Jonah Midanik, the COO and Co-Founder of Forum Ventures shares his journey and experience recognizing that ‘what got you here won’t get you there. He has been lucky enough to have seen the startup journey from a variety of perspectives.
Jonah shares a crucial tip in this podcast's discussion. The tip for every founder or leader involves 3 key steps that Jonah walks us through in detail.
I really didn't have a clear idea of like, what an end game looked like, whether an end game was like, keep growing, whether an end game was, you know, sell to an agency, I just, I wasn't thinking in those terms, you know, seven or eight years in doing like, $5 million plus in revenue. You know, 1520 years ago, at age 25. It wasn't like, there's an end game, I was like, This is awesome. And that not a growth mindset.
Jonah Midanik has spent the last twenty years building companies in Canada and the US as a serial entrepreneur. He has been lucky enough to have seen the startup journey from a variety of perspectives: as a successful bootstrapped founder/CEO, having helped launch new corporate divisions at BigCo, and as the founder/CEO of Limelight, a Venture backed company. Jonah currently spends his time helping companies grow with Forum Ventures as the COO and General Partner.
Listen to the full episode to hear more from Jonah and his journey from experiential marketer to COO & Co-Founder of Forum Ventures!
COO & Co-Founder with Forum Ventures
Jonah Midanik has spent the last twenty years building companies in Canada and the US as a serial entrepreneur. He has been lucky enough to have seen the startup journey from a variety of perspectives: as a successful bootstrapped founder/CEO, having helped launch new corporate divisions at BigCo, and as the founder/CEO of Limelight, a Venture backed company. Jonah currently spends his time helping companies grow with Forum Ventures as the COO and General Partner. Jonah lives in Toronto with his wife and two children.
I really didn't have a clear idea of what an end game looked like, whether an end game was like keep growing, whether an end game was sell to an agency, I wasn't thinking in those terms seven or eight years in doing like $5 million plus in revenue 15, 20 years ago. At age 25, I wasn't like there's an end game. I was like, this is awesome. And that is not a growth mindset.
Hello and welcome to the Unicorn Leadership Podcast. My name is Fahd Alhattab, your host, and on this podcast is where we interview leaders on their journey of building high performing teams on their journey of scaling companies. And we learn all the messy stories, all the trials and tribulations that they go through as they uncover the philosophy of their leadership. And our goal is to bring in these insights, these tools, these stories so that you can learn from them so that you don't make the same mistakes or maybe you already have and you're reflecting on it. This podcast is brought to you by Unicorn Labs where we help transform managers into leaders that create high performing teams at scale. And you can check it email@example.com. And today in episode 18, we have Jonah Midanik and he's going to share his journey and experience and growth mindset recognizing that what got you here won't get you there.
And I really liked that. I actually took some time here to unpack a bit more around understanding and explaining this growth mindset idea. It goes around a lot in entrepreneurship circles with different entrepreneurs and different folks, and I wanted to unpack a little bit of some of that groundbreaking research for the psychologist Carol Dweck, who wrote the book Mindset on this. So picture this, okay, we'll take you back. Carol Dweck in the late nineties. She's a young researcher at Stanford University. She's fascinated by the way people face challenges and she spent a lot of time in the educational system and she's seen a huge disparity on how students react to different obstacles, how some students fold when things get tough and some people flourish, some of these students flourish. And so she begs the old age question of why do some people succeed and others don't?
So her team and her the start and experiment, it's really fun experiment. They give kids puzzles to solve and some are easy and some are challenging. But here's the kicker. They praise half the kids for their intelligence. They go, wow, you must be really smart when they finish the puzzle and then the other half they go, wow, you must have worked really hard. It's interesting what happens as a result. The kids who are praised for their intelligence, when they hit the hard puzzles, they're more likely to give up. They were reluctant to take on challenging tasks fearing that the failure would make them look less intelligent. They dreaded fear of looking dumb. But the kids who were praised for effort, they had a completely different reaction when they were given the challenging puzzles. They believed that with enough hard work and determination, they themselves could get better at actually solving these puzzles.
It wasn't how smart they were, but how they thought of their own abilities. And that's the initial foundation and the form of Carol Dweck's growth mindset versus fixed mindset. So if you have a fixed mindset, you believe your abilities are set in stone. If you have a growth mindset, you believe that you can improve through effort and perseverance. But this is really interesting. This sounds sort of obvious when you first hear it, and actually it takes a certain amount of growth mindset to even realize that you have a fixed mindset. There's a little bit of irony with it because almost everyone sort of immediately pulls to, well, yeah, I have a growth mindset, I believe I can get better. But you believe you can get better at things that you're already good at. That doesn't really necessarily count. Most of us have a growth mindset on the things that are already our strengths.
What about the things that we're not really good at? So this is what's interesting for entrepreneurs because imagine you're launching a startup and you're going to face a number of setbacks and what you have to be and the skills you have to have to go from zero to a hundred k from a hundred K to your first million, from a million to 10 are different skill sets that need to be able to adapt. And if you are stuck in a fixed mindset, every time you face a new challenge, you are likely to fold. You are likely to say, I can't do this. This can be too difficult. I don't know how to do this. I'll have the skills. I dunno where I would get the skills. And instead of embracing some of those challenges, you either might try to hire that out or you might retreat.
And this is where Jonah really takes us through. He's going to be helping us really understand this and understand the journey that he's been on through building startups, through selling his company successfully, bootstrapping as a C E O, launching a new corporate division at big co founder of Limelight, a venture backed company. So he goes both through the bootstrapping as a C E O and a venture backed company as c e o and founder and takes us through those two journeys and what skills he had and the sort of growth mindset that he needed to be able to actually successfully go through them. Today he actually helps companies grow with Forum Ventures as the C E O and the C O O and the general partner. Let's hear another clip from Jonah.
