An Interview With Steven J. Frisch on the Secrets of Serial Entrepreneurialism


I recently had an opportunity to sit down and do a deep dive into the methodology, psychology and perspective of a prolific serial entrepreneur Steven J. Frisch.

Steve has been founding and building companies for nearly three decades, with seven exits to date totaling nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars. While his total acquisition count and value creation may seem surprising, even by the hyperbolic standards of Silicon Valley, it's merely a logical consequence of doing what Steve does best -- disrupting the status quo.

For example, Steve's companies have been recognized for pioneered work in electronic security in the earliest days of the Internet, for seminal work in bringing Internet-based electronic trading to the consumer market in the 1990's, for high frequency trading that accounted for over 10% of total NASDAQ trading in late 1990's, for the first Internet-scale push notification system in the early 2000's and for one of the first big data semantic-based behavioral advertising platforms in the mid and late 2000's.

These days, Steve spends much of his time in the heart of Silicon Valley mentoring and advising the next generation of startups and their founders, burning the midnight oil as a mentor and instructor at Founder Institute as well as an Executive-In-Residence at Plug And Play Tech Center.

The following is a glimpse into the thinking that drives Steve's particular brand of entrepreneurialism:

Rajesh Setty: What makes you a successful serial entrepreneur?

Steve Frisch: I think differently; I see problems...everywhere.

I'm constantly questioning everything, indulging my insatiable curiosity for discovering the yet undiscovered, and it's this character trait that enabled me to do something really neat -- solve problems before most people even discover that there are problems.

In other words, I'm a "problem magnet" -- someone who constantly sees the little frictions in the day that can be eroded by technology applied... purposefully.

And by doing so, I've been able to solve problems in different industries, at scale, by starting a number of companies that, effectively, monetized my own frustration.

Rajesh Setty: Can you explain what you mean by monetizing your own frustration?

Steve Frisch: My brand of entrepreneurialism is predicated on innovation, but I define innovation a bit differently than many people. To me, innovation is just frustration monetized.

I find this definition has a simplicity to it, a lack of clutter and even a biting clarity that defines the driver of entrepreneurialism done at Silicon Valley scale.

The best entrepreneurs are not always the ones searching for a business problem to solve, but, rather, the ones who are constantly aware that today is merely a pale shade of tomorrow because they see problems everywhere and they know time will erode these problems. They are the ones with the confidence, the perseverance and perhaps more than a tad bit of arrogance in their belief that they can be instruments of revolution. And for the ones who can execute, the serial entrepreneurs among us, the world is transformed one innovation at a time towards something better.

In other words, serial entrepreneurs are in a relentless pursuit of what will be next.

Rajesh Setty: If there's one trait you look for in an aspiring entrepreneur, what is it?

Steve Frisch: Execution. The differential between a dreamer and an innovator is the ability to translate concept into funding, funding into traction and traction into a competitive race towards the next revolution.

Put another way, successful entrepreneurs are remarkable in not only recognizing problems, but much more so, in being ruthlessly pragmatic about how to realize the amelioration of the friction, the pain, the frustration that drove them in the first place. They are the opposite of "dreamers" despite dreaming constantly, because they dream not just of what might be but, rather, they dream of precisely how they'll arrive at tomorrow, soon. And they channel that dream fused with their vision into concrete actions, into steps, taken one at a time, with methodological focus and conviction, until they arrive at the next starting line.

In other words, successful serial entrepreneurs are the ones that can execute.

Rajesh Setty: It sounds like you're ranking execution above business model. Is this the case?

Steve Frisch: Yes, it is, because I'm pragmatic and thus I can't help but acknowledge a simple truth -- entrepreneurs can succeed with mediocre business models if they can execute well while entrepreneurs can fail with incredible business models if they're weak executors.

It's because execution is the fuel of capital creation defined by translating potential into reality. The concept is just that; concept. It's not a business, but, rather, a mere glimpse at what might be.

That's why the game of entrepreneurialism is actually a competition to execute. It surely helps to have innovation on your side, but without execution, the best you can hope for is to trigger in others the perspective of what they should do next.

Rajesh Setty: If the success of an entrepreneur depends on execution, then how does one become good at execution?

Steve Frisch: My first rule of execution is to never stand alone. Never be a company founder; always be a co-founder. Have the core team at the ready with the skills, the passion and the drive to do what you can't hire employees to do. That's the definition of an effective band of co-founders.

Next, understand that the best entrepreneurs, or at least the best entrepreneurial CEOs, are, at their core, evangelists. They're the ones who have a contagious passion that ignites desire in others to battle the world for transformation. Why? Because execution is defined by recruiting the right team and by team I mean the right co-founders, the right employees, the right funders, the right corporate partners and even the right customers.

The best evangelists build companies by sparking in others an ability to do more than ever before as a function of motivation natured by unwavering passion, compassion and a brutal focus on the pragmatic. It's the building blocks of amazing, cohesive, productive teams.

After all, it's the team that executes and it's the best entrepreneurial CEOs who know how to attract the right teams and, equally, understand when to get out of the way and let people prove themselves.

Rajesh Setty: You're very clearly passionate about entrepreneurialism? Is that passion because of the money or is something else driving you?

Steve Frisch: I'm profoundly unmotivated by the economics of entrepreneurialism, perhaps to my detriment. What I am motivated by is this notion that we should each leave this world a bit better in our wake and, in my view, entrepreneurialism is a great way to do just that.

I'd even go so far as to say entrepreneurialism, at least when practiced at the peak of performance, is a form of philanthropy because the best entrepreneurs build the technology, the products and the services that reduce the need for philanthropy.

Entrepreneurialism can not only build jobs, but it can reduce the suffering caused by the inhuman use of humans, by the plague of disease and the risks of going about our daily routines in an otherwise unforgiving world. That's the ideal and that is what makes the pursuit, the insane hours and the chronic stress of this game worthwhile, at least for those who practice my brand of entrepreneurialism.