By now, you know that ATO stands for “Against the Odds,” but do you know where the name came from? It’s an interesting story that goes to the core of my beliefs about entrepreneurs, and I am happy to share it with you.
Several years ago, in late 2015, I was on a panel for the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, speaking to startup teams that had been selected to appear on the television show “America’s Greatest Makers.” I was still running my software company as CEO, but it was in my capacity as an Angel Investor that I had been invited to speak.
One of the questions asked to the panel of investors, which consisted of three VCs investing at various stages and myself, was, “What are the two most important things you look for in a startup?” My first answer was, “product-market fit,” which likely comes as no surprise given our investment thesis at ATO Ventures. For my second answer, I said, “the entrepreneur’s ability to execute.”
In the Q&A that followed, an entrepreneur slowly raised his hand. He seemed eager to know something, and yet somewhat afraid of the answer. Andre Marquis, our moderator for the evening, called on him.
“My question is for Jennifer. If we are first time entrepreneurs, how can you know if we have an ability to execute or not?”
To be quite honest, I hadn’t ever thought about this long enough to put it into words, I just knew, like I knew the sun would come up in the morning, that execution is a live-or-die skill for any successful entrepreneur. Great ideas don’t build and sell themselves, after all. But, how did I know if an entrepreneur had these skills? I could just tell! Or, could I? What made me so sure? What was it that made me know, or at least believe, an entrepreneur could execute?
The microphone already in my hand from the last question, I didn’t have time to formulate a proof. Instead, my answer was raw, real and, unbenounced to the audience, came out of my personal experience. “I look at your past.” I said. “Have you succeeded against the odds somewhere in life, not necessarily in business? Has there been a time when you had to overcome an incredible challenge that nobody thought possible? Did you do it in a way that was non-obvious, required ingenuity and determination? Did you have to persevere longer than most people would dare to? If I see that an entrepreneur has succeeded against the odds already, that’s my clue that they can execute now.”
The next day, as I was reflecting on the prior evening, “against the odds” rang in my ears. “ATO Ventures would be a great name for a fund,” I thought. At the time, I had zero incling to start a venture capital company, but like all the “brilliant” domain names I come up with, I registered it. Needless to say, this one came in handy.
At ATO Ventures, we are looking for signs that entrepreneurs are tenacious and, to use an overused term, scrappy. They don’t need to have degrees from top-tier universities, privileged backgrounds or even a startup success under their belts. We want to know that founders are willing and able to just figure things out, and not crumble under the pressures of startup life. We want to know that they have already succeeded Against The Odds, and will continue to do so.
Think you would pass the test? Check out ATOVentures.com to find out if your startup is a fit.