You as a founder are going to make the most mistakes of anyone in your business, and that's okay, but none of them should be fatal. So always give yourself outs so when you're wrong, it needs to be something you can course correct and iterate on because you're going to be wrong all the time. I'm wrong constantly. I'm wrong more than anyone else that I work with, and that's okay because I know that
And being okay with being wrong all the time is going to unpack this growth mindset piece. See, one more part of the study that Carol Dweck and her research team does is really interesting. They give these same students, they give them a puzzle, they get them to solve the puzzle, and when they finished the puzzle, they ask the students, Hey, do you want a new puzzle that's a bit harder? Or do you want the same puzzle? And students who were showing signs of growth mindset all looked at the researchers and be like, why would I want the same puzzle? Give me the next one. Give me the harder one. While students with a more fixed mindset, were like, yeah, sure, I'll just do the same one because it felt safe and it felt like something they could do. So Jonah is going to share some crucial tips with us in this episode about this whole concept of what got you here won't get you there.
A tip for every founder and every leader that involves these three key steps. One, can you conduct an honest self-assessment asking yourself what are you struggling with? What does the company need from you right now? And where do I need to go Identifying the gaps in this stage. Then we're going to look at number two, which is we're going to approach our peers, our mentors, our founders, and ask what they think you're really good at and what you're not good at. And you're going to write all this down. You're going to do this sort of own 360 assessment for yourself. And then number three, review those notes and ask if you can do this or if you even want to get better. And if it's an absolute yes and there's areas for you to improve, then find those resources, get the help, and that will help you transform into the person that you need to become to lead the next stage of your company. So if you find this episode helpful, leave us a note on Twitter or x a now that we call it My handle is tab. You can find us on LinkedIn or any of our platforms. Leave us a review. And without further ado, here is our episode with Jonah Midanik.
Hello Jonah, and welcome to our Unicorn Leaders podcast. I'm excited to be able to record this episode here with you today. We had a lovely for you interview chat, and I know during that time we discussed a number of different themes, so thank you for joining us.
Great to be here.
Awesome. So as we always like to do, we're going to dive right into the meatiest of questions and you shared a number of insights for us. So I hope to get those insights out right away to our audience, to listens. The question that we're playing with is what sort of leader do you need to be? What sort of founder do you need to be? What sort of skills do you need to have order to be able to scale a company and deal with the challenges of scale as a leader?
Yeah, I think that's a great question and a hard one for all of us, or at least it was for me. I think the first part of that answer is you need to be authentically whoever you are with all the skills, vision, mission, purpose and flaws that you bring to the table. And then the second piece of that is to always remember as the company's growing, you need to be growing too. The you that got you to here is not going to be the you that got you to there. So a growing you is the short answer, but not always an easy one.
Yeah. I think that's a really good way of putting it. A growing you is the answer. It's not always an easy one. And to know what to grow and what skills to grow in the different contexts and the different challenges. So Jonah, you've grown a lot. You've had quite a journey yourself. And so maybe we'll take that question and we'll dive a little bit into how did you go about growing? How did you go about learning and how did you go about the difficult pieces of that because you've had opportunities to work and scale a company without raising money, bootstrapped it, and you've had opportunity to work and found a company that raised a ton of money. And today you sit as a lead investor, is that principal investor with over 300 plus portfolio companies that you help advise a mentor. So you've kind got a few different perspectives now on scaling. So let's start at the beginning. Who is Jonah? Jonah, where are you from? What's a little history? What's a little background? And let's take us to that first journey of trying to bootstrap a company.
So I started off always was interested in technology and went to school for engineering, but kind of realized pretty early on that I was not good at that. So finished my degree and I was like, all right, what do I do now? I have a degree that I'm not particularly skilled in and don't really like. And kind of fell backwards into an opportunity to help some companies that were really struggling with how to reach young people and didn't have the typical television channels available to them and thought, alright, there's an easier way to do this. And started an experiential marketing company for some pretty major entities and was running that for a decade and got up to a pretty real revenue number for the Home Depots and Sears and poker stars of the world and made a ton of mistakes.
So what did the company do? What's experiential marketing?
The idea of experiential marketing is that for most younger people, experiences matter most and they want to play with brands that deliver them an actual experience. So that could be finding people where they are. For a lot of our clients that meant meeting them at sporting events, it meant meeting them at music festivals, it meant meeting them at DJs, it meant meeting them everywhere that young people are out and about and showing them how the brand could authentically be part of their lives. And so we would help broker those deals with major sports leagues or music festivals or build experiences that were custom tailored to what the brand wanted to showcase.
Yeah, and mean. How did that start off? Tell me the kind, I guess, founding moment of that. I think that's a really, you kind of told me you noticed that they couldn't reach young people, but you're talking of pretty big deals here, right? So I'm assuming you started some smaller deals and then worked your way up to some of those bigger deals. Walk me through some of that.
Yeah, so I mean it was mostly dumb luck. And then of course we all apply our narrative at looking backwards, but at the time I was kind of lost and really young and trying to figure it out. And we had a friend who was in the poker business and he had this little company that he knew called Poker Stars, which at the time no one had heard of.
It basically boiled down to none of the big marketers would take their money like, oh, you've got a all Caribbean licensing regime. They wanted nothing to do with it. This is before the days of the World Series of Poker being on E S P N. And they said, Hey, we want to throw some parties at poker tournaments, you know how to run poker tournaments and throw parties. And so it really started as party planning, which then as I turned into the new me and grew and matured and made mistakes, I realized was actually experiential marketing. Although obviously it started out with me being like, I wonder if someone will pay me 500 bucks to throw a party on Friday.
That's it, isn't it? That's so funny. But that's really it, right? It's so simple initially, and you can extrapolate and see the larger market with it. So it started off as running some parties, some poker parties, and what was the next, the gig? What was the next kind of domino that fell
Well from there? They said, okay, well now we're doing stuff with the N H L and other sports leagues and we'd love to throw parties outside there. And so now I was interfacing with bigger businesses. Instead of calling a bar, I'd be calling US sports team and saying, Hey, can we do this? And then they're like, well, that would require a sponsorship. So I'd have to get smart about sponsorships. And now of course we were a sponsorship agency, which again, the me that didn't know anything about that 10 minutes ago had to morph into a me that was at least competent in that side of the business just to deliver this experience or frankly party. And it just kind of built from there.
