Start-up Advice: Jeanne M Sullivan, StarVest Partners

28 Jun 2016

Jeanne M Sullivan is the co-founder or StarVest Partners VC firm, as well as the chief inspiration officer at her advisory firm Sullivan Adventures.

Jeanne M Sullivan will be in Dublin later this week to speak at Inspirefest 2016.

With more than 25 years’ experience as a VC, Sullivan is passionate about backing female founders, and she is on the global board of trustees of Astia, which funds high-growth female entrepreneurs.

She is also an advocate of the potential of the ‘experienced economy’, which is an area she will be discussing in her keynote at Inspirefest this Thursday (30 June).

In your opinion, which areas of technology hold the greatest scope for opportunities?

There are vast opportunities to be discovered, invented and scaled in the cannabis industry – one of the fastest-growing sectors in the world!

The sector has unlimited opportunities requiring tech knowledge and experience – from processing of the plant, testing, biotech and biopharma, data analytics, seed-to-sale ERP platforms, infrastructure solutions and more.

The opportunity to explore investing and entrepreneurial opportunities started for me as a human rights and social justice issue – but I see the clear health benefits and economic issues and those have me here to stay.

This sector is already a $5.4bn legal industry today in the US alone, with a compound annual growth rate of more than 30pc (per ArcView Group Market Research). More than 40pc of the businesses in the sector are women-owned and more to follow. Why? We care about the health and safety issues of cannabis products for our kids, our parents and our partners. Due to US federal prohibition rules for more than 100 years, the government is just starting to allow the research that proves that the cannabinoids in the plant can help many people for various illnesses. It is known already that the products are much safer and healthier than the opioid drugs that are pervasive.

We know already that many products today can relieve depression, halt or reduce epilepsy seizures, reduce or eliminate pain and can even heal some cancers. The science around the cannabis plant is just starting to be developed and, in time, Big Pharma, Big Tobacco and Big Alcohol will be the acquirers of the best-of-breed companies that are being developed today and over the next several years as the “stigma” leaves the sector.

Are good entrepreneurs born or can they be made?

Surrounded by smart, capable people, I believe an entrepreneur can be created. She is able to build and scale a business with the seed of a strong idea. My favourite African proverb is: “If you want to go fast, go alone – if you want to go far, go together.”

What are the qualities of a good founder?

The entrepreneurs who got the wallet out of our pocket were the ones who knew “what to do and how to do it”.

It takes a high amount of resilience and a keen ability to see the “gap” in the marketplace and create and scale a company.

What does a successful entrepreneur need to do every day?

It is critical to be able to “look left, look right and out over time”. I believe that if the entrepreneur becomes the CEO of the business that she is the most important person on the team! But what about the sales VP? The CTO? The COO? The CEO will understand the financing needs of the business – create the proper esprit dcorps of the team and culture – and understand the strategic opportunities to scale the business. Again, resilience is key to get through the tough times.

‘There are vast opportunities to be discovered, invented and scaled in the cannabis industry’

What resources and tools are an absolute must for your arsenal?

The critical resources are: a smart and dedicated team that understands the goal and is in sync. The successful CEO creates this type of healthy environment and great culture.

Build a strong advisory board when you start, and create a great board with domain knowledge. Build a supportive infrastructure that helps create the technology tools to drive the business forward and create efficiencies.

Always understand the financial needs of the business and manage that properly – it’s mission critical to plan the financing because running out of money sucks.

How do you assemble a good team?

  • Hire the best people and have them tell you what is needed for the business.
  • Displace people quickly if they are not additive to the mission or the culture.
  • Motivate the team with both financial incentives and other “soft” needs. This might be flexitime or job sharing.

What are the biggest mistakes that founders make?

These are the biggest mistakes I have seen, observed and (sadly) been part of in 25 years as a venture capitalist:

  • The founder that is completely hung up on getting diluted instead of creating financing runway.
  • The founder that does not understand the financial needs of the business and the company gets into cash-flow issues, thus creating disruption through lack of proper planning or business acumen.
  • The founder that is a jerk and does not treat their people with respect and support.

Who is your business hero and why?

I am in awe of the many dynamic women entrepreneurs who figure out a great product or service, build a team, get financed and scale a great business. Access to capital remains the No 1 issue for female entrepreneurs and it is thrilling to see many prevail through sheer hard work, teamwork and focus. Wow.

Whats the No 1 piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs?

Make sure that you find your “ikegei” – a wonderful Japanese word for “reason for being” – the centre spot of what feeds your energy and joy for your life’s work.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book your tickets now to join us from 30 June to 2 July 2016 for fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity.