You are too concerned with what was and what will be.
There is a saying: Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift.
That is why it is called the present.
— Oogway, Kung Fu Panda
Childhood used to be different.
I don’t mean, “Oh, things were different when I grew up.” A few centuries ago, childhood really was different. Adults saw children as just mini-adults, empty vessels that needed to be filled with knowledge. But there wasn’t anything particularly special about the fact that you were a child.
Then, at some point, we invented the idea of childhood. We figured out that kids have potential, but over time we saw that trying to predict what they’ll become is pretty much impossible. When you look into a child’s eyes, you’re looking at very different possibilities: a genius doctor who saves millions; a monster who has no empathy; an average person who will have a nice, quiet life. But sitting there, watching them play with some blocks, you won’t have much of a chance to say exactly what they’ll grow up to be. A child isn’t just a smaller version of what they’ll become, they’re a range of possibilities.
That was a key aspect in developing the modern world: Recognizing that children are unique, that there is something special about childhood, and that this phase should be nourished.
We live this out in a bunch of ways. When a child brings you a painting, you say, “Oh, wow, it’s so good! You’ll be the next Picasso!” If an adult brought you that same painting, your reaction will be very different. But you’re much more indulgent with the kid, no matter if the painting is good or not (be real, it’s not). Why? Because at that point in their life, the objective quality of the painting isn’t the point. The point is the encouragement. You want them to try again, to do another painting, to figure some things out, and then do another. You want them to feel good about their efforts. And some kids will actually get better, and a select few will eventually produce something incredible. And most will stop painting one day and go try something else.
Startups are to the economy what children are to life. For a long time, people saw them as miniature companies. They thought that entrepreneurs were just mini-versions of the businesspeople who were already out there running things, that they could apply the same rules to both.
But entrepreneurs aren’t mini-versions of a businessman from the 1960s or 70s. Startups aren’t mini-versions of traditional corporations. They’re in a distinct phase of learning and imagination. So like a child with a painting, we have to judge them on their potential, not their actuality. And yes, startup investors can (and should) be just as naive in encouraging their entrepreneurs as mothers are with their children. When I was young, my mother always told me that I was the most beautiful boy in the world. It was years before I realized that it just wasn’t true. But I also know, to this day, that for my mother it actually was true (not least because she keeps saying it). That’s the kind of confidence an investor should be instilling in their entrepreneurs, because it’s all about nourishing their potential.
Of course, at some point you have to grow up. But you don’t want that moment to come too early or too late. Have you ever seen those kids who act like they’re accountants even though they’re only 7 years old? The kid who’s out on the playground, not playing or running after the other kids, but is just yelling to the adults about all the things the other kids are doing wrong? Those kids grew up too fast, they don’t feel the freedom that’s so important at that age. Let’s face it, they’re kinda creepy. And they aren’t going to do anything of real consequence in their lives, simply because they’ll always do exactly what other people expect them to do.
On the other hand, you can’t try to Peter Pan your way through life. A 4-year-old who tries to hit you is amusing; a 16-year-old, not so much. Once you’ve grown to a size where it can’t be laughed off, when people can’t afford to indulge you anymore for the simple reason that now you really can hurt them, it’s time to grow up. No one likes a 25-year-old who acts like a 7-year-old. It’s a question of recognizing your real size, your real force, and your real responsibility.
When do you become an adult? There isn’t one objective rule. Usually, it happens at one of two possible moments.
The first is that you choose to be an adult (“I’m not a kid anymore!”). Some startups do exactly that. Their founders look around and say, “Look, we need to start paying attention to how we’re spending our cash, we’re going to need to put together some processes.”
The second is that you become an adult because you’re forced into it. Something traumatic happens — a parent dies, an accident, kicked out of the house — and the child becomes an adult. You see it in their eyes. The traumatic event for a startup comes when its life is threatened: an investment round falls apart at the last minute, a big client decides not to sign the contract. The earlier that moment arrives in the startup’s life cycle, the worse it is, and the more likely the startup won’t grow to its full potential as a result. It’s always much better to be able to make the decision on your own.
