#2 Samir Ahmad: Get Your Team Right and Everything Will Follow

published on 06 February 2021

If you are really passionate about something, you forget about time. The most successful start-ups have tons of such hungry people.

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Samir has a natural tendency to make people laugh (this is just one of his many superpowers). In fact, he can turn any conversation into a humoristic rollercoaster while always keeping the intellectual competent alive. Today was no exception, and you are in for a ride, so hold tight.

I met Samir in the park, and we had some Italian takeaway before we sat down on a bench while enjoying the majestic bridge, ErasmusBrug, in all its pride. The sun is shining, and it is the perfect time to share some profound lessons, but first, let us finish our Panino.

Samir is currently the investment manager of KPN Ventures, the venture capital arm of KPN, the leading telco in the Netherlands. He also holds various board positions in leading start-ups such as the Silicon Valley-based cybersecurity ZecOps and the Israelian cloud-computing Cloudify, and the list continues.

But that is only one part of the story.

At Venture Insider, we strive to undress the ups-and-down, the late nights, early morning, the failures and the victories.

In a few words; we want to share the real stories.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

When did you decide you wanted to go into Venture Capital, and what was your path towards this objective?

My journey started when I decided to study pharmacy at the University of Groningen (a very unconventional path for VCs indeed). Luckily during my studies, I had an incredible opportunity to work in the business department at Twente, a football club in the highest division in the Netherlands. It was my first ever exposure to the world of business, and this experience blew me away, and I quickly realized holy sh*t, business is quite cool.

After the bachelor's degree, I decided to pursue two master's degrees at the same time (yes I am crazy indeed), one in pharmacy and the other in finance. For two years, I spent my days in the lab, creating proteins and discovering blood cells, and in the evening, I was working on financial markets, and calculating debt/equity ratios. It was a very challenging period, but worth it.

Straight after graduation, I began working in a corporate finance boutique in Rotterdam on multi-million and up to billion-dollar deals in the healthcare industry. I was young and ambitious and felt like the real deal, who wouldn’t think so right?

In fact, the people who work in the finance world will continuously tell you that you are in the center of the universe and that the world is spinning around you but, trust me, this is not the case, and I had to learn it the hard way. After a while, I realized that I could not reach my fullest potential in M&A, so I decided to work for a tech-start-up to make an impact.

During my start-up years, I got exposed to what ended up becoming my passion, venture capital. One day I met the team of KPN Ventures, and I fell in love with them, so I decided that it was the right place for me to grow. The rest is history.

What was the greatest lesson you have learned by working with start-ups?

The amount of adversity the founders need to tackle daily is beyond the ordinary, and the struggles outweigh the success stories. It was fascinating to experience first hand how hard the founders work and how committed they are. These days, media tend to show the glamorous side of working in start-ups, but, in reality, it is hard work, period. Ever since I have built tremendous respect for founders. In short, the most important lesson was to become more grounded, to be humble.

What are the essential skills every investor should have to succeed in this game?

The investors should be passionate about what they do. It might sounds cliché or obvious, but you will be surprised how important that is. Not so obvious, an investor should be able to provide a unique value proposition based on their skillset. For example, if you have a strong background in marketing and sales and have built a growth agency, you should polish these skills and help the founders accordingly with their marketing activities.

In short, no matter what you do, what is essential for an investor is to bring something to the table. Usually, it is a combination of a novel experience, a strong network, and most importantly, being able to relate to the struggles of the founders (being an entrepreneur yourself helps here). Being funny would not hurt either; after all, you have to spend hours and hours with the founders, so you better improve your jokes.

What are the most significant challenges start-ups face when they are growing during their early days?

The biggest challenge is by far sales and operations. I think that if you are underperforming in sales, you will not be able to raise any new rounds. Furthermore, if your operations are not smooth, you won’t be able to deliver products to your end-customers, which will lead to a bad reputation and churn. It is quite simple, every investor will look at your sales metrics, and they will ask a straightforward question, is the traction substantial on a year-on-year basis? I truly hope for you that the answer to this question will be yes.

What are the common mistakes that founders do early on?

The number one mistake is not creating a well-balanced and diverse team. This task is not rocket science, but it is quite hard to balance young, hungry people with experienced veterans, but this combination is crucial for success. The idea that a start-up is made up of twenty years old computer scientists is valid only in movies, in reality, diverse teams beat every other team out of the park.

Second, the founder should be cautious and selective towards its investors. I can’t stress this enough, and I tell founders daily that they want smart money, and not dumb money. The main distinction between the two is that smart money is about raising an investment round to create a meaningful relationship with an investor who shares the vision of the company and is equally committed. It will take extra time to find the right investors, but worth striving for.

You’re working in a start-up environment 24/7, so the million-dollar question is whether we will ever see Samir launch its own company?

That is a funny question, but let me tell you how I structure this argument logically. First, you need to be brutally honest about your capabilities, because, let’s face the truth, not everyone is made to start a company. Before you start hating me for saying this, let me tell you the different types of entrepreneurs.

There are three types of entrepreneurs. The first type is the apparent visionary who takes abnormal risk upon their shoulders and creates an idea into a company taking the project from point A to point B. The second type, is the corporate entrepreneur, aka, the typical all-star MBA. These guys rarely start their own companies but strive from point C onward by imposing a strict structure and professional management. The last type is the rock-star entrepreneur that kills it from the beginning until the very end. They are very 1% of the people and the crème de la crème such as Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg.

If I look at myself, I am not the creative type. It was hard to admit, but it is essential to recognize your weaknesses to be able to build your strengths. Therefore, if I have to place myself into the corporate entrepreneur bucket for now.

If you can choose one failure that has set you up for later success, what would that be?

Generally, I think failure is essential. But here is the little secret, you, young entrepreneur, doesn’t need to fail. Why should you make the same mistakes as I did? The magic is when you select people you admire and learn from their mistakes, in that way you can accelerate your growth.

In terms of my own mistakes, I believed the vast majority of my life that by working hard enough I could obtain every dream of mine. The sad reality is that hard work alone will not help you getting there by itself. I quickly realized having great people around you was equally as important, if not more. Therefore, if I could go back in time, I would have tried very hard to find like-minded mentor figures.

What advice would you give to an aspiring entrepreneur who wants to create something meaningful?

Most people are smart enough to make it, that is not what stands in between them and success. Instead, most people lack experience. Accordingly, the best piece of advice I could provide is that you should try to do everything in your power to build your skillset and experience.

If you want to become an entrepreneur, I would advise you to join a scale-up that is managed by a serial-entrepreneur. It is incredibly difficult to start successful companies over and over again, so serial-entrepreneurs are some mystical figures that know something that normal people don’t. If you can find a serial-entrepreneur, who is willing to take you under its wing and teach you everything, you won the lottery.

Inspiring story Samir, thank you very much.

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