January 8, 2019
From failures and regrets to successfully growing and exiting tech companies: Q&A with Elie Antoun
With over 24 years of experience in corporate development and management under his belt, Elie Antoun has been involved in several business aspects: from growing companies, identifying new investment leads, to managing mergers and acquisitions for a number of companies in the US and Japan.
Out of the five companies he led, four got acquired: MediaQ in 2003; Genesis Microchip, a publicly traded semiconductor company, in 2008; AccelOps, computer software company, in 2012 and Akros Silicon in 2015, which is now part of Kinetic Technologies.
In 2008, Antoun worked as an Entrepreneur-in-Residence for Eldorado Ventures, where his job was to identify and shortlist innovative renewable energy startups to invest in. He is currently managing an M&A project for a Japanese semiconductor corporation, to divest one of their divisions. The company offers a wide range of products and IPs that cover development from specifications planning and theoretical design to physical design, production and quality control. He is also sitting on the board of several other companies and actively mentoring three startups.
In an interview with LebNet, Antoun spoke about the job he enjoys the most, his regrets and failures and achieving a good work/life balance. Read our Q&A below.
- You were a President and CEO of several companies, an Entrepreneur-in-Residence, an advisor and mentor and you helped many companies grow and get acquired. Which role did you enjoy the most?
There’s no question being a CEO of big companies of many sizes and particularly CEO of startups is the most enjoyable part. I enjoyed pressure and people. Those are the two primary drivers for me. When you’re in a startup, you’re leading a group of people into an area that’s not clear and you don’t know what’s going to happen and there’s no safety net. Every day is do or die. There’s a short distance between every decision you make and the result of that decision. I was CEO of companies that were as big as 700 people and making $300 million in revenue and as small as 25 people and making $3 million in revenues. That’s where you learn the most and make the most mistakes also.
- Tell us a little bit about your work with El Dorado Ventures, where you were an Entrepreneur In Residence.
I joined them late 2008, after the Genesis deal closed and took some time off. I joined them to look at renewable energy. There was a lot of solar, water, and lighting technology. At that time, the massive financial crisis hit. For two years investors were very apprehensive about writing big checks. It was an opportunity to assess ideas, companies, entrepreneurs and make a couple of investments, but things were slower. My role was to listen to incoming ideas from entrepreneurs and then select a few to set up meetings with the partners at the fund. I screened maybe a dozen over one and a half years and Eldorado invested in two of them.
- Which mistakes you wish someone else had told you to avoid when you were younger?
I wish that I had known and researched the board of companies [I was managing] to understand why they got in trouble in the first place. I was spoiled in my first startup, I had such an incredible board, we were always open and straightforward with each other that I thought it would be like that every time.
- Most of the startups fail. Sometimes it’s because the entrepreneurs did not have the right characteristics to succeed and other times the idea and execution were wrong. Which of the two scenarios do you encounter the most?
The world has changed in the last 10 years, but the biggest reason for failure has been founders problems. Founders who didn’t know each other that well and launched into a high-intensity and high-pressure environment without enough experience. They end up fighting and getting at each other instead of focusing on the goal and recognizing where their own shortcomings are. They bring investors in and those shortcomings force the investors to bring outsiders and sometimes outsiders aren’t all fully in tune with the founders and everything becomes a spiral from there. I find that companies in-fighting is the primary reason for failure.
Execution is related to the team and not trying to go after the whole world, which brings me to the second primary reason for failure: the lack of focus. Companies want to change the world and tend not to laser focus on a market they can win, so they try to go after two big pieces of the pie and get nothing out of it. A market has to be big enough to put some food on the table but the lack of targeting is another major driver for failure. The third reason is not going after smart money. I am a huge fan of going after smart money, people who know how to invest, people who trust the management but are active enough and help in various areas.
- What keeps you up at night?
Only if I’m doing the right thing. That’s the only thing I ever worry about. If i’m being honest with myself and with the person asking for my help. When you look in the mirror and you’re being honest with yourself, you don’t worry about anything else.
- Are you currently mentoring or advising any startups?
Yes, the last two months have become quite active. I’m helping three startups right now. One is doing a system for surveillance cameras without going to the cloud, which creates a storage problem. The founders are incredibly smart and have an idea they already actioned on and completed a proof of concept. They can do very high resolution surveillance and handle the storage without using the cloud and they are targeting SMEs, not the huge enterprises for whom the cost of storage is not a problem. Another one is focused on assisted driving using laser and radio technology. The third one is IT verification for devices, mobile, PCs and laptops. This Japanese startup has a unique way of doing ID verification that’s cheaper and faster from what’s out there today. I mentor them, I like to be involved.
- When does a mentor’s role become dispensable?
You always have to work yourself out of a job. If you’ve become dispensable that means you’ve done what you need to do for that entrepreneur. You could become a board member, advisor, but don’t need to be a more involved mentor. If there was not a good fit from the beginning, whether it’s a functional, characteristic or chemistry fit, then both the entrepreneur and the mentor should know from the beginning. As a mentor who’s effective, the best thing you can do is to work yourself out of a job so entrepreneurs can focus on something else that is not an area of expertise for the mentor.
- How do you achieve a good work/life balance?
Lately it’s been a little harder, but it goes back to doing the absolute best that you can within the parameters that you control, and not sweating out the parameters that you can’t control. Also being incredibly lucky for having a great wife. Basically I get to work at 7 am and I leave at 7 pm. If you’re completely focused on what you need to do then there’s not much else that you could do differently. You can go home and be a bit more relaxed. Assembling a team that is incredibly strong that you can rely on [is also crucial]. Many people define importance by having everything go through them. The ability to put together a strong team and rely on it is way more powerful than having everything go through one funnel.