And what was team building at a bootstrap company like that when you're still figuring out revenue, you're as a company asks you to do the next thing, you're like, yeah, I can do that. It's sort like, yeah, I do sponsorship, I do parties. Sure. What else is it I do? And of course, how did you go about, at first probably a little bit of a solo business or maybe with a partner and then you sort of start hiring or bringing people on because bootstrapping and building a team of that way looks much different than, and maybe some of the other experiences. So how was that about building a team and how was that in, how did you have to grow as a leader as you started bringing people on?
Yeah, so it started off you just pull people from your orbit because bootstrapped and you don't know if you're going to have money tomorrow. It's not like you raise around and then there's 2 million in the bank. There's like the 500 bucks you got from the party and then the $5,000 you get from the party, and then there's the 20 and you have to make it last. If you take a dollar, you can only spend 99 cents. I mean, that's just the way it goes. And so you'd pull people from your arbit, so you'd start throwing parties with people that knew how to throw parties, and then it was kind of all ad hoc and I didn't know what I was doing and I was a terrible leader. And all of a sudden you see that some people kind of stick and there's no mission, vision, values, we're going to be the, it's just like maybe there'll be an ex party, but at age 24, that's fine because running around with a bunch of 24 year olds at a bunch of parties and this is fun and no one's thinking about tomorrow really yet. And then of course the big inflection point was when I realized, oh, this could actually be a business. And so I went to my network and said, do you guys know anyone who knows anything about marketing? It actually turns out that what I'm doing is marketing.
Awesome. Awesome. I like that. So let's walk through the journey of that bootstrap business and it was called, what was it called?
Immersion Media, okay. Immersion media. And so walk me through I guess the three biggest mistakes you made throughout your journey at Immersion Media and whether it's leadership mistakes, whether it's business mistakes, I think they all kind of hand in hand decision mistakes, but let's look at that. Maybe there's a product market fit mistake. Maybe there's a leadership team mistake that we can unpack.
So three is it's going to be hard to pick my favorites because I made so many. But there was a fundamental mistake, which I would say I didn't really understand what our differentiation was, and I didn't really understand why people were using us. And by the time I did understand we didn't have that anymore. And so we weren't really able to build on it. It never really occurred to me that we were making decent money doing this because no one else was doing it. But all of a sudden Home Depot's agency was like, well wait, we could hire a guy that knows how to throw parties too, because we already have this client. And so it never really occurred to me that partnerships was the way to go. I was just like, yeah, we're just out here doing our thing and not aligning ourselves with the right partners.
Early on probably proved to be pretty bad down the line. Leadership mistakes. I'll just kind of amalgamate into a great category called I was young, had no idea what I was doing, I didn't really know who I was yet. And so there's just a lot of personal mistakes in tone. I would get mad when things wouldn't go right. I'd react emotionally to things, all that kind of stuff because I was so focused on the outcome. And then just not giving people clear context, not being a particularly good manager, all of it, all of the things that there are books written about. I had to learn on the fly from a young age. And also now I've never really, I haven't spent a lot of time with a boss. And so I was learning by doing and doing it poorly. And then the last one was I really didn't have a clear idea of what an end game looked like. Whether an end game was like keep growing, whether an end game was sell to an agency. I wasn't thinking in those terms seven or eight years in doing $5 million plus in revenue 15, 20 years ago at age 25, I wasn't like, there's an end game. I was like, this is awesome. And that is not a growth mindset.
This is awesome. I mean, that's exactly what a 25 world would think, right? Running a business with $5 million and doing parties. But that's exactly it. I want to hone in on the piece you said, I didn't know who I was. I find that really powerful kind of piece. Often when we're working with a lot of young founders or teams, they don't know who they are and they have this idea, they have this brilliant technology, they have some that they've put together. And in your opinion, the impact of a leadership team not knowing who they are in the overall state of the business, right? In the overall growing of a business. And when you start to see product market fit and you start to customers knocking on your door and there's this growing pains, what happens to a leadership team who doesn't know who they are in moments of growing pains?
I think it's really hard to stay together and keep the team, it's possible to still achieve your goal, but it's really hard if you don't know why you're there as a person or why you guys are there together. It's just really, really hard to work through. Moments of hardship and conflict and hardship and conflict are inevitable when doing something challenging, which by definition, building a big business or frankly building any business or founding anything. I mean founders out there, you guys are doing the hardest thing there is. So it's hard. And so when conflict hits, if you don't know your why, and I know for me at age 25 in hindsight, I was kind of throwing parties. I was scared and didn't know what else to do, and I wanted to evade any real responsibility. I wouldn't have had the maturity to know that at the time. But if you don't know why you're there are, do you want to be on the cover of Forbes? Do you really believe in? And any why is, well, sorry, most why's are fine, some whys just work on, but knowing why you're doing it will and all being honest with yourselves and each other and working around that is the only way to really lead from a place of authenticity and purpose in my view.
And do you have any tools or exercises or ways that you would recommend to founders who might listen to this and say, okay, yeah, I kind of know who I am, I kind of know why I'm doing this, but maybe there's room for me to improve?
Yeah, so I mean the hardest part is being honest with yourself. Being a human is hard. Being a founder is even harder because whatever flaws you have, it's going to find it. And so I am a big fan of getting full feedback from those around me. Doesn't mean I like what I hear all the time. It's like, oh, that's true and I don't take that. But finding that out from those around you and being really honest with yourself because it's very easy to get caught up in the, like, we're going to change the world. Which, yes, but that may or not that might be true. It might be why you're doing it. It might also not. It could just be that you've always wanted a plane and sure, not my jam, but that's sist. You just know that. So yeah, it really starts with the hard work of allowing yourself to be honest with yourself and those around you, which is easier said than done.
