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A Half Dozen Reasons Why Venture Capitalists Prefer Missionaries to Mercenaries


1.Mark Cuban: “Don’t start a company unless it’s an obsession and something you love. If you have an exit strategy, it’s not an obsession.”

No one should start a business if they are not obsessively committed to the mission of that business. Genuine obsession and passion are highly valuable since making the business a success will require overcoming significant obstacles. My most interesting experience with being obsessively committed to the mission of a business started in 1994. It was the most intense five years of my professional life. The business was a global broadband non geostationary satellite system known as Teledesic. My obsession with making that startup a success consumed me. My family and health all paid a serious price for this obsession. As much as I loved that business, by 1999 I knew that it was time to move on and do other things. It wasn’t easy to cut the cord, but it was necessary. Teledesic was valued at $3 billion in its last round of funding and we raised close to $1 billion in capital. The story of Teledesic has never properly been told and perhaps it is my responsibility to do so one day.  Until I write that book, you can read the blog post I have written about my experience at Teledesic that is part of this “Dozen Things” series if you are interested.

Missionary joke #1: Two cannibals met each other on a path in the jungle one day. The first cannibal said: “I just can’t seem to prepare a tender Missionary. I’ve baked ’em, I’ve roasted ’em, I’ve stewed ’em, I’ve barbequed ’em, I’ve even tried every sort of marinade. I just cannot seem to get them tender.” The second cannibal asked, “What kind of Missionary do you use?” The first cannibal replied, “You know, the ones that hang out at that place at the bend of the river. They wear brown cloaks with a rope around their waist ” “Ah ha!” the second cannibal replied. “No wonder. Those Missionaries are friars!”

2. John Doerr:  “Mercenaries are driven by paranoia; missionaries are driven by passion. Mercenaries think opportunistically; missionaries think strategically. Mercenaries go for the sprint; missionaries go for the marathon. Mercenaries focus on their competitors and financial statements; missionaries focus on their customers and value statements. Mercenaries are bosses of wolf packs; missionaries are mentors or coaches of teams. Mercenaries worry about entitlements; missionaries are obsessed with making a contribution. Mercenaries are motivated by the lust for making money; missionaries, while recognizing the importance of money, are fundamentally driven by the desire to make meaning.”

A venture capitalist I know recalls Doerr using the “missionary versus mercenary” metaphor as early as 1998 at a Stewart Alsop Agenda conference. Doerr has repeated this idea often over the years and it has essentially become a meme in the venture capital industry.  In short, mercenaries are motivated primarily by money. Missionaries are driven by a cause. Elon Musk is a classic missionary as was Steve Jobs. My advice is: don’t start a business because you want to have it on your resume or because you think it is glamorous. And don’t do so to fill a bucket list unless you feel the obsessive passion Cuban and Doerr are talking about. Here’s the slide Doerr uses when talking about this concept:


Doerr’s list is largely self explanatory. There are a couple of YouTube videos of him making his case about missionaries cited in the notes below. In one video Doerr refers people to a book by Randy Komisar entitled: “The Monk and the Riddle: The Art of Creating a Life While Making a Living” for further inspiration on this topic.

Missionary joke #2: A missionary was walking in Africa when he heard the unmistakable sound of a pride of lions behind him. He immediately started praying: “Oh Lord, please make these lions into good Christians.”  The Missionary thought his prayer was being answered when heard the lions also start to pray. But then he heard the lions say in unison: “Bless us oh Lord, for this thy food, which we are about to consume…”

3. Andy Rachleff:  “Mercenaries, whose primary goal is money, fall somewhere on the middle of the entrepreneur bell curve. They seldom have the desire to change the world that is required for a really big outcome, or the patience to see their idea through. I don’t begrudge them their early payouts. They’re just not the best entrepreneurs.”

Missionaries are far more likely to work to keep their business independent – which is more likely to produce “tape measure financial home runs.” They think bigger in terms of what the business can accomplish. Missionaries with huge ambition for their business are rarer than most people imagine. Mark Zuckerberg is a classic example of a missionary:

“At the time, Facebook was just two years old. It was a college site with roughly eight or nine million people on it. And, though it was making $30 million in revenue, it was not profitable. “And we received an acquisition offer from Yahoo for $1 billion,” Thiel said. The three-person Facebook board at the time–Zuckerberg, Thiel, and venture capitalist Jim Breyer–met on a Monday morning. “Both Breyer and myself on balance thought we probably should take the money,” recalled Thiel. “But Zuckerberg started the meeting like, ‘This is kind of a formality, just a quick board meeting, it shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes. We’re obviously not going to sell here’.” At the time, Zuckerberg was 22 years old. Thiel said he remembered saying, “We should probably talk about this. A billion dollars is a lot of money.” They hashed out the conversation. Thiel said he and Breyer pointed out: “You own 25 percent. There’s so much you could do with the money.” Thiel recalled Zuckerberg said, in a nutshell: “I don’t know what I could do with the money. I’d just start another social networking site. I kind of like the one I already have.”