The Story of One’s Cake
Our cardinal value at The Family is ambition. No matter where you are in Europe, we’re here to help if your ambition is to create a company that can become something truly big. Our job is to help you get there, to give you an environment where you’ll be able to create a bigger company than if you weren’t in The Family.
People ask us, “So concretely, what do you do?” The answer’s never what they’re looking for, because we don’t really do anything that you can list. Instead, we focus our energy with entrepreneurs on three general areas: Education, leverage, and financing.
That mode of functioning means that our relationships with entrepreneurs are very intense, even though our interactions are relatively rare. So many accelerators and incubators have a way of working that’s just pestering, pestering, pestering entrepreneurs. As entrepreneurs ourselves, we never really understood that. It’s kind of like a real estate agent who comes along on all of the visits, just to show you that they’re there and deserve their commission, even though they aren’t really adding any value at that point. But they want to create a sense of “value by being present”, or something like that.
At The Family, our value isn’t in being present. Our value is in saying that if you’re in The Family, if we have 5% of your company, we’re going to do everything we can to make sure that 5% is worth as much as possible. That is our model: to have our economic interests perfectly aligned with the economic interests of our entrepreneurs.
That 5% makes us partners. We aren’t service providers, here to make sure that everyone gets the same thing. After all, not everyone needs the same thing, especially in a continent as varied as Europe.
Some people are a bit confused by that, especially in France, the country where we started. In France, there’s a deep-seated idea about what is “fair” that we believe is pretty incompatible with the world of entrepreneurship. Let me explain.
I’m not from France. I was born in Lebanon and then lived in the Congo before I came with my mom to France when I was in elementary school. Not long after we got there, I was invited to eat at a friend’s house. There was a cake at the end of the meal, and there were 7 of us at the table. Cakes don’t split into 7 equal parts easily. But his mom spent a very long time doing just that, because that’s how the French generally see the idea of “fair”.
But I didn’t understand. At all. I mean, I liked cake more than my friend, so why was it “fair” for him to get the same amount as me? And his dad didn’t really like it at all, why is it “fair” to force him to take the same-sized slice as the others? In the end, I’m not the same as everyone else, and so the division of pieces should reflect that, right?
That isn’t necessarily a popular opinion in every domain. But in entrepreneurship, I truly believe it’s necessary. Entrepreneurs have to think of themselves as unique, as different. And they have to think that it’s therefore right for them to have a bit more than everyone else. It’s not because they deserve it in some universal sense; it’s because that’s the kind of attitude it takes to build something from nothing. You need to be able to transmit that attitude of “I’m different, that’s why we’re building something different, you’re part of that, and you’re contributing in ways that are different than others, which is why you’re getting this while they’re getting that.” Successfully communicating that attitude to everyone around you is the only way to actually build something huge and impactful.
(By the way, the end of the cake story was that I went home and told my mom, who said “You’re never going to that house again!” Eventually we figured out it was a cultural thing, but still, our culture was different. My mom made a cake, we’d all be there negotiating for the part we wanted. Cake in a Lebanese household is a question of leverage and bargaining!)
Dice, Chess, and Poker
At its heart, becoming an entrepreneur is an act of rebellion. It’s saying, “I’m not going to keep doing things the way they’ve always been done.” Creating a startup is jumping into a world where things aren’t normal. First, because the “normal” state of things in the startup world is failure. A startup that succeeds is just as abnormal as the decision to become an entrepreneur. The only way to have success as an entrepreneur is either to have an enormous stroke of luck or to be very determined for a very long time, working on lots of ideas and lots of startups to finally get some success.
If someone succeeds the first time, that’s more luck than talent. Succeeding after pushing and working and never giving up, that’s willpower, that’s talent.