Yeah. It is funny. I often will joke with a lot of founders, I say, I bet you've maybe taking the time to build values and a mission or vision for your organization, but I bet you've never considered your own personal values. I bet you've never sat down and done the exercise for your own life. And at the end of the day, those personal values are the ones that are going to show up in your leadership practice more than perhaps the values that you have stated now for your company. So really making sure that they, especially if you have a big, you have a co-founder team in those early days, it's your personal principles and values that really drive. So you must have also done some really good stuff too. I think often we ask about the mistakes, but I think we can learn just as much from our wins. I think we learn more from our mistakes. We're willing to dissect our mistakes, but if we dissect our wins, we actually could learn just as much if not more from them. You did some good stuff with immersion marketing, and so what were some of the really good decisions and pieces that actually did work out for you?
So I'm actually proud to say that we actually delivered value for our customers and that most if not all of the young people who worked with us, even when we were young and didn't know what we were doing, but because we were chaotic and delivering real things for big name brands and were actually cared about delivering value for our customers and acting with integrity that they all learned a lot, maybe not in the best way, maybe a long list of like, I'm never doing that again, but it still counts as learning. And most if not all of them went on to really good jobs coming out of there because they went into the pressure cooker of just a mad house. And as hectic and chaotic, really managed as it was, we actually didn't care about our staff even if it wasn't always properly executed. And I actually think that my learning there is that if you only do two things, which is build something people want to buy and get value from and build a place that people love working at, then you'll probably be okay.
I like that. I like that if you build a place that people actually want to work at. Well, let's unpack that one, Jonah, because as you finished with the words of you into your next place, and how did you apply those lessons? I think that's the lesson, and that's the question I think a lot of this podcast is about. We often are interviewing startup founders, investors, different people that are working on building these unicorn companies. And we're constantly asking, well, we're obsessed with product market fit, but can we obsess with talent, culture fits? Can we obsess with building places of work where people actually want to work at? So maybe we'll hold onto that theme as we go to our next phases of your life. So out of university, built this, had a ton of fun with it. What happened to it? Did you sell it? Did you close up shop was the result?
Yeah, we sold it for not nearly as much as we would've thought. It was like we can go to Europe for a summer but then get a job kind of deal. But you still sold it, you still had an exit. Sure, yeah. An exit on LinkedIn, it says acquired,
But at the end of the day, you ran a business, you had a job, you gave yourself a job, you learned a lot through it, sold, had a little bonus at the end and then needed to figure out what was next for you.
Yeah, I needed to figure out what was next. And what I realized was, so I took a couple stints working for people that I really respected who and learned from a couple of great entrepreneurs one year stints, one which we raised a ton of money, and the other at which I was able to launch something for the Ultimate Fighting Championship and learn from some of the great entrepreneurs that built that business. And that was business school where I got paid and got to do some really interesting things from some really interesting people and learned a lot. And after my kind of paid M B A, I'll call it, I decided I was ready and able to start a more meaningful business.
And what was that?
So I took my learnings from this marketing experience and took my learnings from Virgin and the Ultimate Fighting Championship or the two places I worked who were really big into experiences, which has kind of been guiding the tying thread through my 20 plus year career and realized they weren't able to measure any of these experiences either. And they were Virgin, the ultimate fighting chamber, two of the biggest experienced brands on the planet, and they had no idea how to measure any of this stuff. And I realized that all of this type of marketing that I used to do was now under threat from the Facebooks and Googles because I'd sit in the U F C offices, I had a senior role at Ultimate Gaming, which is their gaming arm, and we'd have Facebook and Google walk in with all these spreadsheets and all the agency folks were like, well, everyone had a good time.
And I was like, you're not going to be able to beat the data guys unless you have a data play. And so I was like, what if I added data to what I used to do and built a software platform that we could sell to everyone doing this because they don't have any data, they're not able to tie back who's buying any of this stuff. And the brands were just clamoring for data and databases and attribution. And so I thought my next act after having watched people raise a bunch of venture was to go the venture rep.
Awesome. That's really cool. And so before we get into that next step, raising the venture, what were the leadership lessons of your time at U F C and with the Virgin Group?
So the biggest thing I saw was they tried to hire the best. They had clear alignment around what their differentiation was before they started and really were hiring people, the right people in the right chairs was an obsession. And that was a big one. When you're coming up bootstrapped a, you don't have that capability and you just don't have that knowledge. I had no idea what that really meant. And coming from glorified party planning in Toronto, Canada to watching what a company with 240,000 people or the biggest employer in the state of Nevada, which is what the parent company of the UFC is, seeing what talent looked like at a global scale is just a big eyeopener.
Hiring the best. That's common. It's a bit of a saying, hire people better than you. How does the founder do that? What gets them into a trap of not hiring people better than them? Because often people aren't aware they're doing that. I find they're not aware yet that they're not hiring people better than them. What do you think gets you into that trap and then how it's kind of easy to say, yeah, hire people better, you hire the people the best, but they're putting the job postings out, they're interviewing people, they're trying to find someone that fits without getting into specific tactics, what are some of the kind of thoughts that you have to share about what it means to kind of assemble a team and hire the best?
So one of the things I see a lot of first time founders doing it originally, and it's okay to do some of this, is they start hiring a lot within network. And fundamentally, so let's pretend your network is big and it's 5,000 people, a really big network. So there's 200 million working age people in North America. So of those you think that somehow your network of 5,000 is definitionally, it's statistically impossible for a number of roles that that's true. But you see that again and again and again and again. It's okay at early stage to have a couple of those. And then there's a lot of hiring people that are aligned with your way of thinking, which is really comfortable
Is sometimes helpful, but attracts. But what I've found is actually what ends up being people better than you, it's not better than you. What does that mean? My partners at our fund are much better than me in demonstrable ways. I'm much better than them in demonstrable ways. That's what makes us good partners. And so it's the old it's you, so you need to be honest with yourself. What are you good at? What are your actual skills? What skills of yours are world-class? Most of us, if we're lucky, have one or two of them.
