Advantages of Being an Underdog: The Top 3 Qualities I Look for in an Entrepreneur

One thing that really gets me fired up is feeling like I’m an underdog.  I’ve felt this way most of my life, actually, regardless of the successes that may have come.  I need challenge.  I enjoy the fight.  Without a battle the wind goes out of my sails, and so sometimes I even create tension just to experience that positive conflict that helps my passions rise.  Reflecting on why being the underdog is so important to me, I’ve found that there are three fundamental qualities that an underdog develops in the quest for victory:  the will to win, the ability to lead and rally a team, and big vision.  These qualities have been essential to me on my own journey of entrepreneurship.  And therefore are the qualities I look for when investing.  Let me share with you what each of them means to me.  First, though, a bit of context.

JB StarFEST 3This is me as a high school basketball player.  At 5’8″ and 165 lbs. I felt like an underdog in every game.  This is Scott Pollard, 6’11” and 278 lbs., who you see here blocking Shaq (Scott is that big).  I played against Scott in high school, and remember one particularly painful moment when he dunked all over me.  As he landed, pounded his chest, and screamed in victory to the crowd, I remember feeling small and insignificant.  Nothing that I could have done would have blocked that dunk.  Sometimes you aren’t built to win, or at least it appears that way.  But if you are an underdog you have to find a way.  You’ve got to hustle and be resourceful.  You need to consistently pull out the best in yourself just to survive and compete.  Startups are like this.  Entrepreneurs who make their startup successful have developed this will to win.

  1. Will to win –  Most humans don’t willingly take on adversity.  We have an ingrained preference for the easy road.  But being an entrepreneur blows this up!  This is precisely why I chose to be an entrepreneur, because reduction of fear is important in building willpower.  And if you have tried, and tried hard…and failed, you aren’t as afraid to try it again.  Failure is not the worst thing– it’s not cool or fun, but often we ascribe too much to it.  Most times, failure is just data.  Very useful data if we use it wisely!   And by using it wisely I mean that you use failure to build your will like a muscle.  Will is not innate.  It grows over time as you put pressure and tension on it.  So challenge yourself!  Do something crazy.  Go against conventional wisdom and be a contrarian.  Do you really believe in yourself, and that you can get to where you want to go?  If not, change your mind and act, because the will to win is mostly about mindset.  We are equal to the task when we truly believe we are.

To frame up the second fundamental quality of great entrepreneurs, which is the ability to lead and rally a team, let me share another story of my journey as an underdog in sports.  I was a QB in football growing up Watch Video.  I love football, and I loved being a quarterback.  It’s the best position in all of sports, because it has the challenging blend of strategic thought and physical athleticism.  But as a 5’8″ QB not only did I feel like the underdog every time I walked out on to the field, but my team by extension were the underdogs, too.  But here is a hidden advantage that great entrepreneurs know:  we all play in a team sport, whether it’s on a sports field, at work, in a family, or in whatever group you take part–and the best teams win.  My high school team rallied around me and compensated for my weaknesses.  We all win when our team wins.  The receiver that you saw catch that pass, in fact, grew into a 6’4″, 258 lb pro football player for the Indianapolis Colts.

  1. Ability to lead and rally a team –  As a start-up you can never have enough fighters in your corner.  Nothing great ever happens alone.  Underdogs know this and have learned to gather and rally resources so that they can win.  The mark of a great CEO or Founder is the quality of the team they have inspired to join in their cause–regardless of funding!  At Peak Ventures, we think of ourselves as a team.  More specifically, we view ourselves as an extension of the teams we back.  We hang our hat on having been entrepreneurs ourselves.  We’ve raised funds, built companies, and harvested them alongside inspired teams, through both thick and thin.

JB StartFESTThe third quality is having big vision.  Instead of a sports story to demonstrate what big vision means to me, let me share with you some important decisions in my career.  The first was to form a company called Mindwire in 2000.  If you remember, shortly after this was a period when people were running away from the technology sector.  The dot com bubble had burst and startups were floundering everywhere like fish in a lake that suddenly has no water.  Instead of running away, my team and I ran towards the market, and grew the company through sheer grit and determination until it attracted the attention of a NASDAQ-listed corporation and sold at a nice multiple.  I was 25 years old.  With the funds from this transaction I began investing, and rode the general wave of real estate until 2006, when I saw the economic markers of an industry retraction, and exited nearly all of my positions.  Once again, people began running away (this time from the real estate sector).  And once again, instead of running away, my team and I ran towards the opportunity and created a real estate firm called Peak Capital Partners.  By going against the grain we were able to find amazing deals and have since grown our total transaction volume to over $1.4B.  During this time I also followed my passion for early stage startups, and began Peak Ventures, investing in over 20 early stage companies (we call these our “Fund 0”).  Some of these exited to great profit, paving the way for the creation of the official Peak Ventures Fund 1.  We’ve invested in nearly 30 founders with Fund 1, and now I get to experience the challenges of an underdog en mass.  The trait I love more than all the others I now get to see in the Founders we back is Big Vision.

  1. Big vision –  In entrepreneurship there is no ceiling unless we create it for ourselves by limiting our vision.  Great entrepreneurs paint their vision constantly for their teams.  Great investors inspire entrepreneurs to expand their vision.  It’s about how big we can make something together!  At Peak Ventures, we’re in the upside maximization business, not the downside protection business (Peak Capital Partners with its real estate portfolio exists to hedge for downside protection, and this gives us freedom to focus exclusively on upside potential in Peak Ventures).  When we lower our vision we shortchange ourselves and the teams we lead.

Do you know what the greatest part about being a venture capital investor is?  It’s building relationships with inspiring entrepreneurs.  It’s an honor to back the quality of people we do. I learn from them and hopefully they learn a little bit from us as well.  We’re creating a fraternity of winners!  There is untapped potential in Tech in Utah & no ceiling.  At Peak Ventures we aim to back those with the qualities of the best underdogs:   The will to win, the ability to lead & rally teams, and those with BIG VISION.


About Jeff Burningham

Jeff is a Managing Partner and Founder of Peak Capital Partners, a $1B+ real estate investment firm located in Provo UT, which was named the 2nd fastest growing company in Utah and one of the 500 fastest privately held companies in the United States by Inc. Magazine, 2014. Most recently, Jeff launched Peak Ventures, a $23M seed stage fund that backs the brightest and most inspiring entrepreneurs in Utah and throughout the US. He began his career as the founder of Mindwire, a technology company, which he later sold to a NASDAQ-listed company where he served as an Executive Vice President for several years. He sits on the boards of Observe Point, Grasswire, Screenie, Omadi, Tute Genomics, and Fire Avert; and served as the co-managing partner of BoomStartup in 2013 and 2014. In 2014 Jeff was named The Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the year for the Mountain West Region. Jeff has an undergraduate degree and MBA from Brigham Young University. He is also active in philanthropy and is currently serving on the board of three non-profit organizations. As a former college basketball player, Jeff loves coaching his children's basketball teams and traveling the world with his wife, Sally.

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