What a Childhood as Dad’s Entrepreneurial Shadow Taught Me
Growing up, I thought it was normal for a Dad to bring his kid to meetings and involve them in business conversations. Now, more than a decade into my own career as an entrepreneur, I realize that isn’t normal at all.
First, let me introduce my father: Victor Politis is a serial entrepreneur who has done business all over the world. He started a real estate business in Harlem and the Bronx, and now runs a food business in West Africa. In between, he did project finance and development, and publishing and media in the former Soviet Union, China, Turkey and South America.
He first included me in business meetings and correspondences when I was 8 years-old, and it continues to this day nearly 25 years later. I attribute a huge part of the success in my career to this exposure, experience and opportunity.
Here is what I’ve learned growing up as my Dad’s entrepreneurial shadow.
Don’t be afraid of nascent, challenging and unsexy markets.
My father has always chosen to compete in markets that aren’t the sexiest, most popular, easiest or safest in which to do business. Whether Harlem and the South Bronx in the early 90s (I have vivid memories of a break-in at my father’s construction site at night and all the steel being stolen), or places like Lithuania and Ukraine in the late 90s, China in the early 2000’s, and most recently West Africa, he’s always done business in markets that were pretty unstable with a lot of unknowns.
I traveled to all these places with him, and he always explained these are the markets where the biggest opportunity exists. I’ve used that knowledge (less in the sense of geographic markets) in two ways. The first is choosing to focus on the enterprise cloud technology space, specifically building on top of platforms that weren’t particularly mature, and a space that isn’t as sexy or hyped as social media, adtech and consumer tech. The second is starting the company in a location (NYC) that isn’t known for enterprise IT, so the talent pool is not full of people who have experience.
Understand the cadence of business.
Beyond physically taking me to meetings in exotic locations, when I was in college, he blind copied me on literally all of his business correspondence. Sometimes when we were on vacation, he would do business calls and I would sit and listen to him for hours. From all of this, I learned about communication, the cadence of a business meeting and the forming of business relationships.
One of the greatest challenges for many people starting their career is to know how to run a meeting and how to communicate effectively via e-mail. I’ve seen it with people I’ve hired right out of college who don’t know how to structure an e-mail, or lead (or even participate in) a meeting in an effective manner. Today I write a lot of my emails with bullet points and they’re generally pretty concise. This comes directly from my father, who includes at least two bullet points in every email (even if it’s not completely necessary). I also I find myself preparing and following up to meetings in the same way I saw him do when I was growing up.
I never saw my father change who he was whether at work or at home with us. I grew up assuming this was true of everyone and now emulate this. I know a lot of people who act differently in their work and personal lives, but for an entrepreneur where life and work blend together, this is a mistake. It’s important to be yourself all the time.
I also witnessed my father connecting with people all over the world regardless of religion, race, background, or title. I have memories of big celebratory dinners in different countries with different settings, people, cuisine and alcohol of all types. Whether it was a meeting with 20 Chinese dignitaries in a massive dumpling house (drinking baijiu), a professional soccer game in the middle of the winter in Moscow with a bunch of Russian bankers (who somehow weren’t cold, while we were drinking vodka) or an Indonesian wedding of 2,000 people in 100+ degree weather (with no alcohol).
None of those differences mattered. I learned that it’s okay to connect with business partners on a personal level. I currently have customers all over the world and partners in 20 countries. Not only have we created successful partnerships, I consider all of them friends.
Surround yourself with experts you trust and treat them well.
When it comes to team building, my father taught me that I am not going to be an expert at everything, and if I’m going to scale and attack big problems, I’ll need people I can trust who have experience that I lack. In my case, this has meant hiring a really good CFO because finance isn’t my strong suit, and recruiting someone who knows a key new market (the Microsoft ecosystem) well.
I learned that pedigree doesn’t really matter. Many times, I saw my father hire someone from a lesser known undergraduate program over a candidate with an Ivy League MBA. This probably came from the fact that he never graduated college and felt like he was capable even without the diplomas to prove it. Degrees didn’t drive the hiring decision, instead it came from a feeling that a person would do the job better and would be a better fit for his culture.
I also saw that it’s important to treat people like family. The people on his team were like our extended family: coming to dinner, staying in our apartment, and helping me and my sister with homework.
I don’t remember a time where my father hasn’t been constantly working and hustling. I went on a trip with him when I was in college and by the end of a couple of days I was exhausted. We literally had back to back to back meetings all day, took a flight every other day (not on the kind of airlines you feel comfortable flying on) and ended almost every day with a big business dinner.
I learned entrepreneurs have a drive to get things done, because nobody else is going to get it done for them. There’s no substitute for this. I also learned there is no feeling bad for yourself, no “gimmes” and no easy wins.
I look forward to spending Father’s Day with my young son, Noah. My father won’t be with us, as he now lives in Israel, but I’ll be thinking (as I do almost every day) about how my father has shaped me both professionally and at home, which I can’t wait to pass on to my son.