Coaching and training can inspire growth and lead to leadership capabilities but it’s something that I look for upfront. Without an ability to champion your vision, influence and lead others to follow you on a journey that is going to be fraught with hazards and challenges, you’ll be unable to build the dream team that you need for your business to succeed.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Promise Phelon.
Promise Phelon is part of the 0.2% in Silicon Valley, a growth warrior and serial entrepreneur who has raised over $100 million in capital. Her expertise in technology, digital transformation and SaaS business models resulting in multiple successful exits. As a pioneer in “influencer tech” holding multiple patents , Promise is empowering the underdog founder in the “The Way of the Growth Warrior” the name of her upcoming book and mentoring methodology where Promise and her team help founders learn the skills need to thrive. Additionally, Promise is actively leading seasoned investors through startup investments and making acquisitions of tech SaaS companies.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what made you decide to take this career path?
I’ve always understood that capital was the root to fueling markets and enabling transformation. As I nurtured my career, I’ve worked closely with career investors and since my most recent company exit in 2018, I recognized that as an operator and former tech CEO, I could be a unique type of investor who was capable of offering great leaders both the capital and the conditioning to realize their visions.
What you are doing is not very common. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were going to focus on social impact investing in particular? Can you share the story with us?
I’m not a social impact investor, but I aspire to create change by enabling a “class” of founders and CEOs who will not only create massive wealth but will hire, contribute and offer their unique genius to other underdogs. My organization, the Growth Warrior / my book / my methodology are all centered around the reality that we can mentor people into dramatically different outcomes. My life was transformed by two important mentors — Barbara Britton, who in the early 2000s helped me get into tech and find my way into entrepreneurship, and “Coach” Bill Campbell, who instilled in me the courage and grit to keep going despite biases and obstacles.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
Actually, that happened when I was 18. My mother recognized how much I had on my plate with college studies, writing as an intern for the Dallas Transit authority, house-sitting, dog-walking, baby-sitting and doing whatever odd jobs and gigs I could squeeze into a 26-hour day. Over dinner one night, she opened the conversation around seeing the opportunity and scaling for growth. It was a mindset shift: at that moment I learned that selling time for money is the most fragile system ever created and that you could never outwork anti-fragile relationships. So I started a public relations firm that offered fee-for-service to physicians and sold it before I completed my undergraduate program; doing so propelled me into an MBA program at Pepperdine and paid for it.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person or mentor to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Barbara Britton was in the Exec MBA program when I was a full-time MBA student at Pepperdine. She helped me see that I had massive insights, energy and potential. She took me under her wing; when she was recruited to run a big tech business at a unicorn startup in Silicon Valley, she offered me a massive opportunity by inviting me to work for her and be part of the journey that led to a multi-billion dollar exit with Oracle. I am so incredibly grateful for her continued belief in me and my potential. I would not be here without her support, encouragement, and ability to remove obstacles.
You have been blessed with great success in a career path that many have attempted, but eventually gave up on. Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path but are afraid of the prospect of failure?
Susan Jeffers taught us all to “feel the fear and do it anyway” and those are words to live by. If you enter into entrepreneurship arrogant enough to believe that you are going to become the next Unicorn without hitting any speedbumps or headwinds, your hubris will take you out of contention. Conversely, if you enter into entrepreneurship conditioned to fail and paralyzed by your fear, you’re not going to be capable of taking the risks and leaps that you’ll need to in order to be successful. Founders need to have that proper balance of confidence and risk-tolerance without having too much or too little of either in order to succeed. If that’s not your balance, rethink your career path.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main part of our discussion. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share a few things that need to be done on a broader societal level to expand VC opportunities for women, minorities, and people of color?
We’ve collectively reached a tipping point that has forced us to reexamine everything from policing to social injustice, equality and access to technology for remote learning in this era of COVID. That’s a lot to work through and it’s going to take time. Hiring people of color into the roles of Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officers is a step in the right direction, but those leaders need to be funded and empowered to drive change. Specifically, as it relates to VC opportunities, there’s definitely been progress. For example, last year, Black VCs invested $370 million in Black startups, and that’s terrific but it still only represents 1% of the pie.
Since we published our State of the Underdog Report, I’m routinely invited to meet with VCs to discuss how they can change their investment screening process. Many of them recognize the complexity of unconscious bias but they lack a process- and metrics-based approach to investment in underdogs. They need a vetted pipeline in combination with a business conditioning program designed for underdogs to increase their potential for success; this is what we do at The Growth Warrior and we’re open to collaboration because we see it as the only way to have a broader, societal level impact on funding opportunities for women, minorities and people of color.
You are a leader who is focused on investments that are making a positive social impact. Can you share with us a bit about the projects and companies you have focused on, and look to focus on in the future?
For me, it’s all about backing the underdog founder; those underestimated entrepreneurs who have been overlooked because they don’t fit the mold. Specifically, they’re not young, White men who have graduated from an Ivy League college and if they’re not, they don’t look like the investors who are evaluating their business potential. We’ve recently released our second annual “State of the Underdog 2020 Report” which highlights the tremendous upside potential for investors — but only if the underdogs can overcome the barriers — and that’s not as simple as it sounds.
