I was living in San Francisco last year when I attended a small and informal talk that a young entrepreneur gave at an alumni event. At the time he started up AdMob, a seller of mobile advertising, he was with a new wife and child and was in the middle of his first year at Wharton. Life was a struggle. He was laden with a growing debt from his MBA, and he had a family to support.
"I needed to find a way to make enough money to support my family. But I wanted to be at home, be in charge of my own hours, and....besides, I didn't really want to work for anybody."
So he started up his company and put together a very amateurish-looking Web site that was "simple but got the job done." Fast forward a few years later, and this makes the news:
"Google Inc. said Monday it has agreed to acquire mobile-phone advertising firm AdMob Inc. for $750 million, as the search giant seeks to better position itself for increased Internet use on wireless devices." (MarketWatch)
Now this was not just by stroke of luck. Omar exuded intelligence but he wasn't arrogant. Many successful entrepreneurs I've met have a kind of swagger that doesn't truly match the underlying substance. But Omar knew his business better than anyone could, he was ahead of the curve in a still-nascent market (even today), and he had the perseverance and patience to stick with it.
Most importantly, he had a mentor. This is the real lesson. Find a mentor. Someone who's been through hard knocks and who will treat you like their own son/daughter in an area of specialty. Omar found that in a partner in Sequoia Capital. That partner didn't just treat AdMob like one of many portfolio companies with an impersonal and numbers-driven eye. He nurtured and groomed Omar, helped him think through the risks of certain paths, and went to bat for Omar when the other partners didn't fully agree on investing in AdMob.
This relationship clearly paid off not only in Omar's personal growth, but also in finding prospective acquirers and partners. Google and AdMob share a venture-capital investor in Sequoia Capital, and other backers of the three-year-old mobile firm include former eBay Inc. executive Maynard Webb. Therefore, it is absolutely important in filling your board not just with big names but with deep relationships.
I take my hat off to those humble souls who succeed and attribute their success to luck and necessity. My uncle is a successful owner of a packaged food company in France. When asked how he managed to transform himself over the years, from a penniless immigrant in Paris with a wife and 4 children to a successful business man with an active political life, he almost shrugs his shoulders and thinks deeply to find an answer.
"I didn't have much of a choice. It was either succeed or die."