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Global Expert: Richard Conn, Managing Partner & Advisor

Exploring the World of Entrepreneurship and International Business with Richard Conn, Managing Partner of Innovate Partners and Eurasia Advisors.

Welcome to our latest installment of The Global Expert Interview Series. Today, we have the privilege of introducing Richard Conn, the Managing Partner of Eurasia Advisors and Innovate Partners, an esteemed figure in the world of international business.

Richard’s career is nothing short of extraordinary. As an equity partner at Latham & Watkins for nearly two decades, he established the firm’s Moscow office in 1992 and served as a key advisor to Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s administration. His deep understanding of international corporate law led him to deliver a keynote address at the United Nations, where he addressed the establishment of a world-wide Sovereign Debt Restructuring framework—an event that left a lasting impact.

Beyond his legal prowess, Richard is an avid chess player and a passionate advocate for critical thinking. He chairs the Advisory Committee of a non-profit organization that teaches chess to millions of public school children, nurturing their analytical skills.

Join us as we delve into a captivating conversation with Richard, where he shares the journey that led him to where he is today, valuable advice on navigating international markets, understanding cultural nuances, and building successful teams. Additionally, Richard offers his perspectives on the traits of successful entrepreneurs, overcoming challenges, and effective marketing strategies for startups.

Stay tuned as we continue to spotlight trailblazers in our Global Expert Interview Series, bridging the worlds of growth marketing and brand building.

Julia Ager, CEO, Jus Agency

Richard, thank you for joining us today. Could you please tell us a little about your current work and your main focuses?

I am currently the Managing Partner of Innovate Partners, where we focus on private equity investments in early-stage technology, business services, and consumer companies. This role allows me to engage with promising startups and contribute to their growth and success. Additionally, I oversee Eurasia Advisors, which deals with relationship issues between the United States, Russia, and Ukraine. This work stems from my extensive experience in Russia and my desire to bridge gaps between different cultures and markets. While I find both aspects of my work fulfilling, I must say that my involvement with Innovate Partners is particularly exciting, as we have the opportunity to invest in and support cutting-edge ventures.

Looking back at your journey, what have been some of the highlights that shaped your path to this point?

Reflecting on my journey, there have been several highlights that stand out. One of them was starting a law firm in Moscow during a time of significant challenges in that environment. This experience provided valuable lessons and allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of the Russian culture and legal landscape. Another highlight was the establishment of Eurasia Advisors, which grew out of my partnership at Latham and Watkins and my work in Russia. It was a natural progression that leveraged my years of experience and connections. Lastly, collaborating with my partner in California to invest in various early-stage companies has been a rewarding experience, offering insights into building businesses and the importance of strategic partnerships.

As someone with extensive international experience, what advice do you have for working with foreign markets and immersing yourself in different cultures?

When it comes to working with international markets, I believe it’s crucial to invest time and effort in learning the language and culture. Building relationships is the foundation of successful business endeavors, and language proficiency fosters trust and broader connections. Learning a foreign language shows respect for the local culture and opens doors to meaningful friendships. Furthermore, it is essential to recognize that each culture has its own approach to doing business. For those accustomed to Western legalistic and formulaic methods, understanding the flexibility and non-legal aspects of business deals in other cultures is vital. Embracing the natural flow of transactions and setting up the right incentives often takes precedence over relying solely on legal enforcement mechanisms.

From your experience in the Russian market, are there any specific insights or advice you can share regarding selling into this market?

Every culture has its own business style, and it’s important to understand the differences when selling into a market like Russia. Coming from legalistic and formulaic traditions, such as American or British, it’s crucial to recognize that Russian culture is less focused on legalities. While having clear documents is essential, flexibility is expected, and enforcement mechanisms are not highly effective in such environments. Instead of relying solely on legal means, it’s important to understand the natural dynamics of a transaction or business deal, set up proper incentives, and prioritize the working relationship. It’s a mistake to assume that breaching an agreement will lead to a court resolution, even in the UK.

What are the biggest lessons you wish you had known earlier when entering the Russian market? Can you share any mistakes or experiences others could learn from?

Looking back, one thing I wish I had done differently was to believe in myself more and have the courage to pursue things earlier in my career. It’s a common part of the maturing process, but considering my experience with the Russian market, I could have focused on learning Mandarin instead of Russian. From a business perspective, Mandarin would have been a more beneficial language to invest my time in. However, despite the challenges, there are many positive aspects of Russian culture that have been a significant part of my life. Regarding business mistakes, there have been instances where I misjudged and trusted individuals who turned out to be untrustworthy. Trust is essential in business, but it’s also important to be cautious and open to the possibility of getting burned.

What advice do you have for building a successful team?

I believe it’s crucial to always be clear about your goals and objectives. In my own experiences, whether it’s investing in companies or building them, I have found that knowing what you want to achieve is paramount. This perspective comes from my involvement in chess, where understanding your goals and finding ways to achieve them is vital. It’s not just about pursuing financial success but also having longer-term goals that align with personal interests and how you want to contribute to the world.

