203 - 5 Attributes of a Successful Startup with Howard Birndorf - John Laurito

203 – 5 Attributes of a Successful Startup with Howard Birndorf

In today’s episode, host John Laurito talks to one of the founders of the biotech industry. They talked about what it takes to build a start-up successfully and how to lead in that environment effectively. They also discussed what experienced management is and the five attributes to lead a start-up successfully.

Howard Civian Birndorf is a biotechnology entrepreneur and founder of four companies in the biotech industry. He was also the founder and co-chair of the Coalition for 21st Century Medicine and was founder, Chairman, and CEO of Nanogen, Inc. His experience in start-up and leadership challenges in that environment come beneficial in today’s hurdles.


Click here to learn more about Howard on LinkedIn

[0:00] Intro

[1:43] What does “real leaders” mean?

[5:36] How someone touched Howard’s life

[8:20] The challenges that Howard faced when building companies

[9:32] The five attributes when creating a start up

[13:31] When leaders bite off more than they can chew

[16:45] How can leaders adapt to a virtual environment?

[19:26] Where to find Howard and get in touch with him?

[20:45] Outro

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John Over the last two decades, I’ve been on a quest to learn everything I can about leadership obsessed with what makes the best leaders so good after running companies small and large for the last 20 years. Today I speak on stages all across the world to audiences who are interested in that same question. My name is John Laurito and I’m your host. I invite you to join me on this journey as we explore this topic. What makes the best leaders so good? Welcome to tomorrow’s leader! 

John All right, tomorrow’s leaders once again, I’ve got another great guest for you, Howard Birndorf, who successfully founded four companies in the biotech space and really cool conversation. I just asked him a lot about what is it like, what’s a startup process and what are the challenges. And we talked, of course, a lot about leadership and also, as he considers it, the five attributes of what goes into success with a startup. So really interesting stuff, different than the normal guest, for sure. And the insights he shares are very valuable. So I think you’re going to really enjoy this here’s, Howard. 

John All right. Welcome to today’s episode of Tomorrow’s Leader, where we dove deep on all things leader related to leading yourself and leading others, I’m John Laurito your host today with a great guest. I’ve got Howard Birndorf, who is the director on the board for Adams Pharmaceuticals, as well as a business consultant and at Vision Clinical Research. Howard, it is great to have you on the show. 

Howard Good to be with you, John. 

John Yeah, I know we had a really nice conversation just earlier about leadership. There’s a lot I’d love to pick your brain on, and we’ve got a lot of obviously leaders in the audience who are always curious to hear stories and insight about what goes into great leadership. And I know you’ve shared that you’ve been impacted by a couple of really what you consider to be real leaders. Tell me a little bit about that. What is a real leader and tell me about your experience with these types of people? 

Howard Well, I had a professor in college and I had undertaken an independent study in science. It was a biochemistry lab and I really wasn’t clear what I was doing. And this professor sort of noticed that I was a little lost and he took me under his wing and really? Went through all of the things that I wasn’t quite understanding that I had some knowledge of, but he really sat down with me and made it very clear and made me understand things that I should have known by then, but I really didn’t, and was too embarrassed to say anything to most people. And I’ll never forget this guy because he, to me, was a real leader in education, because for him to do that, it really made me love science, and it really changed my view on what I wanted to do with my life. And it really pushed me towards becoming involved in science or business. 

John Wow. And that’s interesting because most, most leaders don’t necessarily do that. They don’t take that approach yet. This is somebody who really took the extra time with you and tapped in ultimately to something that you’re very passionate about. Why do you think some people just don’t? That seems like it’s a pretty rare trait? Is that right? Do you find that? 

Howard Absolutely. I don’t think that most people do things like that. His name was John Coe is John Culberson. He’s still out there, I believe, at the college and he was an exceptional person. I don’t think that most leaders take that level of input into the people that they’re dealing with. Hmm. And for me, that was exceptional because it really changed, changed my life. It really did. 

John Well, it’s interesting. That sounds to me like a transformational leader, which I’ve always looked at. Those are the people that tap into your heart in your head versus a transactional leader that’s just more about, so to speak, your feet and your hands. This person really transformed your life. 

Howard It was that it was more of a heart thing than a knowledge thing, if you will. 

John Yeah, absolutely. You mentioned another individual that was in your mind, a real leader. Tell us about that. 

Howard Well, I think his name is Brook Byers, and he was with the venture capital firm, Kleiner with the firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers. They are one of the preeminent venture capital firms in the country. And this was way back when he first started. And he came down to look at our deal that we had given them a six-page business plan after going out and buying a book called How to Start Your Own Business. So it was pretty bad. But he has affected my life. He’s been with me now in six different companies over almost 40 years and has always been there for me. He’s just been an amazing leader and an amazing friend. I mean, obviously, we became friends over time. And when I think of people that have really touched my life with leadership issues, he is at the top of the list. 

John Well, what did he do specifically? I’m interested in that. So how did he touch your life? How did he leave you better than he found you, so to speak? 