The rest of 'em, like you're not great at that. You're okay at that, and that's okay, but that's the growth. Growth isn't learning to be awesome at all of them. The growth is saying, I'm actually not the best product person. I understand the problem amazingly well, but actually suck at product. And so going outside your network, being really honest about what you are and are good or not good at, not just going for attracts, and then there's a bunch of the whole, if they're in a leadership role, would I work for this person? And if the answer is no, then they're probably not better than you.
Yeah, I like that. There's two takeaways I took from there. That one, you have to really know what you're world class at. If you don't know what you're world class at, then it's kind of difficult to recognize that in other people and see where you're just, okay. And then I like that. Would you work for them? Would you let them be your boss? If they're in a leadership position? And that's a good gut check because often founders don't want people as their bosses. So if they're like, whoa, no, I would never have this person, my boss. Okay, well, are you going to put them in charge of other
People? Yeah. Then why would you let anyone else on your
Their boss? So for your leadership, obviously you junior manager of X, yes, they're not going to be your boss if you're running a $500 million company, but everyone who's sitting around your executive team making big decisions with you, everyone you trust to call and say, Hey, I need some advice. Those need to be people that if the situations are reversed, you would potentially, and obviously it would be a unique situation say, but something that you could imagine working for and being okay with that. That's my test for all this stuff.
And so where was your head at? What was your leadership growth in those moments? Right before starting the next venture, you got paid to do an M B A, essentially work with some world-class talent. And I'm sure it was extremely humbling when you enter those really big brands and you realize, okay, I thought I was big shot running this over here, but now I'm just a cog in the machine with people way smarter than me and know way more what to do and have actually sold businesses that actually made money and so forth
For billions of dollars. Yeah, it's like you're in the big reads now.
And I think that moment of humbling, I say, there's no way to teach it. There's no way to read about it. It's a slow death of the ego that allows a person to actually finally lead effectively. And that slowly happens with age. It slowly happens with experiences. But where were you on that journey and personal, starting to learn more about yourself, starting to know about what you want? Where were you personally?
I was definitely much better than knowing that I needed help, but in hindsight, again now I was scared and that's also not a great place to be. So my leadership was more effective in the sense that I was a better boss, I was more supportive of people. I was definitely more understanding. But that scaredness that I had, and again, you wouldn't have seen it externally. I think externally people would've described me as confident, which I instead, what manifests itself was it was actually too easy a place to work, which a lot of us do. I'd overcorrected in the opposite direction, which is a very human thing to do. So I was trying to hire the best, but we were letting a lot of things slide so we weren't keeping we and we're not allowing for a culture of accountability and excellence.
That's really interesting. We slide to the other side of the pendulum, it we're overcorrecting. So you enter and you begin this next venture, you go the venture capital route. What does that journey look like? Let's start that story off for us.
Yeah. I really didn't know how to start. And so I actually went and found my now current fund that I am a partner at forum, and they gave me my first ever check, and I flew down to San Francisco for five months to learn stuff because I was very aware after my two years with these big companies and great entrepreneurs that just didn't know what I was doing. I didn't know how to build a software platform and sell it. So I was like, all right, we're going to go learn. And so I went and was given the opportunity to sit with people that had done this before and really learn what they knew or at least a portion of what they knew. And that was really great. The other big one is part of this growth mindset that got you to there isn't going to get you to here is admitting where you need to learn. And so much of what's going to define how well you do is your own personal learning curve.
So what did you do to learn? So mentors, courses, accelerators, what was the learning path? Kind of threw yourself into the deep end a little bit. What was that learning path? I like how you've honed in on this growth mindset and something that we've talked about in previous episodes. And I think it's non-negotiable for founders, right? It is a non-negotiable fact that they need to continue learning. But what did you do to learn after you got that first check to get you to a place where you could build?
So yeah, I was lucky that forum had an accelerator, which is great, and I went through that and it was just a ton of amazing people who are frankly legends in their field. So when I wanted to go to learn about customer success, like Nick Metta came to speak to me who invented the category, and I had a product questions with the head of product and Yammer spent an afternoon with me being like, you're road road mapping wrong. I'm like, okay. So that part was really truly incredible. And then there's the cliched saying of get out of the building and talk to customers. Doing a whole bunch of that and just not being afraid of learning from real world feedback. Things need to get better and aggressively seeking that out was and is I think a crucial thing that a lot of founders don't want to do because comfortable, if you're a good engineer, just build the next feature. If you're a great product person, go do X. If you're a salesperson, you're just going to make sales calls, but maybe that's not what is required. So learning what was required is the really hard one.
I love it. I love that you learn from the accelerators, you learn right from the people. And I think that's, that's so much of it. I think we can learn from books, we can learn from some online YouTube videos, but I think it's either having the mentors, having the coaches, having people who've gone through it to actually sit there and say, you're road roadmapping wrong. You're leading wrong. You're building this. Here's how we do. It's how you could do it. Here's something to think about. Here's a question for you to consider that you haven't considered. So I really, really like that. So what were some of the big moments there? Walk us through the journey of this. This one is called this next
Limelight. So to walk us through the journey of limelight and then we'll take pauses at maybe some of the mistakes that come with raising that sort of money. This seems to be a theme that we're perhaps in right now for the last year or two with majority of startups and maybe the last decade realistically, of startups who ran after growth at all costs and raised money because whether it was fed by venture capital firms who were throwing money at startups and founders making these ridiculous promises or something happened that has had to market correct over the last couple of years and we're seeing it. But I think you probably felt you probably were very well aware of it having gone through it personally, and now we just saw it happen at maybe a market scale. So walk me through Limelight.
Yeah, so I mean we had this thought, this thesis, I had this thesis like, Hey, these companies want data. And we talked to these companies like, yes, data would be awesome. And we started selling and it was really hard, but eventually we kind of cracked the nut a little bit and were able to land huge logos with North America ideals like B M W and in big R F P processes for hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. And you remember sitting there with your team being like, yeah, we won. I can't believe they actually gave it to us because looking around and there's like 11 of you and it's insane. And it's like every founder's been there where your hair stands up and you celebrate and then you finish celebrating. You're like, oh shit, now we need to do it. Need
To actually service this contract.
