Vision fascinates me. It is what I focus on when considering investment in a founder and it is my primary competency as a founder. No startup realm is cut and dry, but within the dimensions of a startup, vision is by my own admission most nebulous, fleeting and difficult to measure. After about a year building our team at Hyperpublic, we got pretty good at measuring engineering talent. Our interview process was a series of meetings and conversations, as well as a technical test. There is, however, no test for measuring vision. One reason why “visionary talent” is difficult to assess is because it is not “evenly distributed” between the near and distant future. Said another way, a founder may have strength within a certain focal length (i.e. near term vs long term), but weakness at a different length.
Near Term Vision
Some people “see” the present very clearly. This is near term vision. “Today” expires before a thought or decision can manifest, so let’s say the window of value for a founder with strong near term vision, is defined as tomorrow through 90 days. Near term vision is easier to calibrate than long term vision, for no other reason than a founder’s current product is a manifestation of her near term vision. How well she sees today is translated into a solution that she builds which, if her near term vision is strong, is consistent with the current state of today/the market/the user/the problem. The founder archetype who builds to solve the problem that she has today, or to scratch her own itch, or who begins with a simple feature and develops a startup around it, I believe has a more developed near term lens. This is not to say she lacks in the medium to long distance view, but she tends not to lack in her view of the present and near future. If her product does not build traction, or clearly violates some truth or realty in the present, that is a reasonable sign that her near term vision is not extremely developed.
Medium Term Vision
Push out beyond the tomorrow, or the 90 day window, and vision becomes harder to measure. There is no tangible manifestation of the way a founder sees the world unfolding…short of her plan. Now this plan is not just a product roadmap, it is also a company roadmap. The medium term we can define as 90 days – 12 months. In measuring medium term vision, the conversation must orient around not just current product extensions, but also company positioning. Does the founder have a sense not just of how things exist in current form (user preference, consumer behavior, market behavior, etc), but also the direction or change that is occurring or happening to the present. Directionally, is a set of characteristics or phenomena moving toward or away from a given point? What dimensions or aspects of her product will be successful as the phenomena moves on that more macro curve and what will become stale or irrelevant. What are competitors and tangentially related companies building and how will their evolution change both her user’s thought/behavior as well as her future user’s thought and behavior (I use “user” interchangeably with “customer” and recognize that this principle applies to non-consumer facing companies as well)? A founder with strong medium term vision can see and articulate the “bridge” between where she is today and where she will be in a year. She is able to define a plan based on let’s call it “one round of financing” (or 12 months) that does not violate directional changes in the market and population, so as to ensure that she is as relevant or more relevant in one year than she is in the present. Medium term vision is essential to interaction with the capital markets and the M&A markets who tend to measure not just the value of a startup to the present market, but the expected value of that startup down the road.
Long Term Vision
Long term vision is closest to my heart and hardest to calibrate. In long term vision, metrics and heuristics cross the chasm from logical to spiritual. The inputs that influence a founders view of the future when we look, say 5 years out, are nuanced and often inarticulable. Often these inputs, while real, and definitely consumed and processed by a founder, get rolled up into justifications around “feeling”, “gut”, and belief. The founder with true long term vision both consciously and unconsciously consumes and processes signal from the population and market that most will not process for years to come. Medium term trends will bring this signal to the forefront of market consciousness on the ascribed timelines, but the founder with developed long term vision has a jump. Excellence in this realm can be particularly hard to identify, as the timeline of relevance is long enough that any articulation of long term vision can and often will violate near and even medium term realities. A founder with conviction In their long term vision can ignore and disregard the very signal that is driving the rest of the market. Once Joel Cutler described to me a founder that “can see around corners.” It is a phrase that has stuck with me. The long term thinker’s life is not easy. Communicating the future to the present and medium term thinkers can be exhausting and challenging and isolating. But she who sees around the 5 year corner, if competent but not necessarily excellent in the near and medium term, takes all.
Often, the founder with true long term vision makes up for the disconnect between her vision and the present with passion. She must amass resource not around the solution she has in hand, but around a persuasion of all that she correctly sees something invisible….and the challenge of anyone who might hitch their wagon to this founder (be it a challenge to a recruit, or investor, or partner, or lover) is to identify who amongst the snake oil salesmen is actually the prophet.