I could tell he didn't get it. Despite his polite smiles and nods, despite my frequently-rehearsed and carefully-refined explanations of what my company did and why it was so great, I could tell that this prospective investor just didn't really "get it."
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I imagine that my friends pursuing companies with complex technology -- biotech, robotics, machine learning -- run into this reaction pretty frequently. But my pitch is pretty straightforward. HigherMe helps retail and hospitality employers find, screen, and hire better employees.
Our company was born out of my own experience as the owner of seven franchised ice cream stores. But years before I owned a chain of quick-service retail establishments, I worked at one. I worked at McDonald's, where I slung french fries, scrubbed high-chairs, and worked the drive-thru for $6.40/hour (Canadian!)
This investor that sat in front of me was successful. Wealthy. Smart, really smart. He attended an elite private school, and earned two different degrees from separate Ivy League institutions.
But he had never worked at McDonald's before.
And I bet he had never known anyone that had.
It made me feel a bit like a savant. Here was this brilliant, successful man, who knew 2X or 3X more about many things than I did. But I knew 100X or even 1000X more about a huge part of the world that he had never really experienced.
There are 20 million retail workers in America, with two million of them working at McDonald's and Walmart alone. Call it whatever you want: "the middle class", "the working class", "blue collar workers." Whatever euphemism you choose, the fact is that a huge portion of North American workers are supporting themselves and their families by working for an hourly wage, often close to the minimum, in retail or hospitality.
What's your "McDonald's quotient"? How many people do you personally know, and count as friends or colleagues, that have worked in retail for an hourly wage?
What's your organization's "McDonald's quotient?" In Silicon Valley and the larger startup and VC investing world, I often find that it’s surprisingly low, or even non-existent. This is a problem, especially if you're building or investing in a company that's selling a consumer-facing product or experience.
Much has been made of the need for diversity in tech, and rightly so -- there are important benefits to building a team that is diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender, and every founder should be making it a priority. Let me also suggest the importance of building a team that is diverse in its economic origins, of building a team that's been exposed to what a huge, important swath of American life is really like. A team with a high McDonald's Quotient.
Startups frequently place way too much focus on shiny credentials, like a college degree from a prestigious school, or work experience at a big technology giant. Too often, this comes at the expense of candidates from other walks of life. It’s a mistake. You can’t truly understand your customers if you haven’t been exposed to what their lives are really like.
I've worked with single mothers supporting their families on a retail wage. I've employed young people working three separate jobs and saving every penny to be the first in their family to go to college. I've hired "re-entrants" - people who spent time in prison before trying to create a new life. Their experience of the world is significantly different than most Ivy League graduates, and immensely valuable.
And I don’t want to give the impression that everyone with a background in retail fits into the same economic stereotype. My own personal McDonald's quotient also includes people with retail backgrounds who have gone on to become doctors, teachers, lawyers, and CEOs.
The lessons we all gained from working in retail were incredible and a huge part of what has helped us achieve success later in life. How to deal with an angry customer - even when their reasons for being angry had nothing to do with me. How to get along with and work alongside people I didn't like. How to manage others, but without having anything to incentivize them with. How to handle stress - try serving a hockey team that arrives on a bus five minutes before closing time on Wednesday night!
A cushy internship that someone’s Dad helped arrange probably wouldn’t teach those kinds of lessons. Slugging french fries and working the drive-thru taught me much more than just how to work at McDonald's.
Seek out people that have had these experiences -- that have first-hand exposure to this part of the world -- as you build your team. You'll be glad you did.
Rob Hunter is the co-founder and CEO of HigherMe, which launched out of Y Combinator's Winter 2015 class.