Despite the excitement that women have recently secured almost 3% of the total venture capital pie and either founded or co-founded 21 Unicorns, that’s still unacceptable and the gap is widening: underdogs are getting access to capital even less often than they did before. Underdogs have battled uphill for so long that they’ve learned to take “no” for an answer and have conditioned themselves for failure. My future focus and that of The Growth Warrior is to identify underdog founders, to empower them through our mentorship and non-negotiable skills training programs to recondition them for success.
In general, which business sectors excite you most and which sectors do you look to invest in?
Tech is always my go-to. More specifically, human capital and asset (non-financial) management are of great interest to me because the technology exists, or can be developed, to increase operational efficiency many-fold and hence yield greater margins and a higher return on my investment.
Can you share a story with us about your most successful Angel or VC investment? Or an investment that you are most proud of? What was its lesson?
We’re currently hot on SlideShop, a creative assets disruptor in how we work and influence in a market dominated by players like Canva. After more than six months of deep mentoring and a hands-on effort to transform their business through operational efficiency and adjustment to their commercial model, we’re seeing tremendous upside in growth and valuation. They’ve already boosted revenues by triple digits and we’re set to release a new technology that will change how business professionals present, propose and persuade.
Can you share a story of an Angel or VC funding failure of yours? What was its lesson?
Failures are tough to swallow and candy-coating them as learning opportunities helps them go down but the reality is that some businesses don’t succeed, despite their innovative technology, strength of their leadership team and everything else. Sometimes, they’re ahead of their time or too late to market. One of my own startups, UpMo, was among the first in human capital management to spur the shift from paper to digital resumes. We raised $5 million in capital and were backed by a strong investment team; however the market wasn’t ready for a career management system. I tell entrepreneurs that you may have a great and big idea, but markets are dynamic and have their own energy, sometimes they’re ready and you go big: other times; you learn.
Is there a company that you turned down, but now regret? Can you share the story? What lesson did you learn from that story?
I don’t ever recall turning down a company that I now rue the opportunity lost. However, I do recall early in my career that I lost a large customer or two, and the lessons that I learned from that experience. One, a long-term strategic fit does matter; and two, maintaining a relationship with the company and the individuals involved is critical because opportunities evolve and shift over time and those anti-fragile relationships are designed to work for you.
Super. Here is the main question of this interview. What are your “5 things I need to see before making a VC investment” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
One: I focus on tech startups because that’s the market that I’ve been in as a Silicon Valley growth warrior so I obviously look for sound technology, something with substance that actually works and isn’t vaporware. Some founders approach investors too early with vision boards and not even clickable wireframes so it’s impossible to get a sense for what the technology could be, let alone to assess the potential technological feasibility of developing it.
Two: the founder needs to be self-confident. If they’re not, I can work with them to develop that inner strength to overcome their self-doubts but it’s something that I look for. If the founder doesn’t feel that they can win against the world when the odds are stacked against them, it’s unlikely that they’ll survive the perils of entrepreneurship.
Three: leadership skills is the natural complement to the second thing that I look for. Again, coaching and training can inspire growth and lead to leadership capabilities but it’s something that I look for upfront. Without an ability to champion your vision, influence and lead others to follow you on a journey that is going to be fraught with hazards and challenges, you’ll be unable to build the dream team that you need for your business to succeed.
Four: it’s all about knowing the market that you’re going to serve. I’ve seen it multiple times in the Q&A that follows a pitch. Whether it’s me or other VCs asking the questions it doesn’t matter, but how founders answer the questions regarding the competitors in their market, how they’re different, where they anticipate facing headwinds and so on make the critical difference in my decision to invest or to move the conversation towards further due diligence on the investment potential.
Five: I look at the relationships that the founders have established. Are they anti-fragile? The best entrepreneurs build powerful, symbiotic and resilient relationships with customers, partners and investors that strengthen through adversity and challenging situations. To be anti-fragile as a human, as a team, as a founder and as an organization requires the patience of a yogi and the discipline of a marine. Being an entrepreneur isn’t for everyone — it’s not an easy path — and if you’re not prepared for blowback and you’re going to melt like a snowflake when things get a little heated, you’re business is not going to succeed.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
We’re championing the movement #DiversityWithIntention. The year 2020 has been a watershed one on so many levels. From our collective and collaborative efforts to unite against a common enemy — the coronavirus — to the cacophonous outcry against social injustice, the world has been forever changed. Now that systemic racism, Black lives matter and the widening gap in society has moved to the global center stage, there is no turning back. But a new need has emerged, one that moves us beyond diversity and inclusion towards equality; and the only way that we can move towards that goal is to consider diversity with intention.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Just get started. Don’t wait and don’t let society or anyone else dictate what you should be doing because you either check a box — or you don’t. Society needs divergent thinkers, disruptors and innovators; that’s how we move forward and advance humanity.
We are very blessed that a lot of amazing founders and social impact organizations read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you’d like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this. 🙂
Marie Forleo, hands down! Her unshakable optimism and combination of support, empowerment and philanthropy is aligned with my own. She just gets it — her advice is practical and easy to follow — just like my own where I’ve distilled a path to fundraising down to seven non-negotiable steps. I’d love to get her take on my approach.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Every Thursday, we publish the Warrior Weekly where readers can submit a question for our “Ask Me Anything” segment or they can tune into our Growth Warrior podcasts. Check us out at www.TheGrowthWarrior.com and follow us on Facebook or Twitter @1growthwarrior.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!