“A Constant Struggle For Recognition”

A lot of people aren’t going to like this post given the timing, but the story has been forgotten, so I watched the NFL biography video on Tom Brady again yesterday. It chronicles his life from little league baseball, to picking up football when he was a high school freshmen, his hyper-competitive years in college football, his near-miss in the 2000 NFL draft, and his professional career highlights. In watching this video again, a number of themes emerge that reminded me of how entrepreneurial talent is built and evaluated, with all the smart people in the room. Those themes from the video are:

(1) The Cost Of Split-Focus: When Brady was an upperclassman at Michigan, then head coach Lloyd Carr also landed one of the highest-profile recruits from nearby Ann Arbor, two-sport star Drew Henson, who was also drafted by the New York Yankees. Henson wanted to play football and baseball for the Wolverines, and in order to develop Henson, who had more upside than Brady, Carr told both he would split their time in games to see who was performing better and then lock in the choice for the 2nd half of each game. Brady could’ve transferred to been a shoe-in starter at another school, but he opted to stay and stick it out. As it turned out, Brady would then come in to clean up the messes left by the other quarterback, building up a proficiency in bringing his team back from being down in score. While Brady fought for his role and constantly felt his job was on the line every week, Henson rested on his natural abilities and kept his options open to pursue baseball concurrently. The parallels exist today in the startup world, with startup CEOs creating investment firms and investors incubating companies, or companies who have co-CEOs, or CEOs who have multiple CEO jobs.

(2) Pro-Rata Recommendations: Despite the very nice things said about Brady by Carr in this video, one of the NFL coaches in the video who had a chance to draft Brady remarked that during the combines and when teams were evaluating him, none of the Michigan coaches pounded the table for him. A similar behavior happens in startup investing. The entrepreneur has existing investors, and a new potential investor will often press existing investors to stand up and pound the table for why the deal should happen. In pressing this way, the new potential investor can read between the lines to uncover new information and to better understand why this may be a great, non-obvious investment to make. At the same time, existing investors who want to have long-term relationships with downstream investors (or, here, NFL coaches) have an incentive to be brutally honest so their word doesn’t lose value over time. Even though Carr praised Brady’s work ethic and ability to handle pressure, in the moment, he experienced FOMO with Henson’s potential looming and opted to have both quarterbacks compete against each other to see who the best was. This, in turn, made Brady paranoid to think, “maybe nobody wants you.”

(3) The Cost Of Focusing On “The Measurables”: The process of evaluating and drafting football talent has been made into a science. One of those scientists, Mel Kiper Jr., remarked that after 32 years of evaluating almost 600 college quarterbacks, Tom Brady ranked #576 in two tests of general athleticism: vertical leap, and the 40-yard dash. The video makes sure to track all of the careers of the other five quarterbacks who were selected in the 2000 draft, and it demonstrates, after 15 years, that careers are long, that oftentimes hot draft picks with the measurables are even more likely to flame out. This happens in startups and investing, people get buried in and blinded by all the data, because they can be measured. This is why we here of stories of people struggling to get funding for so long, and why building a case for investment in the early-stages around numbers often isn’t as strong as doing so with a carefully-crafted narrative about the future.

(4) Everyone Needs A Break: Brady’s window of opportunity opened in 2001, after the starting quarterback he would replace signed a $100m contract. Brady slipped in, became the starter, and took the job from his predecessor, and because it took so long for his break to come, his paranoia has driven him since. Despite his success, he likely truly believes he is expendable, that someone who is younger, fitter, faster, and stronger coming through the ranks can go and take his job tomorrow. Paranoia built over years doesn’t just fade away with success — it may in fact get stronger. Brady went through many years of what is described in the film as a “constant struggle for recognition,” and only received it as the 2001 season developed and only because the star quarterback ahead of him was knocked out of a game. I have seen many folks in the ecosystem get their “break” only after 5+ years of doing exactly the same thing before the crowd noticed “hey, this person is actually awesome!”

(5) Flawed Evaluation Processes: This is the most powerful part of the video. It’s legend now to think 198 players were drafted ahead of Brady. In the video, they keep coming back to the notes in his player file, that he didn’t have a strong arm, that he couldn’t improvise on the field, that he couldn’t jump. Those were all measurable “metrics” other talent evaluators could focus on and benchmark against others. One needs data to stack rank. This happens to startups, too…with all the seed-funded companies and copycats out there, the data separates them, and it’s hard to blame investors for doing this. Yet, investors also have to be mindful that it is the people who make the data, and not the other way around. A huge component of investing is careful evaluation and tracking of an individual protagonist’s story, how they got here, and from where, to learn more about what drives them to do what they do. That is why stories emerge of the Airbnb founders who ate shit for two years, or how Travis founded three somewhat similar companies before emerging from his parents’ basement to jump into Uber, or why it took Pinterest so many rounds of early-stage dilutive funding to get their flywheel going. All of these deals were under most investors’ noses, but they likely were looking for more proof. Now investors lament seeing these things and passing, just like NFL coaches in this video realize how they evaluated talent back in 2000 led them to their decisions at the time.

The most interesting quote about this particular evaluation process comes from former San Francisco 49er coach Steve Mariucci:

We all knew Tom very well. He was right in our backyard. He probably always wanted to be a 49er…but we didn’t open up his chest and look at his heart, I don’t think anybody did. And what kind of spine he has, and the resiliency…all the things that are making him great right now.

The prevailing sentiment around Brady today is either he is a cheater or he was unfairly framed. Without getting into that debate here, I was reminded that in today’s media scrutiny of Brady, many folks forget just how paranoid Brady had to become to survive and keep his job, starting from high school. Earlier this week, the author of one of my favorite daily newsletters, Dave Pell, who pens Nextdraft, wrote a funny headline: “BREAKING: Shockingly Attractive Rich White Superstar Quarterback Finally Gets a Break.” Brady is successful now (and a target), everyone wants to cut down the market leader — but he wasn’t always the winner, and what’s likely to drive him is more rooted in years of failure, rejection, and a constant struggle for recognition.

 

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2018 Semil Shah.

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