A few weeks ago Aaron and I met with a potential investor – arguably one of the best investors in the technology space. For about 5 years I’ve had a crush on this investor and this firm, and I was giddy about meeting with them. As is normal, some time after the presentation this investor wanted to learn more about us as humans. Aaron went first, and told his story, which included a story from when he was in middle school about starting a student run store. I did mine – ex-product @ IGN, ex-Microsoft blah blah blah. I’ve learned to read body language fairly well and this investor’s body language in response to my story appeared, well, meh… He thought my story was meh… It wasn’t till the professional board-room style meeting was coming to a close and when we learned that we had some friends in common when we got to let our guard down and talk to each other more casually. That is when we got to learn about what this investor looks for in founders he’d like to fund.
It was simple: he wants to know how long you’ve been a hustler. He didn’t want to hear your resume. He even gave us an example, which is the quintessential example of what a hustler does. I’ve facepalmed plenty since that meeting in regret of not having told my stories, but I want to share them so you know what a hustler does.
Story #1 – Tennis “Racket”
When I was 12, I took to tennis in a huge way. I absolutely loved the game. I idolized Becker, Sampras and Agassi and I’d play with whoever and whenever I could. But much like any other sport, playing the same people over and over doesn’t challenge you as much. Mixing up your opponents makes you better. So I would seek out to enroll in tournaments and play at clubs where I could mix things up and learn and grow. Unfortunately where I grew up, the nearest best tennis courts were inside elite clubs which cost some serious $$$$ to play at. It was where some of the best tennis players in the country would play. My parents were practical people and they felt playing at this club was a privilege and not a necessity. As a 12 year old impatient boy, you reach in to your instincts to try and find a way to get what you want.
This club I really wanted to play at had two tennis courts that bordered a dead pedestrian street. The wall between those courts and the street was at best 10 feet high. Between 2-4pm everyday, a tennis instructor would teach a bunch of students with his back against this wall. Invariably, between 20-30 balls would make their way over this low wall and on to the street. These were pretty bad ass tennis balls (I can’t remember what brand now), but I remember the club used to charge a mighty premium to buy these inside the club. So between 2-4pm, I’d hang outside this club against this wall and collect these overpriced tennis balls. The next day I’d sell the tennis balls that were in the best shape to people who were entering the club for a special low “street price” (something like 300 fils per ball or 2 cans of 3 balls each for 1.5 dinars, whereas the club was selling it for something north of 2 dinars for a single can of 3 balls). I made enough over a week for a single visitor pass to the club. That got me about 4-6 hours of playing time there per week.
Story # 2 – Book club
Our school library SUCKED. It had the most pathetic and antiquated collection of books I’d ever seen. Our librarian was a super friendly guy though and he often claimed that the books the school wanted to buy were too expensive and that the school didn’t stand to gain monetarily by investing in our library. I was never a big reader myself, but my friends were.
At the time, my parents and I flew a lot. We’d vacation somewhere at least once a month and we made our way over to India quite a bit. I used this opportunity to ask my parents for some extra cash to buy a few extra books. My parents would never decline such a request.
I did two things with these books: I sold some to our librarian for what was a much cheaper price than what the school was getting them for, but I was turning a profit on them. But creating a book club/marketplace with these books seemed was a sustainable business. Moreover, some kids had books they were willing to share. And this fed the needs of some other kids wanted books to read that they could never find in our library. And so my friend and I created a “marketplace” – much like a library, we charged our friends a flat fee of 500 fils a month to become members of our club to rent out up to 5 books a month for 1 week each. If one of your books were to get rented out, you’d get 100 fils off (up to 5 books a month). I was in 6th grade, and this was an amazing side business. Eventually with a non-computerized system to manage who had what, this got out of hand and out of control (I think I still owe some kids money and/or books). But it was an awesome learning experience…
It’s debatable whether someone is a “born entrepreneur” or not. What isn’t is debatable however is what you’ve done all your life. How much you’ve hustled all your life. That is your story. That also is what can make you invaluable as a startup founder. I believe there’s a reason that the Y Combinator application asks you these two questions:
- Please tell us in one or two sentences about the most impressive thing other than this startup that each founder has built or achieved.
- Please tell us about the time you most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage.
I’ve been hustling at OnSports for a few months now. What hustling forces you to learn is that the word ‘no’ simply means you are going to find another way to get a ‘yes’.
Here are some other posts that talk about “hustlers” that you will find helpful:
- Four Archetypes Startups Need to Succeed by David Weekly
- The Hacker and the Hustler by Neal Cabbage
- Hackers and Hustlers by Micah Baldwin
- Founders, what were your earliest childhood business ventures on Quora (including stories from Shervin Pishevar and Aaron Krane)
- Dave McClure inteview on TechCrunch TV on 500 Startups Demo Day (what he looks for in a startup team)