What I know about building ecosystems in emerging countries: Linda Rottenberg

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It only took Linda Rottenberg a brief conversation with a taxi driver in Buenos Aires to launch Endeavor.

Initially an engineer, this cab driver was forced to take this job for a living because he didn’t want to work for the government. He didn’t know either he had other employment options. This motivated the passionate entrepreneur to launch a network to support entrepreneurs in emerging countries.

“Why don’t you become an entrepreneur? And they would say a what?” she said in one of her talks.

This was when Rottenberg realized though there was no word in Spanish or Portuguese for ‘entrepreneur’, she was determined to spread the word about entrepreneurship in emerging countries. So she started visiting universities and telling the success story of Steve Jobs and other ecosystem icons? to inspire youth. Soon after, she realized that those people still needed financial support and mentorship, which both were non-existent in Latin America.

In 1997, she met with Peter Kellner, her cofounder, and decided to launch Endeavor to offer underserved markets access to capital, talents, and mentors. The organization is now present in 27 emerging countries, 60 cities, and supports 1,433 entrepreneurs, as mentioned in the Impact Report 2016-2017 print version.

In this interview with Wamda, Rottenberg identified few metrics needed to launch a support organization in an emerging country.

Be a stalker. My ability to stalk investors, board members, and entrepreneurs served me well when I was getting started with Endeavor. I even waited for a potential mentor [Peter Brooke of Advent International, who eventually joined Endeavor's early advisory council] outside the men's room once just to get a few minutes of face-time with him. Learn to get over the sense that you might be perceived as aggressive, especially if you are a woman. Estee Lauder was one of the greatest stalkers, and many other successful entrepreneurs got their start not with huge existing networks, but with a little bit of well-placed gutsiness. Find a little courage and reach out to a mentor you admire. People respond to passion and a clear articulation of why you are approaching them in particular. The victim of one of my stalkings did, and he ultimately agreed to co-chair Endeavor’s global advisory board. In other words: Stalking is an underrated startup strategy.

Be a risk-minimizer. If the first step to becoming an entrepreneur is about managing mindset, the second is about managing risk. Our image of entrepreneurs as swashbuckling daredevils who go all in on day one is wrong. Sara Blakely, the creator of Spanx, kept selling fax machines until she got booked on Oprah; Phil Knight of Nike kept his accountant job while selling sneakers out of his Plymouth Valiant. In the year that it took to get Endeavor off the napkin, I wrote grant applications for other organizations on the side to earn extra money.

Contrary to popular belief, most entrepreneurs are risk-minimizers, not risk-maximizers. Even the biggest maverick of all, Virgin’s Richard Branson, prefers ‘contained disasters’, small bets with limited consequences if things backfire. But at some point, after your idea has taken off, the hedging has to stop. You can’t build a significant business with one foot out the door. Entrepreneurs often cling to their conventional work like a security blanket, out of fear rather than necessity, even after they can afford to pursue their venture full-time.

Obsess over success and quality metrics. I can’t emphasize enough on the importance of developing common measurements and metrics for success. A few years ago, we asked Bain (an American consulting company) to help us in this regard. Today, we use the tools that Bain gave us to constantly assess the work we are doing worldwide and to share best practices (The Net Promoter Score system and Bain's analysis of top quartile and lower quartile performing Endeavor companies). What does a well-performing office look like? What are the characteristics of our top quartile of entrepreneurs? These metrics have provided us with a shared way of communicating what success looks like and a report card about how well our programs and services are received by entrepreneurs.

Build it, and impact will come. There are many examples of great incubators and accelerators out there to support early stage entrepreneurs with hopes that they will fall upon the next big thing. It’s important to remember, however, that it is at the later stage, the scale up, where a small group of entrepreneurs produces the outsize impacts we all hope for in terms of meaningful growth, job creation and exits.

Keep bedroom issues out of the boardroom. A few years ago, I asked our in-house research team to examine the best and worst performing entrepreneurs in our network to see if we could detect any patterns of success and failure. We learned that three-quarters of our entrepreneurs cofounded their businesses with a partner, and 70 percent of these partners were people close to them (a best friend, a sibling, a spouse, an in-law.)

So, what happens when family and business mix? Things usually start off swimmingly, but then trouble brews. Cash problems arise, and cuts need to be made. Or business booms, and one partner seeks to expand while the other prefers to stay small.

Endeavor entrepreneurs aren’t alone in this struggle. Over 80 percent of American businesses are family-owned, and the figure goes up to 90 percent outside the US: from the sons of IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad to the wives of Rupert Murdoch from Fox, from Beyoncé’s dad to Usher’s mom (“I never fired my mother,” Usher told Oprah. “I relieved her of her duties”).

To keep bedroom issues out of the boardroom, I suggest drawing up a ‘startup prenup,’ delineating each partner’s role, responsibility and ownership. In case someone wants or needs to pull out, devise a contingency plan for an amicable exit and skip a lifetime of awkward holiday gatherings.  

Feature image via The Commery.

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