Founders who “flip the business” early or even in midstream usually don’t last long enough to do this. Rachleff is pointing out that mercenaries don’t always fail, but also that success is less frequent and payoffs are smaller on a relative basis for mercenaries.

Some cities have more missionaries than others. Seattle is a great example of a city with a mostly missionary culture. People in Seattle create businesses and they grow them passionately. The best examples are Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Howard Schultz.  This creates lasting businesses and healthy job growth. Other cities have a mostly a mercenary culture- the founders grab any early money that becomes available and move on.

Missionary joke #3: One day the African chief’s wife gave birth to a white child and the chief was stunned. He suspected some hanky panky and went to visit a white Missionary who lived nearly. “You have been having sex with my wife,” the chief said to the Missionary. The Missionary tried to escape from the difficult situation by explaining Mendel’s laws of genetics to the angry chief. “You see that herd of sheep,” he said pointing to the chief’s herd, “Most of them are white; but you will also notice two black lambs among them.” “OK! OK!” said the chief. “You keep your mouth shut, and so will I.”

4. Jim Goetz: “I am looking for unknowns, who are passionate and mission-based.” “We try hard to make that unknown underdog comfortable in our ecosystem.”

As an example of what Goetz is talking about here, he said once about WhatsApp: “It was mission-based and very different than what everyone else was doing at the time.”  Goetz calls the WhatsApp founders “talented underdogs whose unshakeable beliefs and maverick natures epitomize the spirit of Silicon Valley.” Passion is something you can’t fake. Making a better auto insurance product is a passion for some people, but it may not be for you. What’s your passion?  Sometimes I will meet a founder who has created a startup to do X and it is clear that he or she does not particularly like X, let alone has passion for it.  When I ask why he or she started that business the story is usually that they wanted to create a startup. While that may be true in some cases it sometimes seems clear that the founder is instead overwhelmingly motivated by a desire to be wealthy. The irony is that the more you are focused on a mission rather that money the higher the odds that you will become financially successful. The other point made by Goetz above relates to how underdogs have a particularity strong form of motivation that can be very helpful in creating a successful startup. People with something to prove often have a stronger motivation to succeed.

Missionary joke #4: A man became separated from his group of explorers and found himself lost in the desert. Fortunately he eventually encountered the home of a Missionary. Tired and weak, he crawled up to the house and collapsed on the doorstep. The Missionary found him and nursed him back to health. Feeling better, the man asked the Missionary for directions to the nearest town and if he could borrow his horse. The Missionary said, “Sure but there is a special thing about this horse. You have to say ‘Thank God’ to make it go and ‘Amen’ to make it stop.” Not paying much attention, the man said, “Sure, ok.” So he mounted the horse and said, “Thank God” and the horse started walking. Then he said, “Thank God, thank God,” and the horse started trotting. Feeling really brave, the man said, “Thank God, thank God, thank God, thank God, thank God” and the horse just took off. Pretty soon the man saw that the path lead to a cliff and he started doing everything he could to make the horse stop, yelling:  “Whoa, stop, hold on!” Finally the man remembered, “Amen!” The horse stopped just four inches from the edge of the cliff. The man then leaned back in the saddle and said, “Thank God.”

5. Dan Levitan: “We can find a great sector or business, but we’re investing so early that unless there’s this tenacious grit, determination, resourcefulness, ability to evolve, it won’t work.”

Levitan is pointing out a key aspect of early stage investing: it is called an early stage business because it is an early stage business. Many unknowns will be encountered along the path of any business and a team with the qualities Levitan describes is far more likely to find success than a team who is just in it for the money. People with grit determination, resourcefulness, ability to evolve don’t give up easily. Ev Williams story is a classic example of how things can evolve in very different ways and how grit is critical to success. This is from a Harvard Business School case from 2008:

“The Blogger experiences had included a major blow-up with his co-founder that had resulted in legal proceedings, a brush with near-bankruptcy, and the laying off of his entire team, Williams has become even more disillusioned with his current venture, Odeo.  Odeo, a podcasting pioneer, had debuted almost two years before and had gotten off to a very strong start, with a high-profile debut at a prominent industry conference, coverage on the front page of the New York Times’ Business section, and the raising of a large round of financing from a top-tier venture capital firm. His attempts to find an acquirer have failed, layoffs have begun, and he is now facing a meeting with an increasingly hostile board of directors. At that meeting, he is very tempted to resign so he can move on to his next project and regain the thrill of being an entrepreneur.”

