Israel has been under its second lockdown for three weeks now, so I took the opportunity to sort through my closet. Underneath all the clothes and memorabilia, I found a box with my application to Harvard Business School (back then we still printed things out). Brushing off the dust to read my essays, it felt like I discovered a time capsule for my thoughts back in 2005.
One essay question stood out to me; it was #4: “How do you define success?”
Within my 400-word limit, I rambled on about “finding the equilibrium between professional, personal, and spiritual goals”. My answer was fluffy and clearly written to appeal to the audience. To be honest, it is not how I viewed success then, and it is definitely not how I view it now.
The truth is that life starts off simple and gets more complicated. Friends come and go. We make money and we lose it. Some businesses thrive and others don’t. The race to success early on often gives way to the need to make sense of it all, especially these days.
Though I know there are no Harvard professors on the other side waiting to analyze what I have to say this time around, I figure for myself and whoever else may be interested, it is worth taking the time for a re-do.
So here I go, again. How do I define success?
The way I see it now, success is not a destination, it’s a state of mind.
As a partner at F2 Venture Capital, I have come across hundreds of overachievers: CEO’s, CTO’s, data scientists, developers, and other investors. What sets the winners apart is not their achievements, but the way they carry themselves.
Take Dekel Valtzer. He had the same confidence selling sunscreen and diapers as he draws on now at the helm of Avo, one of our fastest-growing portfolio companies. Or Assaf Wand. Back in early 2000, he sold do-it-yourself sushi courses and MBA application consulting services with the same passion that propels him now as CEO of Hippo, the $1.5 billion insur-tech unicorn. These visionaries were always a success; it just took some time to reveal it.
Success is also how we manage failure.
As an investor in a dense ecosystem, it’s very easy to get bogged down in comparisons to others, or “misses”. It’s impossible to win every deal or get it right every time. When a startup called Moon Active announced a recent funding round at a valuation of $1.25 billion, I cringed. Back in 2012 I met the CEO and signed an agreement to invest $50,000 at a valuation of $2 million that would have netted $20 million today. Sadly, after our handshake and 20 follow up emails, the deal didn’t close.
After the news came out, I struggled with this loss. It took me time to realize it is not a failure unless I quit then and there. But I found another way to handle it; take the anger and frustration and use it as fuel (rocket fuel given the size of the miss) to chase the next deal that much harder.
The Measure of Success
One thing we always tell our founders is “if you are not measuring it, it doesn’t count”. In the startup ecosystem, we define success in terms of key performance indicators (KPIs), numbers that roll up into one simple equation called ROI or return on investment.
For example, a company the spends $1 in marketing to acquire a customer who spends $2 over her lifetime generates an ROI of 2x. We can compare this number in a company and across companies over time, to measure success and failure.
If it works for startups, could this measure be applied to life? I believe the formula would look something like this: Return on Life (ROL) = Impact / Time.
The sudden loss of my parents at a relatively young age made clear to me just how precious time is in life. Suddenly I found myself in the front row without a safety net. This was a stark wakeup call to prioritize my time for positive impact, relative to where I was yesterday, and relative to the people who bring meaning to my life.
On our podcast series Founder Stories, my wife Anouk and I interview professional authors, chefs, athletes, singers and other pioneers at the top of their fields in Israel. Because we live in a small country, these visionaries don’t command celebrity salaries. The common thread of their success is the enormous impact they make with their limited time and singular talent.
While Return on Life does not define success, it can certainly point us in the right direction.
In venture capital, ROI is our northern star. Out of every 100 companies that reach out, we invest in 1. These are the founders who are not seeking our validation; they already have conviction in their eyes. This is how we decide to commit millions of dollars well before any real product or business model goes online.
The relationship with the founders we back is personal so every time we can serve as a sounding board or open a useful door yields tremendous satisfaction. Even as the lockdown persists and the office remains closed, I lean into this job because the ROL is sky-high.
Here in Tel Aviv, the VC world is full of firms competing for the best founders. But we can’t lose sight of reality- this is just a bubble of time and space, here and now. There are startup hubs all over the world — Silicon Valley, New York, London, Berlin, Shanghai. And what happens when the next unicorn rolls around after our time is up? It’s simply impossible to catch them all
Success is not being the best. It’s about making the most impact with the time that we have. As they say, “The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.”