The idea of social capital is an interesting one. Call it the art of networking or plain influence, but we all need to know how to utilize it in some way. In this interview, we sat down with Craig Dixon, co-founder and general partner of Accelerating Asia who shares with us about the power of it.
Accelerating Asia provides innovation consulting for organizations looking to engage with startups, runs an international accelerator VC program for early-stage startups, and manages the associated venture capital firm Accelerating Asia Ventures.
Please see below for the full conversation with Craig
Oasis (OS): Right off the bat, I want to know more about yourself.What are three values that you hold most true to yourself? Or that you strive for in life?
Craig Dixon (CD): Firstly, I think, is thinking about how you can be useful. So always think of ways you can add value, whether you’re in corporate, or startups. Secondly, integrity is really important. I think it’s very tempting in certain situations to bend the truth or take shortcuts, but it always comes back. Lastly, the importance of social capital, and to consider it a form of currency. In any relationship, work or personal, understanding those dynamics in order to be useful and, and do so, you know, in the high integrity way, but that’s also I think it’d be really useful to people to just lead better lives generally, whether it’s worker or home, or you know, whatever.
OS: Nowadays, it seems like values have gotten lost in translation. Most people would like to attain charisma, or holding presence when they walk into a room, but you talk about integrity. I’m just interested to know more about that.
CD: I think those things you mentioned are quite superficial, and for the most part can be learned. But I think a building block of something you need to do before even considering those sorts of things is to build out your integrity. It could be as simple as following through on your promises – reliability. Our lives today are so filled with stuff. We’re very focused on OKRs (Objective Key Results) and KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). The startups at Accelerating Asia’s program are measuring themselves on weekly KPIs and it can be very stressful and tempting to take shortcuts to get to this. But over the course of months and years, you’ll realize that that’ll actually be a negative for you and what you’re trying to build.
OS: Compared to your previous roles at banks, even running your own startup, what skills did you bring into running Accelerating Asia? And what did you also have to leave behind in both jobs as well?
CD: The stuff I left behind, I was very happy to leave behind. I didn’t work very well in a corporate environment. I’m a better fit and startups which I think by nature are just more honest, at least internally, because everything’s numbers driven. You can’t argue with how much money you have in the bank. When I was 23, I had a boss who recommended I get glasses even though I didn’t need them.
I joined a group called Toastmasters and it provided a lot of dividends for pitching and fundraising for my startup, and now Accelerating Asia. One thing that boggles my mind is that business schools don’t teach sales. They teach marketing but they don’t teach sales. They don’t teach self promotion, like how to talk about yourself in a compelling way. But perhaps that’s a little more common in Western cultures.
OS: Well, what about when you were running your own startup and when you were starting Accelerating Asia? From the outside, it looks like they were similar in nature. Were there skills you had to learn?
CD: When I left my startup, I went on to run another accelerator for Telstra called muru-D. And that’s really where I plugged the gap or bridge the gap between accelerating Asia and my startup. It’s where I really learned what startups needed, I was able to pivot myself and smoothly make that transition from founder to more of a mentor. It took me 6 to 12 months to really make that transition. But things translated from when I was pitching all the time as a founder. All the relationships I built at these VCs in 2013, many of whom I pitched to, now come in and do sessions with my startups. These relationships are paying dividends for my program today, which goes back to social capital. Even when you get rejected at meetings, send a thank you note and thank them for their time. Leaving the door open is important and thanking people for their time. I’m a little bit heavy on the social capital issue today, but it’s a thread that weaves between a lot of these different topics.
OS: However with social capital, for some people, it’s easier to build than others. It comes with knowing how to read a room, emotional intelligence and to a certain extent, physical grooming. There are a lot of parts that need to come together. How do you reckon with this?
CD: There’s a personality assessment that I’m pretty fond of called the Big Five. And one of the big five is conscientiousness. If you’re really high in conscientiousness, you have the natural ability to do this without high effort. On the flip side, if you’re on the lower end of the spectrum, you might need some mentors and people to help you with that. I think I spent too much time trying to be something I wasn’t as a banker.
OS: In the startup world, people perceive it as very cool, very sexy, it seems that everyone is a co-founder of something now, right? But what do you think people misconceive about being a startup founder?
CD: I mean, for the most part, you’re working too many hours, and you can’t pay your bills, and you’re probably going to fail. So, I’m happy for anyone to try to be a founder, because I think even if you fail, you’ll learn amazing things about yourself and be able to apply those in the future to things that you’re doing. It’s a lot about timing and lock in. I certainly didn’t have my eyes wide open when I went into it. I always have two opinions about this. On the one hand, I generally think you should be prepared for what you’re getting yourself into. But on the other hand, if you do too much research, you might not take the leap because the risks are high.
OS: So tell me more about what you do outside of work and how you keep sane.
CD: I’m really big into fitness. That’s what keeps me sane. So lifting weights, running, swimming, tennis. I also meditate almost every day for 10 or 15 minutes. I think that’s provided a lot of stability and perspective on things. I would highly recommend it for founders, especially because there’s so much stress, and you have so many different things within you. I think one of the most important things that founders need to do is prioritize. When your mind is messy, prioritization is hard to do. I think a lot of people are intimidated by meditation, where you do it once, and if you’re not very good at it, you quit. I’m not very good at it. Almost every time I do it, I get distracted. But the point is to do it, even if you get distracted, you’ll get value from it. It slows down your mind and lets you act more calmly. You can kind of get rid of the million voices in your head that we all have, the ones that never shut up. This is a way to help calm them down. I’ve been doing it for a number of years now. The biggest tip for anyone doing it is not to judge yourself on how good your session is. It comes with practice and with time. Believe it or not, even the worst session you do is going to provide some value.
OS: The idea of showing up – I think that’s really important. On to the last question, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
CD: When learning new things, you have to be willing to look silly at first and throw your pride out the window. I’ve just taken up juggling and I’m at three balls now, which I’ve begun to get good at. But if I were juggling four balls, it would be hilarious because the balls would be flying everywhere. From experience, if you just keep at it, you can get there. So you have to be humble, and get rid of your pride at the beginning. Learning new languages is also like that, you just have to go out there and speak, you’re gonna sound stupid, and people won’t understand you. But if you don’t do that practice, you’ll never really learn.