Our problem in Europe is that we have so few examples of success in the startup world. If you’re in France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, you might have examples of industrial success, people who built companies half a century ago. Those can be very nice, smart people, but they know absolutely nothing about startups. How could they? They’ve never built one.
That wouldn’t be such a big deal, but it leads to another problem. Too many people in Europe think that it’s better to be poorly supported than not supported at all. Since The Family began in 2013, we’ve met way too many entrepreneurs who, when they came to meet us, had cap tables that were already completely destroyed. I’ve never understood how people can look at the world we’re living in and think that the difference between startup success or failure is a few hundred grand given for 40% in the company’s early days.
And that’s the big secret at The Family: The things that make a difference for an entrepreneur today happen in their head, not in their wallet. The things in their head require focus, discipline, and ambition, all in quantities that are simply not natural. In our whole history as a firm, we’ve had one entrepreneur who showed up and was pretty much perfect right from the start. All the others, more than 1,000 entrepreneurs, more than 500 companies, looked completely different after six months, a year, two years of being an entrepreneur.
If you don’t understand that evolutionary aspect to entrepreneurship, it leaves you vulnerable to storytelling. You’ll believe what you read in the press about how an entrepreneur acts, what a startup looked like at the beginning. Yet it’s also true that to be successful as an entrepreneur you need to actively participate in that kind of myth-making. At the beginning, you’re a kitten, and you need to send yourself through the machine that makes you roar like a lion. If you wait until you actually feel like a lion before you start to roar, it’ll never work. You have to clearly know that you’re a kitten, who is hopefully growing and learning, while convincing the rest of the world that you’re already a lion.
You can see this as part of the game of entrepreneurship, which is basically a game of poker. Not everyone is comfortable playing poker. Some people prefer dice, they see life as a game of chance. Throw the dice, see what comes up. These are the opportunists, the street smart people who take things as they come. Others prefer playing chess, they see life as a question of intelligence. They’ll go into a traditional company and start plotting moves to make their way to the top.
But entrepreneurs are playing poker, which means embracing a mix of luck, intelligence and maximizing the hand you’re holding. After all, in poker you can win with a bad hand or with a good hand; you can lose with a bad hand or with a good hand. Entrepreneurship is the same: There are people who win with a bad startup, where things really don’t seem all that great; there are people who lose with a good startup, where everything looked perfect right up until they shut down the servers.
The ability to play a particular hand to the best of your ability is important because the world isn’t what it once was. Everything people think they know probably isn’t true anymore, simply because the world is changing too quickly. Experience doesn’t really matter in a world where Brexit happens, where Donald Trump is elected, where Emmanuel Macron becomes president of France. Experience isn’t what counts today, no more than if you took someone driving their minivan and put them into a Formula One car (I think, but what do I know, I don’t even have my driver’s license). You aren’t going to trust them to drive that car. So why do people still put so much faith in “experience” when that’s no longer a good predictor of success?
No Need to Wait
In the age of the internet, knowledge has become a commodity, freely available for anyone who wants to grab it. It no longer takes a lifetime to become an expert on any given subject. And there’s no need to wait — you can start acting on your new knowledge quickly and keep learning more along the way.
And what about the mistakes you’ll inevitably make? What about your reputation? The world is much, much bigger than it used to be. You can disappoint a lot of people and, assuming you learn and improve, end up in a position where you can make many, many more very happy.
That’s because things have changed from what every previous generation knew. Society used to be very closed, everything was very stuffy because there were a few key people you couldn’t avoid: the gatekeepers. In my case, if I had been in France during the 1980s, I don’t think I would have lasted very long. I’m a Phoenician from Lebanon named Oussama. I didn’t go to Polytechnique, France’s top engineering school. I didn’t go to the ENA, France’s top administrative school. What would have possibly allowed me to go through the filter of “People who should make it”?
