Losing is Winning w/ Jeep Kline, General Partner at Translational Partners and Venture Partner at Mr
“I was a swimmer since I was very young and, you know, I never won. I never won.”
You’re probably assuming this is how the opening scene of a movie about a future world-champion swimmer begins. The beginning of the world’s most amazing underdog story. And you’re wrong. Well, not completely wrong. This isn’t a story about the world’s next biggest Olympic swimmer. Although it might be well-timed with the Tokyo Olympics around the corner. This… is a story, in my humble opinion, of one of the world’s next biggest venture capitalists. A story of a young Bangkok girl who became a VC from learning how to lose.
I’ve never been the smartest kid on the block. At least in the IQ department. So I make it my mission to hang out with folks who are smarter and more driven than I am. Jeep is no exception. I met her last month. And as if going from a World Bank economist to Intel leadership to startup advisor and investor to lecturing at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business was not enough, in our first conversation, she shared an incredible set of contrarian insights. So earlier this month, I had to jump into another conversation with her.
Something about going long
If you’re a long-time fan of this blog, you know one of my favorite Bezos-isms is, “If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that.”
Jeep is that same kind of superhuman.
“I started as a competitive swimmer since I was seven, and I swam so much and so hard, like three kilometers a day. It’s just a lot of practicing. I never even won a medal. And I kept doing it. And that was hard.
“Because other kids they got medals in different styles. So I learned early on in life what losing actually meant. And I think that’s very important because a lot of smart kids, they never learn how to fail early on in their life. And it’s kind of like a winner’s curse because you know, when they’re the best at everything, since they were young, throughout college , once they come out, and they realize that the world is hard, they are doing things or want to pursue a career that their parents cannot help them, they become risk averse. Meaning they don’t want to try new things.
“So I never won in [any] swimming competitions. Until I got into college. When I got into college, at the time I already quit swimming. I quit in high school. So, I didn’t swim competitively anymore since I didn’t have time to practice. I picked up other activities like piano, which I came to love. In college, one of my friends asked me, ‘Hey Jeep, why don’t you come back to the competition?’ And she knew I never won. We were in the same race at so many events. And I said, ‘I don’t know. Let me try.’ So I tried again.
“So I got back to the practice routine. Adjust my strokes a little bit. And then I won. I got gold and silver medals for a college swimming competition. And I was like, ‘This is a joke. How could I win?’
I never won ever, like for ten some years. And I joke with my friend, ‘You know why, because everybody else quit!’ They quit about the same age in high school.
I just went for it. And that was one of the moments in life that I realized that it’s all about grit. You do what you love and you don’t quit. There will be a moment that you win.”
The analogy extends further
“Failure is the mother of success.” It’s an ancient Chinese proverb that my mom used to tell me again and again growing up. Every time I “failed.” Scored low on a test. Embarrassed myself on stage for a school musical. Placed fourth, right off the podium for multiple competitions. It’s funny thinking about it in retrospect since she turned out to be the exact antithesis of a stereotypical Asian parent. And I love it!
Take tbh, an app where you send your friends anonymous compliments, as an example. It launched back in late 2017. 73 days after its launch, it went from zero to 2.5 million daily active users, which subsequently led to a $100M acquisition by Facebook. To many, tbh looked like an overnight success. But it wasn’t. Nikita Bier, co-founder of tbh, and his team spent seven years with 15 failed products before they arrived at tbh. And with each iteration, they learned and compounded their lessons from their previous failure.
Clubhouse’s Paul Davison and Rohan Seth is another example of a seemingly overnight success. From Talkshow to Highlight (acq. Pinterest), the pair went through at least nine failed apps before they arrive at Clubhouse – last reported to have passed 10 million users. And valued at $4 billion. Their lead investor, Andrew Chen at a16z, spent eight years getting to know Paul.
One of my junior swim teammates told me years ago when I was at my prime, “David, I don’t think I can beat you as you are now. But I promise you I will beat you one day, even if that means after you retire.” At the time, I dismissed it as just another snarky comment, which athletes are prone to make from time to time. But now that I’m a bit wiser than I was in high school, I find that same comment incredibly prescient. It just so happened that a few years ago, we raced each other again. Both of us had long exited the competitive arena, and he won.
Near the end of our conversation, Jeep cited something Soichiro Honda, the namesake for the Honda Motor Company, once said. “Success can be achieved only through repeated failure and introspection. In fact, success represents 1% of your work which results only from the 99% that is called failure. Many people dream of success. To me success can be achieved only through repeated failure and introspection. In fact, success represents 1% of your work which results only from the 99% that is called failure.”
She further elaborated, “For people who grew up in a society, in a culture that does not easily accept failure, I want them to know that it’s actually not a bad thing to try and hear rejection. But along the way, they have to make sure that they learn.
“It’s the same thing when I teach UC-Berkeley students. I told my brilliant graduate MBA students that there is, for me – and it’s true – there is no stupid question. If other people think your question is stupid, but at least you learn. If you learn, there’s no stupid question. Do not ask good questions, if it means you don’t learn anything.”
In a way, I’m reminded of a peculiar quote by Karl Popper, “Good tests kill flawed theories; we remain alive to guess again.” While Popper was known to be quite the contrarian thinker of his day, the same seems to hold for questions. Good questions kill flawed theories. We remain alive to learn again. After all, speaking from personal experience, I often find myself burning the midnight oil to ask the perfect question. But in the pursuit of asking the “perfect question”, I’ve forgone the adventures I would have had to arrive at the answer I thought I sought.
We learn when we fail. We learn, to one day succeed. The greatest are the greatest because they have a higher propensity to fail than the average person. As the great Winston Churchill said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”
And as Jeep said, “Winning is actually losing, but learning along the way.”
Thanks Jeep for helping with earlier draft edits!
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