A cautionary tale of squandered talent

By Francisco Dao , written on April 2, 2013

From The News Desk

Early last year I met a talented engineer working on a really compelling project. We hit it off, and a month later he asked me if I was interested in taking an active role as a hands on advisor to his startup.

As everyone knows, strong engineering talent almost always has their pick of advisors and, considering the fairly difficult tech he was working on, I was flattered. He admitted he wasn’t strong on the business side of things, that’s what he wanted me for, so early on I cautioned him that everything tends to take twice as long and cost twice as much as whatever was planned. We talked briefly about the pros and cons of joining an incubator, but he didn’t want to be lumped in with a class of rookies, and he felt he could do more on his own.

As March 2012 drifted into April, May, June, and July with little movement and near radio silence, I figured he was just learning the hard way that getting a product ready for launch is never easy. Since I was the one who warned him that things usually take longer than expected, I wasn’t particularly concerned. As summer wound down he got back in touch and told me things were starting to move. He had raised a small seed round and said the product was coming together.

In September, I brought him to a 50Kings event, so he could meet some people who might be beneficial to the company. We hadn’t formalized my role, but as I said, I thought the project was compelling so I wanted to help him.

Three more months would go by with no forward movement other than regular updates that I should “get ready,” because the product was going to launch soon. In early December he told me things were ready to roll, and we needed to find a good PR agency. I was introduced to an agency that only takes clients by referral, spoke at length with the president, and listened to my friend tell her the product was ready for immediate launch.

Over the next few months, I watched him post Facebook pictures from ski trips, parties, Mardi Gras, and SXSW. Meanwhile, there was no launch. Finally, after seeing a week’s worth of SXSW party pictures and hearing from the PR agency president that he had strung them along without ever committing, I decided there was no way I could associate my name with this project and risk my relationships and reputation.

Everyone reading this is probably thinking I’m as dumb as dirt for not seeing the signs sooner. In my defense, I was seduced by some really exciting technology and, other than the PR agency, I didn’t make any formal introductions or do much work over the past year. Having said that, you would be right to criticize me for being slow to recognize the problems.

As I looked back on this experience it occurred to me that raw talent doesn’t really matter. This engineer is immensely talented -- the prototypes were awesome -- but obviously he hasn’t been able to deliver.

I don’t know what percentage of highly talented people fall into this category, but I suspect many, such as this engineer, judge themselves by what they are capable of doing instead of what they actually do. Those who are guilty of this kind of thinking have been able to coast on their gifts for so long that they’ve cursed themselves with a dangerous mix of arrogance and laziness.

Early on when we talked about incubators as a possible option, he dismissed them as being too entry level. He felt he was beyond what they had to offer. From an engineering standpoint, he is probably more advanced than the majority of people who join incubators but most programs get startups to launch in three to six months and he hasn’t been able to deliver in over a year.

This cautionary tale is about someone I know. A friend -- former friend? -- who I hope can get his priorities straight. Most likely, he’ll just hate me for writing this post. But if anyone reading this recognizes this pattern of squandered talent in themselves and finds a spark to stop talking about their skills and start delivering on their promises, then at least I’ll have done some good. Remember, you might be the greatest engineer (or artist or businessperson or whatever) in the world but if you don’t deliver, you may as well have no talent at all.

Better to be someone with limited talent who exceeds their gifts than someone with a deep well of talent who squanders them away.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]