Growing up in a small town in Russia, Valery Komissarova’s family was too poor to buy her a computer. But that didn’t stop her from pouring over ragged IBM manuals and PC books that her dad would bring home from work.
“I loved reading them because I was always dreaming that at some point I would get hold of an actual computer,” she says.
She taught herself so much that at the age of 13, she began writing articles for tech magazines (her editors had no idea how old she was). At 16, she ditched high school to “write copy and code, and do analytics and market reports” for a Russian publishing house. By the time Komissarova was in her early 20s, she’d put herself through business school and was running biz dev and marketing for major Russian internet company Mail.Ru Group.
It was there that she met Dmitry Grishin, co-founder of Mail.Ru and one of the most successful entrepreneurs in eastern Europe. Grishin recognized a star in Komissarova and, after his company went public, he asked her to help him launch his new company.
Now 26 years old, Komissarova is a principal at the venture capital firm Grishin Robotics. With investors that include Larry Page and Richard Branson, the firm is putting $100 million into startups specializing in robotics — or what she calls the “hardware revolution.” These are hardware companies that integrate software that wasn’t economically possible even a few years ago. Her portfolio includes Ring, the video doorbell company, and LittleBits, a droid inventor kit for kids.
Whether your business is robotics or something completely different, Komissarova’s offers these pointers — from Russia with love.
Ignore other people’s opinions
From the moment Komissarova applied for her first job, employees twice her age laughed at her. “They said I was too young, and that I had no business being a woman in the tech industry,” she recalls. At first she was intimitaded, but she soon realized that the only “counter strategy was to be really, really good. Then everything else doesn’t matter.”
She read any book on business that she could get her hands on, including the entire reading lists of various MBA programs at top U.S. schools. Seth Godin and Tom Peters were among her favorites authors. Also inspiring were biographies of successful entrepreneurs. Richard Branson’s autobiography, Losing My Virginity, taught her “not to care about other people’s opinions.”
Be a social animal
Komissarova admits to being very shy and introverted. As a tech nerd, it was more natural for her to stay in her lane and hide behind her computer. But she forced herself to branch out. “I made myself interact with people I wouldn’t normally interact with. I went out of my comfort zone,” she says.
She learned the lingo not only of the engineers but also of the marketing department. She took a public speaking class and went to networking events. “You don’t have to enjoy it, but you have to spend time on the other side of the table.”
Write your way out of a jam
Komissarova starts off every day writing, in long-hand, three pages of her thoughts into a notebook. She does this totally stream-of-consciousness style. Anything goes. “No judgements, no restrictions, no agenda,” she says. And no computer. She insists the pages need to be handwritten.
The practice was inspired by Julia Cameron’s classic book The Artist’s Way, and Komissarova swears by it as a great way to clear your mind and solve problems. “Stick with it for at least a few weeks,” she says. “If you do it long enough, it will make you both a better person and a better entrepreneur.”
Know your why
As a venture capitalist, Komissarova has heard her fair share of pitches. She says the most effective are always those that passionately answer the question “Why?” “It’s not about how you look, what you wear or how you present yourself, it’s about establishing an emotional connection,” she says.
For this reason, she always asks company founders why they’re doing what they’re doing and listens carefully to their answer. “You have to be excited and passionate about why your business exists,” she says. “The competition is fierce and absolutely brutal, you need to set yourself apart.”
Tell a compelling story
Komissarova says that entrepreneurs are often very good at explaining what their product does, but not so much at telling the story behind it. Who are you? What led you to create this product? How will it transform people and the marketplace? These are the ingredients of a good pitch.
“Technical people often think, We’re working are asses off to make the best product, and if people don’t appreciate that it’s their problem. Or we’ll just hire a marketing company to tell our story and make a pretty website, but that doesn’t cut it,” she says.
She points to two of the most successful company founders of all time — Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. “One was technical, one was a storyteller. If this is not in the DNA of the company in the very beginning I wouldn’t fund the company,” she says, “because it’s something that’s almost impossible to instill down the road.”