But today I’m able to do exactly that because I can build things without asking for anyone’s permission. Before, if I wanted to speak to a large audience, I’d have to figure out a way to get on the national TV channels. The gatekeepers at those channels had the power of life and death over people’s careers. They were the ones who were able to build your brand. Today I just used YouTube. I built my own brand. And those TV channels are the ones calling and asking me when would be a good time for me to come by the studio.
This is all possible because we now live in a permission-less world. You no longer have to follow pre-designated paths to conquer your place and make a difference in people’s lives. This permission-less reality is the most powerful thing an entrepreneur can realize. You can code a solution to people’s problems and reach customers anywhere in the world, without ever asking anyone if it’s ok for you to do it. Software and social media have distributed a brand of power that used to belong only to kings and tycoons.
In a world where knowledge is a commodity, ideas alone are worth nothing. Execution is the only thing that matters. That’s still hard. But the first steps of execution aren’t that difficult. A century ago, launching an ambitious company meant tying up ten years of capital in a factory that would take five years to build. There was a ton of risk and lots of things to do before any product even came close to being sold. Today’s entrepreneurs don’t have that level of risk. What sacrifices do you have to make, what risks do you have to take to build a landing page and test the market?
This doesn’t mean it’s easy. It doesn’t mean that being an entrepreneur is for everyone. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a ton of stress and difficulty. But all of that stress and difficulty is relative.
These facts, that we live in a permission-less world, that startups are hard, that the stress is relative, mean that you, the entrepreneur, have an obligation to do something people think looks crazy. Being crazy is how you find the growth that can turn your startup into a global player. For years Europeans complained that investors didn’t want to give them money, that it all went to Silicon Valley. But it wasn’t because they were European, it was because their companies and products weren’t as crazy and so didn’t grow as much as other companies those investors could invest in, whether in the US or China. As soon as you start building companies that have the same growth as a company in Silicon Valley, like magic, the best investors in the world show up! The startups at The Family that have partnered with smart, global money for growth didn’t get there because we unlocked some secret network for them. It’s just that we’ve worked for years to develop a more ambitious mentality in our entrepreneurs, a mentality that pushes them to create companies that can compete on a global level.
That’s why we don’t do anything standard at The Family, because supporting entrepreneurs in their mission can’t happen in the same way for everyone. Just like with kids, there’s a bit of magic involved in really paying attention and understanding what individuals need and how to give it to them at the right moment. Sometimes an entrepreneur needs help with a sales pitch, so we’ll work on it with them. Sometimes they need to find the right employee to improve their marketing, so we’ll put them in touch with the best. Sometimes they just need a hug, so we’ll give them that. No judgement, no shame, just growing ambition.
Anyone can become an Entrepreneur. Not everyone will become a great entrepreneur, but we know that a great entrepreneur can come from anywhere. We’re building a family because the world is always hard on people who try to do something different. So many people reject things that are new. That’s why we work to make sure our family understands that they don’t need to be ashamed of wanting to build something big and important. That they can be sincere and earnest in what they’re doing. That they can get back that magical childhood moment, that they can learn the mentality needed to build European unicorns.
Because yes, unicorns are the goal — a generation of thriving, important companies that can drive a virtuous circle of European development. Too many people hear the parallel of childhood/startups and start thinking “Oh, well, it’s not that serious then, they’re just kids.” But we all know that raising kids is a serious thing, because the returns on what we put into their education can be amazingly huge. Startups are the same way, and should be treated with that same level of sincerity.
Building these important companies is more than a question of business. In a time when Europe seems more and more divided and not at all up to today’s big challenges, we need to clearly say that the role of entrepreneurs is critical. We don’t need politicians to somehow unite and form an Administrative Europe if we succeed in creating a functional, healthy Entrepreneurial Europe. To do that, we have to understand what an entrepreneur really is and why they’re so important to our future. We need to understand why building a startup here is different from building it anywhere else. And most importantly, we need to convince ourselves that we have all of the necessary ingredients on hand, so long as we start combining them with more panache.
Europe, let’s go!