Odeo would evolve to become Twitter.

“One day in September 2006, Odeo’s CEO Evan Williams wrote a letter to Odeo’s investors. In it, Williams told them that the company was going nowhere, that he felt bad about that, and that he would like to buy back their shares so they wouldn’t take a loss. In his letter to Odeo’s investors, Williams wrote this about Twitter:

By the way, Twitter, which you may have read about, is one of the pieces of value that I see in Odeo, but it’s much too early to tell what’s there. Almost two months after launch, Twitter has less than 5,000 registered users. I will continue to invest in Twitter, but it’s hard to say it justifies the venture investment Odeo certainly holds — especially since that investment was for a different market altogether.

Evan proposed buying back Odeo investors’ stock, and, eventually, the investors agreed to the buyback. So Evan bought the company — and Twitter. The amount he paid has never been reported. Multiple investors, who had combined to put $5 million into Odeo, say Evan made them whole.”

Missionary joke #5:  “A Missionary travelled to what he thought was an totally uninhabited island. He discovered that there were indeed people there, but the inhabitants of the island knew nothing of Western culture. The missionary decided that it would be in the locals best interest if he could teach them about civilization. He created small schools in huts and taught the natives how to read and write and do mathematics. Part of his teaching was to take the locals one by one around the island, and teach them the correct English words for objects that they would see. One day, the Missionary was walking around the island with one of the locals. When they walked past a tree, the Missionary pointed and said: “Tree”.  The local would repeat, “Tree”. They continued further and saw a bush. The Missionary pointed to it and said, “Bush”. The native repeated the word, “Bush”. They walked around the bush – and lying on the ground behind it, were two locals making  whoopi. The Missionary hoped that the local would not ask about it, but he did: “What is that? What are they doing?” Missionary replied, “Riding a bicycle. Those two people are riding a bicycle!” The man pulled out his poison dart gun and killed the couple. The Missionary was incredulous. Angered, he yelled: “Why did you kill those two people? I told you that they were riding a bicycle! “The local answered, “He was riding MY bicycle!”

6. Jessica Livingston:  “Resilience keeps you from being pushed backwards. Drive moves you forwards.”

Livingston is pointing to one of the qualities discussed on sectin 5 as being particularly important. Dr. Angela Duckworth defines “grit” as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” As an example, some people I know describe Uber’s Travis Kalanick as being off the charts on grit. Steve Jobs said once: “I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance…. Unless you have a lot of passion about this, you’re not going to survive. You’re going to give it up. So you’ve got to have an idea, or a problem or a wrong that you want to right that you’re passionate about; otherwise, you’re not going to have the perseverance to stick it through.”

Missionary joke #6: A cannibal was walking through the jungle and discovered a new restaurant operated by a fellow cannibal. Feeling somewhat hungry, he sat down and looked over the menu. Broiled Missionary: $25.00 Fried Explorer: $35.00 Baked Politician: $100.00. The cannibal called the waiter over and asked: “Why such a big price difference for the politician?” The waiter replied “Have you ever tried to clean one of them?”


John Doerr Video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ui8yLqCxChM

John Doerr Video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oSCgYT8p2NQ

John Doerr Video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6iwEYmbCwk

The Monk and the Riddle https://www.25iqbooks.com/books/359-the-monk-and-the-riddle-the-art-of-creating-a-life-while-making-a-living

Dan Levitan 25IQ https://25iq.com/2015/03/22/a-dozen-things-ive-learned-from-dan-levitan-about-venture-capital-business-and-people/ 

Jim Goetz 25IQ https://25iq.com/2015/06/06/a-dozen-things-ive-learned-from-jim-goetz-about-business-startups-and-venture-capital/

Andy Rachleff 25IQ  https://25iq.com/2014/07/19/a-dozen-things-ive-learned-from-andy-rachleff/

Elon Musk 25IQ   https://25iq.com/2016/06/18/a-dozen-things-ive-learned-from-elon-musk-about-business-and-investing/

John Doerr 25IQ https://25iq.com/2014/08/24/a-dozen-things-ive-learned-from-john-doerr/ 

Fred Smith: http://www.businessinsider.com/fedex-saved-from-bankruptcy-with-blackjack-winnings-2014-7

HBR case study: https://hbr.org/product/evan-williams-from-blogger-to-odeo-a/an/809088-PDF-ENG


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