Building a business is really, really hard. Having closely worked with hundreds of founders over the last two decades, I’ve (admittedly vicariously) seen the darker moments that invariably accompany entrepreneurship.
When my long time colleague and friend Sam left Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) to join First Republic Bank (FRB) three years ago, it wasn’t the classic case of chasing greener pastures. For starters, I had spent my entire thirteen-year professional career at SVB, met my wife at the organization, and was enjoying a great position at the top brand within the venture market.
So why leave? Easy. Working with operators, the entrepreneurial bug had bit us and we both wanted to take on the challenge of building something. And outside of being known for it’s platinum client service levels, FRB is an organization built around the principle that employees act as their own proprietors, encouraged to build their own franchises based on individual inspiration.
As is the case with building any business, the last three years have been anything but easy. But despite long days, nights, and weekends, it’s been an incredibly gratifying experience, and one that has exponentially amplified our empathy for the founders we work with.
When we left, we knew things were going to be challenging. Competition from established banks within the venture and tech space is ferocious (and we knew were we were going to be confronted with a bit of “no one gets fired for buying IBM”). Additionally, while banks are a necessity for businesses, choosing a bank typically ranks low on the strategic decision tree for many. To build something meaningful, especially as an underdog, we knew we had to be better.
For the first few months, we did what most people do when starting a new role. We took inventory, and started leveraging our rolodexes in an effort to start building a client base. While things were going well in the early days, we knew that if we were going to create something truly unique, we needed clarity of mission and identity.
Without identity, a business is similar to a rudderless ship, drifting through the ocean until a merciful wave capsizes it.
But there is one important truth about identity, and it’s BFA.
Be. Fucking. Authentic
Attempting to manufacture identity to fit a business narrative is a suckers bet. Passion isn’t a trait that can be faked and without authenticity of mission, it’s impossible to maintain the resolve necessary to navigate the personal and professional challenges that inevitably will be presented.
So in August of 2012, we decided to lock ourselves in a small conference room to determine the what, why, and who of our business.
Thankfully, defining our identity proved to be a swift exercise. We both innately had a incredible passion for everything early stage; working with people starting businesses was just what we loved to do.
And we wanted our identity to be ecosystem ambassadors of the early stage venture market by providing relevant and tangible value through insight, networks, and community building. This of course meant that we had to build the best network, be the most informed, hustle harder (a hat tip to my wife for putting up with my late night and weekend calls/emails), and constantly force ourselves to think in non-linear ways.
With our identity defined, we’ve formed a mission singularly focused on shifting the archetype of the experience people should expect out of a banking partner (and it’s not around conventional banking products).
Through the support of amazing partners, friends, and colleagues, we’ve built a wonderful business around venture firms, startups, and entrepreneurs, but we believe our real opportunity still lies ahead.
We’re not proclaiming success. Not even close. But with clarity of mission and identity, we’re confident that we’ll be able to negotiate the choppy waters that we know are ahead of us as we move to scale.
Don’t neglect to go through the exercise of defining identity. It’ll serve as the compass for your business, and enable incredible clarity around focus and mission.