh: Because we have been taught leadership wrong. The boss, which is double SOB backwards, we bark at people to tell them what to do rather than building the energy around what our leadership is. You refer to this in different words. What they see is what you get. The culture is a reflection of your leadership. The orchestra will play badly if I conduct badly, if we don’t rehearse, if we’re not disciplined. We have not learned leadership correctly. We have inherited broken systems.
Especially when people hear the word “nonprofit,” they put on the stupid hat. We scale back and think scarcity when we really should be thinking abundance. The word “nonprofit” is a lie. It’s a tax-exempt business that has a lot of rules to comply with the IRS, which is good. We must learn the rules, but we also need to learn the rules of engagement. You highlighted something that is fundamental to our teaching. If people do plan, they need to start with core values. These become useless as static words until you take them and put them into implementable guiding principles. For you to hammer so hard on principles made me so happy. That is the anchor that defines your culture and your standard of excellence. That is a missing link in a lot of organizations. Would you agree?
Ryan: For sure. If you don’t have some guiding principles, and if you’re not intentional about those principles, then you don’t know what to be disciplined around. It all has to work in concert. If people don’t value, for instance, I’ll stick to the fit and healthy narrative. If you don’t value being fit and healthy, then all talk about diets and eating well and exercising is really hollow and shallow because you don’t actually care about being fit and healthy. You won’t act in a disciplined way because you don’t actually value it or think that it’s that important. Even though you might say it, you don’t believe it down deep. That’s where intention and discipline are inexorably linked. To be disciplined, you have to know what you value and what you intend to have as an outcome. Then you can be disciplined around that intention. Most people are not intentional; therefore, they’re not disciplined.
Hugh: You’re so right. Sheikh Amed, do you have a question?
Sheikh Ahmed: If you don’t mind. Thank you very much for your presentation. You’ve encapsulated a lot of 40 years of my experience as a “founder” of four organizations. I truly appreciate everything you’ve said and your contributions to that, Hugh. There are a couple of thoughts that go through my mind if I can take a minute.
Let me explain what we do at Legacy International. We work all over the world, mostly on grants from the United States Department of State and some philanthropies, but we also have an initiative called Global Transformation Core, which is similar to what Hugh is doing but working with young entrepreneurs and start-ups. I’m finding all of the things that you’ve said are absolutely true and very important for people to understand from the point of view that a founder does not necessarily have the tactical knowledge. I used to be what I call a hands-off manager. I realized the truth was more all-hands managing. I have been blessed with a really good team of people for 40 years. Millennials have entered into work in the last 10 years. We have found a great deal of success all over the world.
A lot of people are training trainers and nonprofits. That’s great. It’s terrific. But I haven’t heard many people talk about access. For example, on your bio, you’re an angel investor. No one talks about how to access angel investors. It’s true. It’s the story. It’s how you tell your story. But how do you get access to tell that story? We have 40 years of success. That’s pretty good for a nonprofit and for a global organization like ours. I’ll stop there.
Ryan: There is a deeper issue here around awareness and access. Skills training is the great equalizer and democratizer. If you have a monetizable skill, then your socio-economic status is in trajectory that is going to be changed for a lifetime and maybe generationally.
I think one of the challenges that people have is how they get awareness and access to skills training to get a skill that can be monetized meaningfully. If you think about wanting to start a company or a nonprofit, how do you even have awareness of the right questions, and how do you get access to those people to ask them those questions and get investment from them? It comes back to being intentional.
Most of the people that contact me about investing or that contact other people about potentially investing, they spend very little time, if any time, actually looking at the kind of companies I have been involved in, what I’m involved in now, what I care about, and taking their narrative and having that story align with who I am. Or if there isn’t a fit at all, realizing there isn’t a fit and moving on. There is a complete lack of targeting by most start-ups looking for investment. Approaching the wrong people with the wrong message. Seeking investment and funding as a nonprofit is a sales endeavor just like any other sales endeavor. I wouldn’t call a prospect for a company of mine if I didn’t have some sense and haven’t done some legwork on what they might be interested in and what the profile of the company is, etc. By and large, most people reach out cold to investors and funders. They’re hoping that a lightning strike is going to happen versus doing some homework and creating a narrative and a story that resonates with that specific funder and investor.
One thing I see happening all the time with start-ups is they create a single pitch deck, story narrative, and story arc, and they use that over and over again with everybody that they talk to. They need to have that base story arc for sure, but then they need to modify it and align it with a particular investor. Otherwise, their pitch and story is genericized to a point of being ineffective for most of the people they tell the story to.
Hugh: Those are really good words. It’s like the art of war. We talked about the military. In the art of war, you know your enemy. You need to know your donor. Really, a donor is an investor. They’re investing not on ROI, but on ROL, return on life. They want to see positive impact and positive results. This is so helpful, Ryan. We thank you for your comments, folks. This hour went by very fast, like it always does. Ryan, do you have a last thought or challenge for our listeners today?
Ryan: Be as self-aware as you can possibly be. Understand what makes you tick. Understand why you make the decisions that you make. What gets you emotional? I think it’s impossible to be an effective leader, to solve a problem in a way that stakeholders care about if you don’t first understand yourself or know how to manage yourself or what makes you tick. That is a good place to start. I would say it’s a work in progress for all of us, but we can all be more self-aware. The more self-aware we are, the better leaders we are, and we are better able to solve problems for others and serve others.
Hugh: You can find his book The Founder’s Manual at TheFoundersManual.com. Ryan, thank you so much for being our guest today.
Ryan: Hugh, thank you so much for having me.