Usman Sheikh is the Managing Director of High Output Ventures. High Output Ventures is a seed-stage fund and startup studio investing in exceptional domains experts who are building the remote first companies of tomorrow. Usman is a serial entrepreneur, having built, operated, and sold companies over the last 15 years.
Website URL: https://www.hov.co/
Usman’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/usmans/
HOV LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/highoutput/
The conversation centers around:
- Adjusting your mindset and skillset as serial entrepreneur for investing and operating/building, and what this means for VC-VB models
- Defining your personal drive and measure of success as serial entrepreneur
- Finding the right CEOs
- Building a remote culture and remote practices
- Differences in talent in Europe and Asia, and what qualities to look for
- Creating a flywheel of concept validation for ventures, and the importance of discipline and quick iteration
- The qualities one needs to have to be a startup CEO
Listen to the Podcast
Usman, tell us about your journey in entrepreneurship.
The first part of my entrepreneurship was in traditional media – advertising, an outdoor advertising company, to be exact. I exited it around 2011-2012, and that was when I entered the field of technology and got into the company I still run today – Identify. By 2015-2016, I got into the crypto space as well and started diversifying. That is when the HOV venture studio was put together. Our main focus is on B2B and crypto services.
What is the model at HOV (High Output Ventures)?
We want to partner with domain experts and invest in ideas. Usually, we invest $250,000 and help the entrepreneur build a team so that they can later run their business independently. The goal is to get them operating on their own.
What drives you? What does impact mean for you?
Initially, you have a goal of making a certain amount of money and reaching a status, but that does not seem meaningful enough as time goes by. The business of HOV is what drives me, not just matching people, but creating internal innovation and nurturing the best talent. Everything changes so rapidly now, and I want to be part of it, incentivize people to work. For me, the impact is building a company where people enjoy coming to work and feel that they are making a difference.
You run a fairly global operation, which is mostly remote. What is the challenge in nurturing talent? And how did you choose the locations for your branches?
We have locations in the Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, India, Serbia, Canada. All work 100% remotely, and there is no HQ. It is our responsibility to figure out how we can reach the best talent and give them the opportunity to join. When there are HQs, certain offices and people get more benefits than others. It must be balanced. COVID also showed we don’t need to go to the office. I think there’s going to be a spot for hybrid work in cities, there can be hubs set up, if there is a large concentration of people and demand for such hubs.
How do you build a culture that makes people feel committed and enthusiastic, and encourages them to help each other out?
It should be intentional from the get-go. It’s very difficult to build continuity in the business if you just find a person to do the job, and then they leave once it’s done. That attitude becomes transactional. There must be a shared alignment of where we are going and what values we have in the company. We have that in the 5 values we recruit with, and everything is built around that. We have a culture of performance, lots of check-ins.
It’s down to the founder to communicate the culture clearly. For the last 3 years, I write a memo to the company every single Sunday. We also introduced a lot of courses, internally built, for learning. Now, many people want to mirror our processes, which is an advantage we have. It’s taken a lot of time to get where we are, and it is an ongoing process.
Let’s talk about concept validation. You develop your own ideas as well, spin them off and attract CEOs. How do you discipline yourself and stop yourself from getting carried away with your own ideas?
Most of the time, my mistake in the past was overbuilding. The more the feedback loop went on, the more we got caught up in trying to add more and more features to the product, and then what should have taken 4 weeks became 40 weeks of work. The discipline is ensuring that from the get-go, the product designers have spoken with the business owners who understand what we’re trying to achieve. I see the most successful products today use the strategy of iterating quickly. That way you get feedback quickly – or you get none, which makes it much easier to figure out what you did wrong.
Who leads every new idea incubating? What’s the skillset of that person?
That person has to have uncovered an opportunity for growth of that idea and be able to explain how to do it, it’s the first condition. They should clearly state the case.
Pre-launch, you rely on toolkits, methodologies, discipline. Post-launch, it becomes more of an entrepreneurial challenge. What is your philosophy around this?
Most people believe they have what it takes to run a startup. We encourage getting people through that process, that’s how most people see they don’t really want to run the startup, what they find exciting is the process of building it. Most people start losing interest very quickly.
There is a process internally, which has got people to that stage, and some of them have stuck with it, found it interesting. Others want to support someone doing the work, but they don’t want to the one taking responsibility. That’s why, even in the early building stages, when we have something, we actively look for CEOs and partners with aligned values and aspirations who can come in very early in the process. A lot of the time, those people need something to show to the customers or have distribution channels.
How do you incentivize your team?
In the traditional structures, it’s very difficult to add equity in companies with people of different nationalities, from different regions. We have different systems for people who lead and manage products, that’s the clearer way forward. But very few people in the organization are going to be in that role, so we have a general structure for the majority. We run some of the normal ways of incentivizing, but they aren’t as scalable as I would like them to be. There is this growing process of decentralized autonomous organizations with crypto being used. We launched two products this year with tokens attached to them and founding team members were given tokens. I think there is something in this structure that is of interest to me, using tokens for structures in remote organizations. There are complexities in this, but I am now studying more.