Jane Zhang, Senior Venture Architect, discusses what she learned about overcoming limits at the recent Startup Grind Global Conference in Redwood City, CA.

Working in an environment like BCG Digital Ventures, where we are constantly pushing boundaries and rethinking products and businesses in new ways, I often feel like the only limit to what we can build is our own time and energy.

Amidst all the high-energy pitches and inspirational talks at the recent Startup Grind, I learned something unexpected: From how we run board meetings to the language we speak, everything we do has an impact on our ability to build successful businesses. And, as a result, we often limit ourselves–consciously or unconsciously. 

In this way, the ability to see and overcome our limits can have a profound impact on our work. As I listened to the interesting stories and lessons the various speakers shared, this theme seemed to come up again and again. Here are some of the key takeaways I found most useful in my daily work as a Venture Architect.

  1. Challenge your belief of what’s possible

A lot of innovation, especially technological, doesn’t seem possible until someone else is able to make it happen. But, according to Tesla Co-founder, Marc Tarpenning, once they do, “It doesn’t seem hard at all.”  In 2003, he didn’t believe self-driving cars would be possible for another few decades–even as reports emerged that Google had built the technology. But when Google unveiled their self-driving car in 2008, his immediate thought was, “Oh, I can do that!” Since then, Tesla has come to the forefront of self-driving technology.

Whether it’s self-driving cars, lab-grown organ transplants, zero-carbon cities, or any number of innovations in technology and society, we’re often more limited by our imagination rather than our ingenuity. I work with a lot of creative people and we come up with incredible ideas, but we often get stuck on the feasibility filter and we come back to what’s already possible.

To overcome these challenges try one of the following techniques:  

  • Test your beliefs: Write down your hypotheses and then test whether they have a factual basis.
  • Break down resistance: Whenever you hear someone say ‘no way,’ ask them to qualify why it’s not possible and what’s needed for it to become possible.
  • Future visioning: Take an idea and project it five-to-ten years out to see what it can become.
  • Broaden your imagination: Visit research labs and speak to those working at the bleeding edge to find out what’s next on the horizon. 
  1. Choose investors who are crazier than you

Elon Musk has proven himself to be someone willing to take a risk, investing in Tesla’s Series A despite the fact that he gave the company less than 10% probability to succeed. In fact, he wouldn’t even let his own friends invest at first because he didn’t want them to lose their money.

At that time, electric vehicles were still a hard sell to most VCs since the technology was still emerging. But Musk was already doing something crazier–he was building spaceships. “The great part about pitching to Elon is that he was busy building SpaceX,” Tarpening recalled. Musk was building spaceships, so for him it was: ‘I get this. This isn’t even hard. Next!’

Without an investor like Musk, Tesla would not have gotten where it is today. But it can be hard to find investors who are willing to take a big risk. When you do manage to find them, it can be amazing and frightening at the same time. I experienced this first hand, when I had the opportunity to work with an investor who had both the resources and commitment to build a product with us that could revolutionize farming and potentially even get rid of world hunger.

To pitch to an investor like that, you don’t sell the idea, you actually have to sell yourself – your qualifications and your commitment become the most important thing to bring that investor on board.

  1. Don’t seek board consensus

Expensify Founder, David Barrett, had a lot to say about board meetings. According to Barrett, “The key to running an effective board is to understand that everyone has different motivations.” By and large, investors are interested in your success at the expense of as few resources as possible. And while everyone may come in with good intentions, no one has the time to pay attention to the nuances of your business. 

The job of the CEO is not to work for the board or to get alignment, it’s to make sure the business succeeds. The board meeting, as designed today, presents a big challenge: “What kind of thing is so complex it needs the board, but so simple that you can decide it in a few hours?”

Barrett offered a few recommendations to side-step this challenge:

  • Understand what you can do: There’s only a short list of things you really need permission for: how much you pay yourself, issuing shares and getting a significant loan. For everything else, execute first and worry about winning others over later.
  • Make decisions before the board meeting: Identify the most important people needed to make each decision. You will be surprised to find that these people are not always on the board. 
  • Your job is not to get consensus: No one on the board can understand the complexity of your business, but they will still want to weigh in. Allow the board to stress test your decisions and constrain your resources, but don’t let them to stop you. Hold steadfast to your vision and filter out the advice which is a distraction. “Listen, focus on your success and don’t compromise. I’m no CEO, but I’ve never left a board meeting without a compromise,” said Barrett.
  1. Learn a new language

Andrew Ng, Co-founder, Coursera and former Chief Scientist, Baidu, observed that, while the U.S. is ahead when it comes to technologies like AI, China is much better at finding commercial applications. For example, Neural Machine Translation was invented in North America, but a Chinese company took it to market in China, marketing it widely in Chinese. It only became publicized in the U.S. a year later with the help of Google.

Technology is only bounded by dissemination of information. The faster and more fluidly we communicate, the faster we can invent and commercialize technology. One of the things that impressed me most at Startup Grind was the international diversity of the attendees. I met entrepreneurs from Pakistan, Brazil, Australia, South Africa and found it to be a great venue for showcasing and disseminating information about startup activity around the world. But even that is just scratching the surface. How much more could I learn if I could speak their languages, understand their consumer culture and see for myself the technologies they have embraced?

Beyond Startup Grind

To stay at the leading edge of technology and innovation and build truly game-changing businesses, we all need to keep learning, keep pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and find investors who believe in us. How do you overcome limits in your business?

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