Yeah, we need to do the thing we just promised in writing. So there was a bunch of those. And then of course because of those contracts, we were able to raise capital and you'd think because I bootstrapped a business, I would know better than to just go and overspend.
You would think that, but you would be wrong because I did what so many founders do. And VCs give you money, you spend the money whether or not that makes a lot of sense. And again, coming from a place where I said just today in this session, if you make a dollar, you can only spend 99 cents. But then I went to a paradigm where if you make a dollar, you should spend five.
and I overspent in a whole bunch of areas. I brought in consultants and all sorts of just people. And it's great to learn from people, but on your growth journey, you also need to realize not everyone's advice is going to be right for you. And I was just searching for an answer where there is no easy answer and founders know that. So yeah, I made the classic founder over spend upon raising a bunch of money. Mistake.
And what do you, aside from founders hearing other founders talk about this mistake, what do you think could have been some safeguards, could have been a different way of thinking about it? If you can kind of write a letter to your past self now, what would be some of the high level thoughts that you'd say, obviously don't spend $5 on every dollar you raise. Okay, but you were in search of a solution, that's why you hired consultants. That's why you hired really expensive talent. That's why you probably got an office and you did this and you were in search of building and it felt right, and it often does in the moment, but what are ways that you can today actually, if you see that happening maybe in some of the portfolio companies that you advise, what are tweaks that we can make to the mindset of a founder to help with that?
It actually starts with what I said of being really honest with yourself. Because if you're being really honest with yourself, do your sales really justify that new office or did your fundraise, are the customers kicking down the door for this thing? Do your unit economics really work? Do you really have all the, I know your pitch deck is awesome and a bunch of people leave you and strangers great, yes. But because you have those doubts and so not being consumed by them, but that core honesty and authenticity with yourself. And then the real honesty around why I wasn't looking to build a billion dollar business in hindsight
Because that's not really what I was looking to do. I wouldn't have you with just a good outcome. And so in hindsight, I should have been honest about my why, which was we're going to grow slower. We're going to actually just focus on delivering value, building a place people love working at, and that's going to be okay. And our VCs can suggest whatever they want, but they're not in charge and this is how I should do it. And I just didn't do that. It's really hard to be honest with yourself when everyone's like, we're crushing and it's a very difficult mindset to get out of.
Yeah. Yeah. That's interesting. Like yeah, you said, what are you truly looking at? What are your true indicators of growth here? Is your indicator of growth that you raised money or is your indicator of growth that you actually have a cash at hand? The customers are paying you and they're coming back and they have retention and they actually engage with your product and they're reoccurring.
It's hard to step away and look at it objectively because you're a believer, but that's what you need to do. So you need to train yourself. Take the other side of the argument. One of my big warning signs is when I tell founder, you're growing and then they say, yeah, we're at X number of people. It's like, well, okay, that's great. But in my case, I probably should have been at 60% of X number of people, not because the people I hired weren't great, but because the customers weren't banging down the door to buy it at the speed we were hiring.
Why is headcount the number that we use? Why is headcount the number that we use to define growth? I triggered something there, I could see it on your face.
Well because, if we hire Stacy, then we're going to have more features. And then this client, and then every manager falls into that trap, and then you fall into the trap. And when you're growing, people see the external sides, the world's like rewording where you positively with all this stuff
and then like, whoa, we're pleased to announce so-and-so on the team. And then you get invited to all sorts of, it's just this reinforcing you're playing a role of a thing, and then if you look really deeply and get really honest about what's going on, you're like, a lot of things need to happen successfully for this not to fall down. And the other big learning is you as a founder are going to make the most mistakes of anyone in your business, and that's okay, but none of them should be fatal. So always give yourself doubts. So when you're wrong, it needs to be something you can course correct and iterate on because you're going to be wrong all the time. I'm wrong constantly. I'm wrong more than anyone else that I work with. And that's okay because I know that.
I really like that because I think it goes to the concept of is there any anti fragility to your decision making or all your decisions, everything you make is going to break. You started off, you said, I had a hypothesis, and that's all startups are. We have a growth hypothesis of how we think it's going to grow, and we have a value hypothesis that's straight out of the lean startup methodology. You've got two hypotheses and you're spending the entire time trying to prove that there are people willing to pay you a certain amount that is enough to then build the product. There's a market and they're willing to pay a certain amount that allows you to actually build the product at the speed at which you're willing to and and it will return a certain amount. And I think the fact that it's a hypothesis is totally thrown out the door when we feel it's validated by a vc, an investor, but that's not the person who validates the hypothesis because the hypothesis has to be validated by the market and the product that they want. It's the wrong person giving you the validation. It's like mom saying, your essay is great, but my professor has to say my essay is great.
That's really it. But because we spend so much time earning the right to pitch in front of these VCs and trying and sell the idea so much that you forget that you sell to VCs, but really you should be selling to your customers. And I think that I guess focus for so long during a fundraising round kind of tilts someone's orbit to think differently, right?
And as a vc, I, I'll take some significant accountability here. My whole industry has been insane for three years and maybe longer. So founders when you're board is like, no, spend more. You have to grow. There's a lot of external pressure. And for a long time it was like literally we built financial models that would just end in 18 months with us being bankrupt. And then everyone would be like, no, we'll just raise more money then. And that was industry standard. Literally you'd build a financial model, everyone would be like, what's your plan? And then they'd look at it and be like, cool. So your plan is to go bankrupt, sold and they'd give you money. Why is that?
