March 1st, 2020
Isaac Kato is the Managing Director of the Techstars Seattle Accelerator. He is a serial entrepreneur, technology leader, and investor. Before Techstars, Isaac served as President of Mighty AI, a CV and ML company which was acquired by Uber. He also cofounded two companies: Sven Technologies, a 3D graphics startup which was acquired by a public CAD software company, and Verne Global, an Icelandic data center operator, where he raised $200M of outside capital. In addition, he has spent a decade as a VC.
For me, the beginning, middle, and end of the story are the founding team. Are they motivated? Are they brilliant? Are they resilient, both as individuals and collectively? Does the team have the highest ethical standards and character? Do they have unusual insight into the problem they are solving? If I can answer those questions with a resounding “Yes!” that is at least half the battle.
It always comes down to people. In the earliest days of a company, we spend a ton of time worrying about product market fit and fundraising, but as soon as we achieve a degree of success and start building out the team beyond the founders and the first few employees, figuring out leadership and people challenges usually becomes the most important determinant of entrepreneurial success. The people stuff is inevitably the thorniest, most complex, and most rewarding set of problems to solve. I love working with startups to establish the foundation of vision, mission, values, and culture that determines how their leadership hires, inspires, manages, and drives the overall team to work together and achieve greatness.
Is there anything that is truly more rewarding than making a positive impact on the people around us? For me and all the folks who adopt this core mantra of Techstars, Giving First comes instinctively, because we derive so much psychic reward from helping others out. I’m no neuroscientist, but I read once that giving drives the production of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin (our “happiness” hormones), and that certainly seems to apply to me and my colleagues. There’s another benefit to the Give First approach, though, which is that it’s an elegant and simple OS (operating system) for managing our human interactions. If we assume the best of people and start by being helpful, my empirical evidence suggests that it works out well for everyone the vast majority of the time.
Beyond its sheer scale and vibrancy, the thing that I love about our startup community here in the Emerald City is how helpful folks are. (Yes, I realize that “Emerald City” is becoming an anachronistic moniker, but I like it and am working hard to keep it alive.) You’d think that living in the shadow of some of the most brutally competitive and successful tech giants in the world, the startup ecosystem might be quite cutthroat, but in my experience, people here recognize that we are still in the pie-growing phase and that we benefit by helping each other out. I am admittedly a carpetbagging noob, having only arrived here a year and a half ago, but I find almost everyone I meet to be quite generous with their time, knowledge, and people networks. I will certainly push to keep this sharing culture alive for decades to come, because it really helps foster our entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Benjamin Franklin, hands down. He was a true Renaissance man and represented the best of America and American entrepreneurship, past, present, and hopefully future. Franklin was a polymathic scientist, inventor, statesman, ambassador to the world, servant citizen, and a true son of the Enlightenment. He was virtuous without being judgmental. He was brilliant, yet strove for humility. Actually, I’d like to meet him less because of his entrepreneurship and more just to learn about how he maintained his conviction of character throughout his remarkable life. He was a rockstar before rockstars existed.
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