Why We Invest in Authentic Founders

When GAN Ventures considers whether to invest in a startup, we look for four primary things:

  1. Authentic founders: Founders that know their own strengths and weaknesses and aren’t afraid to ask for help.
  2. Passionate founders: Founders that joyfully know more about their market than most people would think is normal to know about anything.
  3. Mission-driven founders: Founders that truly believe they’re changing at least a small part of the world and will stop at nothing until they do.
  4. Startups that are positioned for venture scale: We focus on venture-scale opportunities that have a logical path to a 10x, and a plausible path to a 100x, return on our investment.

While the last three make sense to most people—that we’re looking for founders who won’t stop at anything, have a clear direction, and are poised for quick growth—the first item on this list can trip some people up. So, let me explain.

Characteristics of Authentic Founders:

When we think about the characteristics of an authentic founder, three traits (which each build on one another) come to mind:

Authentic founders know themselves.
An authentic founder understands what’s going on in their heads and emotions and how their behavior can, has, and will impact others.

Authentic founders communicate what’s going on with themselves.
Authentic founders know what’s going on with themselves internally, but they’re also not afraid to share that externally. Meaning, founders who have done the work to know themselves well and then actively share their thoughts with others, exhibit authenticity.

Authentic founders communicate about more than just their good days.
They communicate the good, the bad, and the outright ugly. That’s the secret. It’s much easier to know yourself and share that with others when things look good. But just sharing your wins isn’t authenticity. True authenticity, to me, looks like sharing what’s going on with you, even when it’s not great news to share.

These Traits Lead to Trust

When you are in-tune with yourself and can be honest about what you’re experiencing, both with yourself and with others, no matter how good you know it will look, the end result is an incredible amount of trust.

You build trust with yourself because you are noticing and honoring what you need. You’re able to know your values, desires, and frustrations in a way that helps you figure out the best action for you moving forward. And, you build trust with everyone around you. Your team begins to intrinsically trust you. People see that you’re willing and able to show up exactly how you are, you’re communicating what’s really going on, and you’re not too proud to ask for help when you truly need it.

Especially in the startup world, where you’re consistently taking a team into uncharted waters, it’s vital that they trust you to lead the way well. Having a great product, knowing your market better than anyone, and having a ton of other skills can take you far. But, if you’re not working off of a foundation of trust—with yourself or your team—you risk damaging your ship before it’s really out to sail.

And that’s exactly why we care about authenticity so much.

Working on Your Authenticity

So, how do you build authenticity? How do you learn to notice what’s going on with you and then communicate it effectively to both yourself and others around you? Here’s what I feel works for me:

Define who you are and what you care about.
To me, this is all about fleshing out your individual values, your typical thought patterns and where those come from, and doing work to note what’s happening in your body as you’re experiencing emotions, all the time. Unless you know what you’re thinking and feeling—and what motivates you—you won’t be able to share that with others. To get to a place where you understand that, I would encourage you to do the following:

  1. Journal. I always carry a journal with me, and it’s a great place to write down a quick page of thoughts about what’s really going on.
  2. Write publicly. Blogging or writing in some way also helps because it forces you to get your thoughts and values out “on paper” in a concise and relatively easy-to-understand way.
  3. Go to counseling. There’s been no better way for me to get in touch with what’s going on with myself than going to a counselor. It forces you to understand your motivations and drives, but you get to do it in a safe setting.
  4. Get a coach. A coach legally can’t do some of the things counselors do, but many of them are incredible at helping you figure out what’s going on with you and the ways in which those play out at work and at home.

Share what you’re working on with others.
Practice sharing what’s going on with people you trust. I’ll call up a friend and just ask to grab a drink after my kids go down so that I can share a bit about what’s going on with me. This not only helps me work through stuff I’m thinking about but helps me create a real connection with someone else. As long as I’m consistently showing up for these friends in a similar way, we continue to build a relationship built on vulnerability and mutual support.

Share over and over again.
Being authentic once doesn’t build trust. Being authentic once three years ago isn’t authenticity. You have to share and then keep sharing. You’re also not going to be good at doing it, and doing it well, right away. It’s going to take some practice, and you have to learn for yourself what sharing authentically means to you.