So what were your key leadership lessons out of Limelight? There's some key business acumen lessons that we just kind of discussed, but in terms of leadership and personnel, you likely did invest in trying to make the workplace place people want to work at. That often is also an area where founders struggle, where they can sometimes overspend trying to accommodate to every single employee trying to make the place just so much fun and inclusive. And I always talk about how we need to create high performing teams and there is a level of inclusivity, but eventually high performing teams are also somewhat exclusive. They start inclusive and they become exclusive in the sense that we need to expect certain performance and you need to hold that accountability, but they're inclusive in the sense that we start and we have to create that psychological safety, create empowerment, create a space for people to learn and grow and take risk, but ultimately also able to get them to perform to a certain state. So how did you balance that? Creating a place that was welcoming, creating a place that people wanted to work at, but also we needed to drive results
Mostly poorly. So I definitely over index on the place people want to work at and treating people fairly, which I'm proud to say that we did. It was highly inclusive, which was great. I didn't do nearly the job we could have on holding people to the same high standard. We would hold ourselves or I would hold myself. And like I said, I think some of that was the you that got me to there wasn't going to be the you that gets me to the next spot and that inclusiveness when you're not paying market because you just need people and you just need true believers. You're super early stage and you're all working off your home laptop, all of that. When you're paying big salaries and you can hire anyone, they're not performing. Even if they're nice and they like you and you, they can't be there.
And so that was a big leadership lesson that I'm now a little more centered on, but it's really easy for founders to fall into that lack of accountability track. It's very hard to nail that balance. That's one of the things I counsel now is you're not being nice if you're not giving real feedback. You're not being nice to everyone. If you're not having accountability, you're also not being nice to everyone. If you need to be inclusive equality of opportunity, just not a quality of outcome, not everyone's going to be able to hit that bar and that's okay. They'll be okay.
You're not being nice if you're not giving good feedback. I think that's really it, right? That's not what nice is, and that's not what good leadership is. That's not what inclusive leadership is. It's not pretending that everything is okay and everyone's fine. It's protecting the team over the individual, right?
And the integrity of leadership. Everyone knows when a team member is not doing great. Everyone knows when you're soft balling in, you might not because you don't want to look in the mirror. That's hard because you like them and they helped you get to here and you need the emotional support because being a founder is hard and they're not going to like you if you fire your cat totally.
Except that if you do it gently and this very smart person that you hired will get another job, and if they are also open to growing, they will boomerang back to be like, yeah, that was the right call.
And that's an piece, right? Let's talk about the team piece here. The team that got you to 20 employees, 30 employees, that leadership team, it's not going to be the same leadership team that gets you to a hundred employees and gets you from 1 million to 10 million to 50 million. And often we give out very high titles, maybe a little too early. You got any thoughts on that?
I'll quote one of our mentors team who's the founder and c e o of Zuora, which is publicly traded and also happened to be the C M O from zero to i p o at Salesforce. So I'll quote him because he's way better at this game than I ever aspire to be. He always tells our founders that it goes in zeros, ones and threes. So from zero to one, you're going to have one team. Half of that's going to turn over from one to three, half of that's going to turn over from three to 10, half of that's going to turn over from 10 to 30, and half of that's going to turn over from 30 to 100. And then not only is that okay, but if it's not, and these are rough numbers, obviously then you probably either have gotten extremely lucky or you're doing something wrong. And so yeah, you get a problem when there's six of you and all of a sudden one person shows up and they're the vice president of sales. It's like, were they vice president? I'm like, Stacy, like one person.
I like the way you've put it. Well, often in speaking about retention at startups, I say, is it a feature or a bug? Because there's actual benefits to the turnover, right? There's some good benefits. The oldest change management handbook says that you fire everyone. You start a new, that's the actual, that's the best way to change. You don't have to worry about changing anyone. You just started anew and obviously you don't want to do that, but the natural turnover that happens in these hypergrowth opportunities actually are a feature and not just a bug and can be, especially if we have some good systems in place. So Limelight, what happened? What was some of the end results here for you?
So proud to say going concern still on the board doing well, lots of big name customers of automakers, banks, and your Porsches, your General Motors, your BMWs, your Scotia Scotiabank, your RBCs, et cetera, et cetera. Growing. We bought a company during covid. Covid was not great for the live event industry,
but we managed to survive. We've got a great new C E O and growing, and part of my growth was realizing I'm actually not going to be the best c e O for that type of situation because it actually turns out that my big growth journey was realizing that I'm incredibly good at one stage and not so good at the others. I'm a zero to five guy, and that's okay.
That's a really cool growth moment that's realizing what stage am I really good at? What stage do I love? And being able to step aside and give that leadership opportunity to someone else. How did you come to that? There's a big learning and personal and emotional and value unpacking to get to that moment. And I'm sure we can't really capture it in a three minute, two minute answer, but how did you get there?
Yeah, so it was a couple of things. I mean, one of it was just didn't feel right. And so I got a C e O coach and they were great, and I was working with them and I realized that the answers to all of these questions were, I've lost my passion for this, but mostly I'm just not great at what has to happen now. And okay, what would need to be true for me to be great at that. Could I get great at that? And the answer was, maybe the first step is admitting that you're not, because only there can you see you that got you to here. So admitting that you're not there is the first step. The knowing yourself, the being honest. That was the first step. So I was able to do that and I'm just like, oh, I can't do this.
Or if I could, I don't have the huge desire to. And then just going to the board and being like, I don't think I should run this company. And they're like, what? And so having those conversations were really hard, but it just didn't feel right. And it wasn't like a moment. It was over a long period of time. And so the biggest thing I tell founders is how I start off. It's about the authentic you. And the authentic me is someone who really likes getting founders from zero to five or really likes getting things from zero to five. And that's what I'm really good at and that's what I love and that's where I'm the most valuable, effective, engaged. And so that's what I'm going to do.
That's awesome. That's cool. And so Limelight's going well, and you've now taken on a role at Forum. This is the next stage in your journey as an entrepreneur and as someone working in the startup world. Tell me a little bit about Forum.