What traits do you think are common among successful entrepreneurs?

Successful entrepreneurs often exhibit traits such as curiosity, a passion for learning, and a willingness to explore new areas. Entrepreneurship goes beyond simply collecting money; it involves following one’s interests and passions, constantly acquiring new knowledge, being creative, and investing energy into personal growth.

When evaluating business investments, what criteria do you look for? What sets a business idea apart?

Trust in the people you’ll be working with is crucial when considering business investments. If the opportunity comes through a network I am connected to, that’s a significant advantage. I also focus on investing my time and resources in businesses overseas where my team’s value lies in connecting them with the Western world and different networks. In such cases, disruptive qualities, especially in technology, are appealing. However, evaluating standard companies in the US involves different considerations, as there are often multiple interested parties.

What growth advice do you offer to the companies you work with? Can you provide a specific example?

I often advise entrepreneurs to anticipate that everything will be more expensive and challenging than initially imagined. While having a great idea and potential product is important, execution, team building, and networking are equally critical. For example, I’ve worked with a company called “A Pair,” which provides a platform for interactive sports training and healthcare applications. This fantastic company has gone through multiple iterations and adjustments over many years. Flexibility, adaptability, and constantly learning where you fit in the market are essential for success. It’s also wise to hedge your bets, build a nest egg, gain experience by working with other groups, and gradually develop a network before fully committing to a risky venture.

What is your advice for startups?

In my experience, I’ve noticed that many startups and business owners struggle with follow-ups and making business connections work. It’s not just about networking and meeting people; it’s also about maintaining those relationships. If the goal is to raise capital, it’s important to target individuals or companies within your network who are likely to be interested in the investment you’re offering. Not all firms are inclined towards early-stage companies, so widening your circles beyond friends and family becomes crucial to attract additional capital. While it may be necessary to engage marketing agencies at some point, it’s not surprising to find that the majority of social connections are not interested in investing. Targeted and focused efforts are essential when raising capital for specific ventures. It’s a challenging task, especially considering the evolving investment landscape and increased concerns about risky investments. However, there are groups, venture-focused firms, and family offices that specialize in raising capital for ventures. Connecting with these groups can enhance the chances of securing investments.

Has anything stood out to you as an investor, something unique or impressive that an entrepreneur has done to make themselves stand out?

It’s interesting because, in today’s world, where shows like “Shark Tank” are popular, there’s a perception that investors whimsically choose where to invest. However, that’s just television. In reality, investors in early-stage companies are looking for more than just a single “cherry on the top” factor. Building a good interpersonal relationship, establishing trust, and demonstrating belief in the venture through personal investment and salary sacrifice are all crucial elements that catch an investor’s attention. Trust, professionalism, and a well-thought-out business plan or pitch deck play significant roles in building credibility. Conversely, half-baked ideas or unprofessional presentations can harm an entrepreneur’s credibility. Presenting ideas professionally and thoroughly, considering competitors and potential downsides, and working together with investors to explore possibilities are essential aspects of making a strong impression. However, it’s important to note that investing in startups involves a comprehensive process rather than relying solely on one standout factor.

You mentioned the power of your network – can you give us any tips?

Networking is incredibly powerful in business. I learned this by observing socially gifted friends before the days of LinkedIn. One in particular was a master at making introductions and connecting people with common interests and goals. I’ve adopted that approach myself, spending a lot of time introducing people who I believe should connect and benefit from each other’s expertise.

Networking isn’t about seeking immediate compensation or expecting something in return for every introduction. It’s about creating value by connecting people. In today’s business landscape, platforms like LinkedIn have recognized the power of networking. Building a network of like-minded individuals can open doors to new opportunities and collaborations that you wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Networking is truly indispensable in business.

You mentioned the importance of education and recommended investing in it in your book “The Earthbound Parent”. Could you recommend a book on negotiation that has been particularly helpful to you?

One book that I highly recommend on negotiation is “Secrets of Power Negotiating” by Roger Dawson. It’s a book I’ve read multiple times and find incredibly insightful. It’s an easy read, and you can refer to it repeatedly to reinforce the negotiation strategies and techniques discussed. Negotiation is not about manipulation; it’s about setting the stage for both sides to win and avoiding hostilities. It’s a skill that can be applied to various aspects of life, both professionally and personally. I believe you’ll find this book to be a valuable resource in honing your negotiation skills.

Any final thoughts or advice you’d like to share?

I’d say, focus on professional growth without seeking immediate returns for every action you take. It’s essential to remember that most things are out of our control. Instead of getting frustrated about what we can’t control, concentrate on what is within our control. And remember, failure is a part of the journey. You will experience more failures than successes with your decisions, but as long as they are not significant failures, you’ll learn and grow from them.

Lastly, keep learning every day. Stay curious and open-minded. In business, if you stop learning, you might as well stop staying in business. There’s always something new to discover and challenges to tackle. Embrace the learning process and approach every day with a growth mindset.

You can contact Richard via LinkedIn.

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