By: Hillel Fuld (@Hilzfuld)
My name is Hillel Fuld and I am, and have been the world’s biggest sucker for the better part of the past decade.
Let me explain. 90%-95% of my time is not monetized. I started blogging with no business model or ROI in sight. I spent countless hours generating thousands of articles on this blog, along with many others over the past ten years. I have had easily thousands of meetings over the past decade with startups seeking advice/guidance/intros/help. I almost never say no.
I have helped raise funding, sometimes millions, I have closed strategic partnerships, and I have offered help with PR/Marketing/Growth to hundreds of startups. I have received nothing in return from 95% of those posts/meetings/startups/deals.
So what is wrong with me?
You know, my college degree is in Political Science and Sociology. Political Science, because it interested me, and sociology because I find social norms and behavior to be one of the most fascinating topics around. One of the most interesting social norms I have come across, and one that is very strong in Israel, where I live, is the concept of being a “Friar”, a word in Hebrew loosely translated as being a sucker. Aka doing something without getting anything in return. It is quite possibly the worst thing to most Israelis, “Being a friar”, and it is most definitely the best business strategy I ever embraced.
I get the question “Why are you helping startups for free? What are you? A friar?” at least ten times a week in different forms. “Take a finder’s fee at the very least! You earned it!” “Watya mean you have gotten over 120 people jobs in tech and didn’t take a fee? You could be rich!” “You mean to tell me you help startups get coverage on leading tech publications just for fun? You know there are PR agencies that live off of that favor. Why not charge? What are you? A frier?” And on and on.
It is a valid question and to be honest, I didn’t really have a strong enough answer over the years. I mean, I always responded but my response never really satisfied the person I was speaking to, and truthfully, it didn’t really satisfy me either. My answer was always along the lines of “I am helping a startup that is part of the local ecosystem. I am part of that same ecosystem. The startup gains, the ecosystem gains, I gain. Why not?”
The question is stronger than the answer. Why was I investing so much time and resources helping without capitalizing on that help? After all, I spent years building that network I was using to help startups. So why not monetize? I knew that what I was doing felt right to me but I couldn’t explain it in words. Then I read Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans, and specifically the chapter called “The Canvas Strategy“, a concept coined by Ryan Holiday. More on the concept here.
This isn’t the first time I mention this chapter. I wrote a post about playing the long game, which was based on the Canvas Strategy. Read it here.
As soon as I read this chapter, I had my answer. I wasn’t a sucker for not taking money from every startup I helped. I was creating canvases for others to paint on. I was paving the road for others to go down on their way to success. “The person who clears the path ultimately controls its direction, just as the canvas shapes the painting.” – Ryan Holiday
I always believed that if you spend your time facilitating success for others, it will eventually come back and help you achieve success. The thing is, this only works if you are truly helping others for the sake of helping others. This is not about “Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” This is about “Does your back itch you? Because someone I know just invented the best back scratcher ever!”
Now, to be clear, this was a strategy I have been implementing, as I said, for the better part of the past decade. Did it generate instant ROI? No, but that is kinda the point.
As Ryan explains in an interview to Business Insider: ”
Find canvases for other people to paint on.
That is, completely ignore getting credit, getting ahead, even throw out what your job is supposed to be on paper. Instead, focus all your energy on finding, presenting, and facilitating opportunities that help other people inside the company succeed — particularly the people you directly report to.
The Roman patronage system had a role in it that we have no real analog for. The word is “anteambulo” — literally meaning “clearing the path.” An anteambulo proceeded in front of their patron anywhere they traveled in Rome, making way, communicating messages and generally making their lives easier.
That’s what I am talking about. Your real job, when you just get started, is to support, clear, and aid. If you can do that well, you will be indispensable, I promise.”
So I spent years clearing the path for others. Did it work?
Well, let me tell you where I am at now and what has happened. Over the past ten years, I have easily seen a thousand companies. 15-20 of them (The number fluctuates. Startups, you know the name of the game.) deeply inspired and impressed me. Whether they had phenomenal tech (Like Umoove), a superstar entrepreneur (Like Fitness22/Benny Shaviv), insane growth and stickiness (Like Flipboard/WalkMe/HomeTalk), a truly novel idea (Like ZUtA Labs/prooV/EquityX/Tline) or beautifully scalable and sustainable businesses (Like TestFairy/Deeplink), I knew this company, usually upon meeting them, had huge potential.
So here I am meeting a startup I love. What do I do? Pitch them on hiring me? No way. I spent even more time and resources being a sucker and trying to provide them as much value as I can. All the companies mentioned above are companies I am now fortunate enough to be advising. They all came back, in one way or another, and said, “You were very helpful to us. Let’s work together”. Some paid me a retainer, some gave me equity in the company, and some, depending how active of a role I took, gave me both.
As one of the best investors I know in the world said to me a few months ago “What you have essentially done here is built a VC without writing one check.”
Did I plan this in advance or know it would happen this way? No, I did not and if I had, it wouldn’t have worked. I helped these companies because I wanted to help them. I helped these companies because I loved what they were doing, and because I wanted to clear the path for them to the best of my ability.
So, for many years, I was not capitalizing on any of my meetings or relationships, but then, it began to circle back and now, without ever selling anything to anyone, have had the great fortune to build myself a phenomenal portfolio of companies with whom I work and from whom I learn daily.
So there is only one question remaining. What happened to the other 985 companies I have met over the years that did not circle back and offer me anything? Nothing happened. I met them, I tried to offer value, and they hopefully benefitted from that. Most of those entrepreneurs are friends today and that means they ask for favors occasionally and offer their help when I need it. All is good. There is, however, the occasional “Taker” who takes and takes and milks the canvas till it’s pretty much gone. That is ok and I will tell you why.
If a person is willing to take from you consistently and never offer anything in return, keep giving and know that it is ok not to get anything in return from that person because frankly, that is not the type of person with whom you want to work anyway. Keep giving and let them keep taking.
Or as Ryan Holiday states to brilliantly in Tools of Titans (and pay attention to the final sentence. It is utter brilliance!):
“That’s what the Canvas Strategy is about- helping yourself by helping others. Making a concerted effort to trade your short term gratification for a longer term payoff. Whereas everyone else wants to get credit and be “respected”, you can forget credit. You can forget it so hard that you’re glad when others get it instead of you, that was your aim, after all. Let the others take their credit on credit, while you defer and earn interest on the principal.”
So today, I advise anywhere between 15-20 startups, most of them on a more passive basis, but some of them, very actively. I have my own startup, ZCast, which is in its infancy. I continue to blog here and elsewhere, and I, most meaningfully, continue to offer any sort of help I can to startups who feel I can be of value. And I do it for free. Totally. Completely. Free. (Well, usually, they will buy me lunch but that is just to get my mind sharp by feeding me steak). I am strongly considering coining the term “Sucker marketing” or something similar.
To summarize, if you are trying to make a name for yourself in business/tech/marketing, follow these three words to the extreme: Be a sucker!