4 Great Tips for Winning the Early-Stage Venture Game
A challenge for today's entrepreneur is figuring out what he or she does well -- and finding those who can help with areas of weakness.
During a startup's difficult early stages key team members must work together effectively. If they're always fighting over scarce resources to strengthen their respective departments, they'll be distracted from the larger task of collaborating to build the venture.
These days the best talent comes from all over the world. But managing people from different cultures takes a special type of manager -- one capable of unlocking their full potential.
A San Mateo, Calif.-based computer-security analytics startup is handling these challenges with aplomb. Exabeam, which raised $10 million in Series A funding in June, aims to mine "the potential of existing logs to fundamentally change the way cyber attacks are detected" and simplify security processes, according to its literature.
In a frank interview last week with Exabeam CEO Nir Polak, I learned the steps he's taken over the past 14 months to build Exabeam's team (now numbering 16). He came to the role after more than a decade of leadership experience at Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Imperva, a publicly traded Internet-security firm (whose Tel Aviv offices I visited in March and a year earlier).
Imperva was co-founded by CEO Shlomo Kramer, one of Israel's most successful entrepreneurs. Kramer co-founded two other publicly traded computer-security companies, Check Point Software Technologies and Palo Alto Networks, and last summer sold another one, Trusteer, to IBM for nearly $1 billion.
When Polak wanted to leave Imperva, Kramer saw an opportunity for intalling a talented and tested executive in charge of another firm (Exabeam) that could further burnish Kramer's reputation and net worth. He invested $3 million in Exabeam's seed round.
In describing his work at Exabeam, Polak offered four great tips appropriate for any early-stage entrepreneur:
1. Recognize strengths and weaknesses.
Polak received a great education in his own strengths and weaknesses from his Imperva stint. After joining Imperva in 2003 as an engineer, he ran product management and market strategy in Israel. Following Imperva's 2011 IPO, Polak moved to the States to run the company's corporate strategy department.
Fundamentally a product engineer at his core, Polak has strived in his hiring to compensate for his own areas of weaknesses, he told me.
"When I started Exabeam in 2013, I asked myself, 'What am I good at? What am I not good at?'" Polak explains. "I need a creative product person."
An entrepreneur should always closely examine personal strengths before launching a company -- and continue to do so. The executive should also determine other skills that will be essential for the new venture and hire talented people accordingly.
2. Build a team able to offset a chief's weaknesses.
Polak brought on seasoned executives to do the important jobs that he considered beyond his ken. From Imperva, he hired Sylvain Gil to be vice president of products. Upon the recommendation of Kramer, he chose Domingo Mihovilovic, an executive at data-analytics company Sumo Logic, to be chief technology officer.
While Polak views himself as skilled in strategy and selling, he hired technology talent to fill out his team and did so by tapping into his trusted Imperva network.
3. Put key team members in the same office.
It's certainly in vogue to say that the world is flat, thanks to global telecommunications and the Internet. But when a company's key team members reside in different time zones, this is stressful and saps their productivity.
"When I was trying to operate customer service and product management at Imperva, it was very difficult to have some of my team [on] the West Coast of the U.S. while the rest was in Israel," Polak says. "Managing that was so difficult that I decided that Exabeam should be all U.S. from the start."
Grouping key staff members together can encourage open communication and boost productivity since people don't have to lose sleep to communicate with staffers in another time zone.
4. Figure out how to manage people of different cultures.
Managing a team of people from different countries is a distinct skill that perhaps few entrepreneurs possess.
This seems to be one of Polak's skills. "Israelis are very passionate and direct," he says. "We have many team members from other cultures. Sylvain is French and Domingo is from Chile. We also have key people from Vietnam, Korea, Syria, China, Sweden and the U.S. I am trying to manage the team to encourage the Israeli passion but to also respect the differences among these cultures."
Polak highlights a point that's relevant to all entrepreneurs: Startups should hire the most talented people in the world but it's a mistake to conclude that the best way to manage them is to apply what works best in a manager's home country.
Editor's Note: This piece has been updated. A prior version incorrectly stated Nir Polak's location. He oversaw Imperva's product management and market strategy while in Israel but ran its corporate strategy from the United States.
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