Money2020, Building Businesses and Why I Love American Ninja Warrior

I don’t think this is a very profound insight, but having been around the business building block for two and a half decades I can truly say that building a wildly successful business is difficult.  Building a so-so business is equally difficult.  And what’s sad is that building an unsuccessful one might be even more difficult than building a successful one.  An entrepreneur can have a great idea that solves a persistent, obvious and painful problem, but the number of things that have to line up perfectly for a truly great business to be built is actually quite daunting (see this oldie but goodie for more on the topic: The Tyranny Of 0.8 To The 5th).

I bring this up because we’re right around the corner from Banking’s largest conference of the year – Money2020.  In attendance will be over 11,000 people from 4,500 companies, many of which are start-ups trying to find their place in the big bad financial services ecosystem.  While most of the start-ups will ultimately fail, I can’t help but relish in the obvious and infectious energy that’s generated by the entrepreneurs at these companies.  They have no political filters clouding their ideas.  They have no higher-ups waiting around to smash their ideas.  They don’t care about sacred cows and they don’t care if hundred-year-old brands are shattered.

What they care about is solving problems and doing things better than those that came before them.

But while each Founder believes that he or she is destined to succeed, the statistics would suggest otherwise.  They’re most likely going to fail or stall somewhere on the way to greatness.  Sad, but true.

So as an Investor, where do I fit in?  The simple (but incorrect) answer would be that my firm (QED Investors) provides capital to various startups trying to disrupt the incumbents in pursuit of better business models.  The reality is that there are plenty of sources of capital out there and ours is relatively shallow in comparison to the giant funds that are putting hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars to work in the Banking ecosystem.

The reality is that we exist to help Founders climb Mount Midoriyama.

I assume I’ve probably confused most of you, but just humor me and all will be revealed.  Mount Midoriyama is a fantastically large steel structure at the end of the world’s most difficult (and constantly changing) obstacle course.  The obstacle course originated in Japan under the name Sasuke, and over a thirty-four season run, only four competitors have completed the course (one did it twice!).  Of course, the US had to create its own version of the show, and so was born America Ninja Warrior.  The popularity of the show has been growing since it first aired in 2009 (with over 70,000 applicants in the last season alone) and thus far in American Ninja Warrior history, Isaac Caldiero and Geoff Britten are the only two Americans who have completed the course.  In summary —- it’s a nearly (but not) impossible task to climb Mount Midoriyama.

Bar none, America Ninja Warrior is my favorite show on television.  The contestants train year-round for what could sadly be seconds on the course.  A great year for a contestant might be conquering the obstacle that they fell on the previous year.  Or it might be making it farther than they did in the past.  Or it might be to just go out and “represent”.  Success means different things to different Warriors.

From all this a Ninja Warrior community has emerged, and what’s fascinating is that they exist to help each other get better and to help each other succeed.  They don’t see themselves in competition with each other, but rather they’re all in competition with Mount Midoriyama.  Dedicated Warriors sacrifice just about everything in their lives to train for a course that will almost certainly get the better of them.  Each individual knows that he or she is expected to fail but the best of them believe success is possible.

So this is where I feel like our firm fits.  If we can give a little piece of advice that gives a Founder a better chance at success, we’re helping him tackle Mount Midoriyama.  If we can help a Founder structure her product a bit better or think through a tricky either/or decision, we’re helping her tackle Mount Midoriyama.  And if we have the privilege of watching one of our Founders make it to the top of Mount Midoriyama, we can relish in the little things we did to help along the way, but more importantly know that it gives us and the Founders of the future a reason to believe ultimate success is possible.

See you all at Money2020!

(And now time for a shameless plug which has nothing to do with my “day job”.  My children’s book “The Festive Frolics of Panda and Owl” is available at Amazon and major book stores everywhere –  Feel free to support my labor of love….)