Howard Well, for example, we’re starting this company. I’m the first employee and the only employee and I’m sitting in an office with a desk and a chair and nothing else. A little lab is in there, but there’s nothing in it. So there were all these things that needed to be done that I had never done before and like setup. They gave me a check for $300,000, even though we had asked for one-hundred and seventy-eight thousand dollars. As I said, that’s the first and last time I ever got more money than I asked for. And they just handed me this check and they said, Go set up bank accounts and go do this and that all these things I had never done before, but they trusted me and I went and I did them and they all came out, okay. So really, it gave me a sense of confidence that I could do these things that I’ve never done before and that they trusted me to do these things. 

John Did they know that you had not done them before? 

Howard I assume so. I don’t think they could have not known.

John Yeah, well, you know, that’s a great point. I mean, a lot of becoming a great leader is stepping outside your comfort zone and it’s developing and gaining confidence from things that you’ve done that you hadn’t done before, but you’ve done them successfully, which that sounds like was the case. And I think one of the best things a leader can do is put their people in their position to do that, to give them. It’s almost like you’re you’re lending them confidence when they were so confident handing you that check and said, “Hey, go do this and this,” it almost put in your, and I don’t mean to put words in your mouth, but almost probably infused some confidence in you because they were just so comfortable that. 

Howard Absolutely. And it’s like their leaders, their leadership. They were passing that leadership on to me because ultimately I would end up doing the same thing to other people over the course of my time. Yeah, and their companies. I had one guy that several I had no management people that just would follow me from one company to the next company that I would start because they wanted to be involved in it and they wanted to be with me, and I thought that was amazing. Well, I didn’t expect it.

John Yeah, and that says a lot. I mean, that’s what leadership is about when you influence somebody the way that those two individuals influenced you. The same way, if they came to you and had something else that they were doing that they wanted to be a part of. It’s more about the person than it is even the project sometimes. And it’s also the same with you. Now you’ve had a very successful career you’ve taken since back in the 70s for companies. You started up in biotech very, very successfully. Tell us a little bit about that. I mean, that’s a really unique background. Lots of success. What were some of the major challenges you had? How did you navigate that through that so well? 

Howard Well, always the biggest challenge in startups is money. You know, 90 percent of a CEO’s time is spent on finding money and making sure that you have enough money for now and for the next year. And then the second you do that, you’re looking at the following year, the year after that, you always that is your biggest challenge is raising money and making sure you have enough money. And so most of my time was spent traveling, giving presentations about the company to invest potential investors. That was my biggest challenge was keeping the bank account full.

John And what’s your advice? I mean, there’s there are a lot of people listening to this that are in startup mode or thinking about that, or maybe they’re on their second one or whatnot. What’s your advice for having done that so well? Because I understand where you’re coming from and having sat through a lot of presentations and whatnot. I mean, there’s a wide variety of skill sets and everything. What goes into raising capital really well? 

Howard Well, I always used this list of five attributes that I would say that I thought that a startup needed. One of them had to do with money, but the rest of them was our technical excellence. In other words, in my mind, the technology you’re starting up should be proprietary, should be patented or trade secret, for example, because you want to make sure that others can’t come in and follow you immediately and take, you know, try and take over your business. So for me, that was very important, having proprietary technology and technical excellence. 

Howard The second was financing, which we just talked about. The financing has to be reasonable, though investors can’t come in and take 80 percent of the company in the first round of financing. It’s got to be done in reasonable equity chunks so that you have something to give the employees and that you have more to follow up or follow on investments. 

Howard The third is a strategic focus. You don’t know how many times I’ve seen companies that are trying to do too many things. It’s you have to be able to narrow your focus down to one or two things that are the crux of your business and that you really want to stay focused on and not divert your attention to other things. A sense of urgency is key. You want to get this done as quickly as possible. That means breaking some rules, so be it. I mean, I was always one that was I would try and navigate the rules because I was in a hurry. I’m not sure about anything illegal, but totally, you know, getting things done quickly. Having that sense of urgency was very important. And finally, having experienced management, you don’t want to go and hire somebody for your marketing job that’s ever done it before. You need to have people that not only have the experience but also can fit with the team. It’s all about team building and having a good team that works with one another well and can get the job done ultimately with that sense of urgency. 

John Well, first of all, I love that great points there, and I to your last point, there were teams I see. I see a lot of leaders that do two things that stick out, one that doesn’t have a really strategic focus. The business is all over the place of the leaders all over the place. They don’t really know where their sweet spot is and they’re trying to do too much. And there’s a couple of organizations that come to mind where that’s been the problem. It’s almost like you scratch your head trying to think, OK, what is it that you’re doing and what do people know you for and or what do you want them to know you for? They can’t know you for 12 different things, but the other thing you mentioned is the experience management and building a team that really works. How often do you see leaders that don’t know how to do this very well? In other words, they don’t necessarily know where their unique ability is and where they need to hire or build a team around them. Do you see that as a problem a lot? 

Howard I have seen that, no question. It’s been a while since I’ve been in the active community, so I can’t say that I’ve seen it recently. But there are definitely examples of that where people bite off more than they can chew and don’t stay focused on what they should and are. I don’t think that those companies make it. Mm yeah. There becomes I mean, there’s the, you know, always the exception. But for the most part, that is a real detriment to success. 

