The Entrepreneurial Journey and Building Relationships with Investors
Just in time for the start of the holiday season, we have a brand new interview for you to enjoy. We had an opportunity to get some very candid, real feedback from Naithan Jones of AgLocal. Naithan shared his thoughts on what it really takes to be an entrepreneur, cultivating strong relationships with mentors and investors, and the hard truths about what it takes to build and scale a startup company. In addition, Naithan shares some of his thoughts about why he moved the company to the Bay Area for the next stage of growth.
How did you get into the world of technology?
I sort of stumbled into technology. I was working in the mailroom at Sprint before they sold their legacy fiber business. I would ask questions of the frame relay and T1 managers. One day, a manager that took special liking to me invited me to a one month trial selling data to CIO’s of Global 1000 companies. I did well on the trial and the rest is history.
Mentorship is really just good old fashioned friendship that just happens to have professional layers built into it.
Who has been your most important professional mentor and why?
Well, first I will say that mentorship is really just good old fashioned friendship that just happens to have professional layers built into it. I’ve had three significant professional mentors in my career. My first was an old Italian man that owned a flower shop that kind of took me out of the trouble zone of my late teens / early twenties just sort of gave me that self belief. The second was my friend at the Kauffman Foundation, John Courtin, who coincidentally passed away recently (RIP). He was very interested in pushing me to become an entrepreneur and a founder. My most important friend and mentor is my friend, Ben Horowitz. I say this because his example has had a very deep and lasting impact on me as a man, a father, a husband and a CEO, it’s really been a strong friendship. I trust him, and for me trust is not something that comes easily with people that are not related to me.
The reason why is because Ben Horowitz has really shown and demonstrated a sort of loyalty to his principles and to his homies. He’s sort of real like that and reminds of the old school guys I grew up with. Tough, but humble. Smart, but aware. Then he just gives and gives to people without expecting anything in return. Ironically his return is like 100x personally because of this approach. I’ve really learned a lot from him.
What has been the most meaningful professional experience you’ve had and why?
The most meaning professional experience I’ve had is running a startup company. I’ve learned a lot about myself and about leadership. I’ve learned how to build and develop people within an organization. I’ve learned how to stay focused in times of great personal and professional distress, even when it looks like the wheels are coming off. I’ve also learned to have resolve in the face of perpetual and unrelenting danger. This has grown me professionally and as a person, as a man.
What is the most difficult professional or personal challenge you’ve had to overcome?
The most difficult challenge I’ve had to overcome personally, and that I think made me grow professionally, was when my best friend Phil “Big Phil” Stephens died (RIP). It was during a moment of great life transition. There was an inflection point there at 22 years old that I think a lot of young black men and men of color go through. We sort of see some things that others take for granted that they won’t have to deal with. We kind of have these extra hurdles added and it tests us. So there was this moment after Phil passed that I was kind of wandering, and I had choices to make. Who did I want to be? It’s at that moment that my attitude towards life didn’t become cynical and depressed. I actually became more hopeful and took on the mantra I live by now. That mantra is that life is short and you have to try things, you have to experiment and you have to go full blast. Ever since then I’ve kind of lived a crazy cool experience because I’m just spontaneous and I just experiment and break the rules and try to absorb from everything and everyone I meet.
Half of the battle is just trying things.
What advice do you have for young people of color who are looking to get into technology?
The advice I have is pretty simple. Like Nike, just do it. If you cannot code, so what? Neither can I. Half of the battle is just trying things. Young people of color have a very big advantage, in that they create a lot of of the consumer trends and consumer culture. They all have a natural understanding of the buying motivations of tomorrow’s buyers. There are billion dollar companies waiting to happen, but they won’t wait forever, and if you don’t start them someone else will.
Who is one person you follow on social media who you think others should follow?
Balaji Srinivasan at Andreessen Horowitz.
What news outlets or media sources do you read on a regular basis?
It isn’t whether you fail or not, but it is fighting the fight without substituting your honor.
You moved out to the Bay Area to really get AgLocal going. Can you talk about what that experience was like and how you made the decision to make the move?
Coming to the Bay Area was eye opening. You really can’t understand it until you are here, as it is so dense with resources for this sort of thing. I made the decision to move out here because of where the company was and what we needed. It was very specific to the company. The company would not have realized the necessary funding had we not moved to silicon valley. The other element is that I wanted to be close to my friends Chris Lyons, Ben and Felicia Horowitz, and others.
You have developed a really good relationship with your investors. What advice do you have for founders looking to pick investors to support their companies?
Be direct, frank, and be honest. Cut the shit, and get right to the chase. What must be said or done eventually, should be said and done immediately. Be yourself at all times. Do not kiss ass, and don’t expect your ass to be kissed. Be confident but self aware and open to change. Build a very real relationship early, by removing fear and ego from the equation. Remember they are people too and likely want you to be successful personally as a CEO and just generally as a human being.
You’ve written a lot about how hard it is to build a successful startup. What should potential founders know before embarking on an entrepreneurial journey?
Exactly that. It is hard, and that there are no substitutes for the hard work of building a company. There are no hacks. You will travel more than you want to, be in more meetings than you think you want to be in, and will have to do things that are insanely uncomfortable, if not down right humiliating at times. Embrace this! These are the good days, and no matter how successful, it is this that you will remember and is what will make you. It isn’t whether you fail or not (chance say you will) but it is fighting the fight without substituting your honor. In the end, have a great story to tell if anything else.