Yeah, we invest in a hundred B two B SaaS founders a year. We've got a studio where we'll actually build eight to 10 of our own companies every year. So I'm still kind of in the game. We have an accelerator, we'll coach, 90 ish founders a year on their zero to one moments and beyond. And then we have a seed fund where we'll double down on founders in our ecosystem and also great founders. We meet from Elsewhere Square, and we pride ourselves on being a community first and a fund second, because we're with people at their most vulnerable moments when you're doing the hardest thing with little money and no support and you don't really have people to turn to. And as founders, we've all been there, and that's a really vulnerable, hard place to be.
See yourselves as a community. And Nasem Taleb has an essay in one of his books. Maybe I'll share in one of the intros or outros, but as an essay, in one of his books, he talks about how in many ways entrepreneurs are modern day soldiers. They are in the trenches building economy, building jobs, and many of them will die and their businesses will die in the process for one or two victors at a grandiose level that then creates the Google's, the Apples, the Microsofts that impact our world in ways that we could never imagine without them. And so honoring the entrepreneur, honoring the founder, who is going to spend good years of their life just clawing away at idea after idea and business after business, building teams trying to weigh at it, I think is something that perhaps we don't do enough of in our society to kind of honor those who are willing to take those risks and really sacrifice a lot of their own to be able to do that.
And many who will not succeed, the odds aren't in your favor. Nope. So I think that's so much of it, and I so often love working with entrepreneurs, leaders in entrepreneurship because of that exact thing. There's a sense of belief in oneself, a sense of vision for what the world could look like, a sense of tenacity that shows up. So I think that probably is the same for you as you get to work with all these amazing people at Forum, all the amazing founders and get to support them on their journey from one to five or zero to five.
Yeah, it's truly great. And just having been there and watching the struggle, which is real, and watching the emotional toll and watching the hard questions and the hard choices and the co-founder conflicts, and the really being in there and being able to be like, I understand what you're going through. It's not imagined. And even people from the outside see these founders and even on their biggest wins. I had a founder literally sitting in my office lying in the dark on the floor, and it was really strange. I said, is everything okay? She said, yeah, I just got posted on literally one of the most famous athletes of all time Instagram, celebrating my round, but I'm too tired to turn on my phone. It's like the hugest win ever sitting there, the day of her round announcement, lying on the floor in the dark because just spent everything that had taken to get there. She'd run the marathon and fallen down just after crossing the finish line.
Yeah, yeah. Now, Jonah, we've had a great conversation here. So for those who've made it to the end of our conversation or near the end, I'd love for you to be able to give us some very tactical advice because you get to coach a lot of founders and a lot of folks in leadership positions and startups. And so I know when we chatted, we looked at some advice at a personal level, some advice at a team level, and some advice maybe for their role or structure as a whole to kind of think through. So it's kind of like a little bit of a rapid fire round near the end here. What are your go-to advice or tools, things that they can do tomorrow to really apply this whole, the person I need to become, the person who got me here isn't going to be the person that gets me there. How do I apply this if I'm bought in after this episode? What are some of the things I can do personally?
Yeah, so the biggest thing you need to do is that honest self-assessment. And it starts with you at a vulnerable place with a piece of paper being like, what am I great at? What am I good at? What am I struggling with? And then going, okay, what does my company need right now? And then projecting forward to get to where I'm going to need to go. What is my company going to need right now? And authentically identifying those gaps. There is almost no one on the planet who can do a 100% complete job of that. They're called blind spots for a reason. I have them. We all have them. So then you want to go and you're not going to show that piece of paper to anyone because if you're doing it, honestly, that's going to be like a pretty awesome and pretty rough piece of paper.
Humans are hard. We all are. And then you're going to go to your co-founders or your teammates and you're going to do what a management consultant speak is called a 360 review. But what in startup speak is called Talking to people. And we're going to talk to people and be like, Hey, what do you think I'm great at? You're going to just listen. And then you're going to write that all down, and then you're going to go to your mentors and you're going to go to your VCs and you're going to go to your co-founders and you're going to go to your other leaders, and you're going to, to your other groups of founders that you can be honest with because only they truly know what you're going through. Those founders that you have that are one step in front of you and have done it before or in the exact same trench that you're in right now, just fighting their own battle. And you're going to say, where do you think I need to be to get to X? What needs to be true? And then you're going to look at that delta and you're going to be honest with yourself and say, can I do this? Do I want to do this? And the answer for most of you is going to be gulp yes, and hell yes. And then you're going to find every resource at your disposal to get to there.
I love that. I think that's a beautiful piece of advice to end us off with and beautiful, very tactical way to move forward. Jonah, thank you so much for joining us. I don't know if you have any last thoughts or words that you want to share to our audience.
Nope. I really appreciate it. Thanks for the time and founders out there. You're not imagining it, it's that hard. But reach out to those around you for support, please. Yeah,
Definitely. Definitely. Jonah, this was such a pleasure. Thank you for joining us. Thank you for everyone that has been on with us, and that concludes our interview of the Unicorn Leaders Podcast with Jonah. Thank you,
Thank you, Jonah, for what a wonderful episode, great insights, and just to be able to have that interview and have that conversation and pick his brain was truly wonderful for me. And I hope for each and every one of you that we're listening, thank you for tuning in for listening all the way through, for being dedicated to the Unicorn Leadership Podcast and always taking a few nuggets out of it. You'll find the show notes in the firstname.lastname@example.org slash podcast. If you've got any questions for Jonah, you want me to cover a certain topic, feel free to email me at email@example.com. And if you like the content, be sure to rate it, review it, subscribe, hit the notifications, tell your fellow leaders, managers, and startup entrepreneurs all about it. I want to leave you with this last question to ponder. We talked a lot about who we needed to become for the next stage of our business, but often this question is also real for our own lives. Who do we need to become for the next stage of our life, for our family, for our friends, for our community as leaders, and where areas of our life needs growth? What areas of our life have been fixed? This fixed and growth mindset is a spectrum. It's not binary, it's not one or the other. We're often on a large spectrum of fixed to growth, and we have to reflect on those different pieces. So reflect and think about who you need to become going forward.