John Yeah, exactly. I think I see that as a sign of a leader. I think a weak leader that is trying to also do everything him or herself and everything runs through them. Decisions, everything ideas, everything needs to come through them, in which case that’s the bottleneck of the company and they just can’t move fast enough. 

Howard That’s absolutely the truth. And that’s happened. I’ve seen that many times. I always thought that one of the first employees I should hire is legal and people didn’t really understand that the VCs would say, What are you doing hiring a lawyer so soon? I mean, maybe I’ll need one in the future, but you can always use outside counsel. But I always found that having an in-house lawyer in the early stages of the company was really helpful to me and the company. Not only did he know all of the legal. All the legal issues of the company and could help us on those. But he was always out. He was sort of like a consigliere. He would be who I would balance my questions off over my issues off of. And I use the same guy, he followed me to all four companies. It was a Ph.D. chemist from M.I.T. and a lawyer with one of the biggest patent firms. And I was able to recruit him into this small company, and it was the best thing I ever did, and he came to all four of the companies that I started.

John Wow. Well, that’s great. And one it probably gives you. First of all, when you have somebody to bounce ideas off of and have them be a sounding board, that’s obviously provides huge value. But it probably also give you a lot of confidence to know you’ve got somebody that’s on your side that’s really helping you navigate the right way and, you know, take the right steps or avoid the wrong steps. 

Howard And he would tell me if he didn’t agree with. I mean, you know, he wouldn’t just say, Oh yeah, you’re right, because I was the CEO and he was, yeah, right. He really would tell me if I was not thinking correctly. 

John Yeah, and you need that.

Howard Yeah, you need that. Yeah, you bet. 

John You don’t need people just nodding their head and agreeing, you need people that are going to going to give you their real opinion and the real scoop. Absolutely. 

Howard Yeah, I really believe that. 

John Yeah, this is great. Well, I’ll tell you what, this has been fantastic. There are a lot more questions I’d love to ask you, and maybe we can get a chance to dive in a little bit deeper, maybe in a part two at some point. But with and I’ll just ask you, maybe for a couple of thoughts as you right now, we’re in a very unique time. I think people have learned to some extent how to adapt to a virtual world. But moving forward in terms of a leader’s role and you may have an entirely virtual organization or an organization that is partially virtual. Any tips on how leaders can really adapt to that well or what the best leaders do in this type of environment where they’re not necessarily in a building, in an office space all day like they may have been in the past? What are your thoughts? 

Howard Well, I think it boils down to communication. That’s key. They’ve got a reputation which helps in this whole issue, and they’re doing this and the fact that they have to be reliable here. This is a reliability factor is key, especially when you’re doing it from a strange place or you’re, you know, you’re not doing it from your office where you normally or you’re used to. I think you have to start thinking outside the box a little bit about how you do those things we talked about earlier and retain your keep your employees happy, but also keep them having a sense of urgency and the rest of those things we talked about. Mm-Hmm. So I think it’s going to be a daunting task for some people to be able to do that. It’s not going to be as easy as that was when you were sitting next to them and you could talk to them in person. 

John But just as you mentioned with those real leaders that impacted you, it comes down to leaving people better than you found them. And when you take a real, genuine, authentic interest in people and helping them do the things that they’re capable of doing and reach their potential and find their passions. That’s where you develop people, whether they’re sitting across from you at a desk or they’re across the other side of the country, they’re going to be right there with you, step in. step. 

Howard Absolutely. I totally agree with that statement. Your view, it’s all goes down to taking an interest and being there for the people when they need you. I agree totally with what you said. 

John That’s great. Well, we have been here with Howard Byrne Dorf, who is a business consultant at Vision Clinical Research and on the board with Adams Pharmaceuticals. Tons of leadership experience, tons of business success. Howard, if people want to get more information and maybe your perspective on leadership, where might they go? How do they get in touch with you? 

Howard I have some articles that I put together that I’d be happy to list them and have them available. One that I wrote for Nature about financing years ago and which is still highly relevant and a number of a few others that I picked out. And I think there’s a place that I can leave them for your audience to get a hold of them. I’d be happy to do that. 

John Absolutely. We’ll put them in the show notes. So those of you are listening in and have a chance later. Go to the podcast and you’ll see in the show notes the links to those articles and any other information we could provide to you. But Howard, this has been great. I enjoyed this. Very short but very impactful, valuable insights and I really appreciate your perspective. 

Howard John, always a pleasure. I enjoyed it. 

John Absolutely. And thank you all for joining us today on today’s episode of Tomorrow’s Leader, as always. Like, share, subscribe, all that kind of good stuff, and I greatly appreciate your thoughts and suggestions on future topics as well as future guests. And don’t forget to go down below. Give a five-star review. Let us know your thoughts, of course, and we’ll see you next time. Thanks, everybody. And thanks again, Howard. You’re welcome. Bye-bye. 

John Thanks for joining us on today’s episode of Tomorrow’s Leader for suggestions or inquiries about having me at your next event or personal coaching, reach me at John@johnlaurito.com. Once again, that’s John@johnlauritogroup.com. Thanks, lead on!

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