"I’ve developed this mindset where you have to be objective and honest with yourself before you give something up. You have to ask yourself a very real question that only you can answer: have you done all that you can?"
Joe Musselman is the Managing Partner and Co-Founder of Broom Ventures, a Venture Firm backing some of the most mission-oriented founders out there with the belief that Teams, Leadership, and Culture are the critical factors to the ultimate success of an organization. Prior to Broom, Joe was the CEO and Founder of the Honor Foundation, America’s first career transition institute for Navy SEALs and the U.S. Special Operations community. He also served on the board of the NASDAQ Center for Entrepreneurship in San Francisco.
Let’s start with the Honor Foundation – What led you to founding the organization?
Failure. Most wouldn’t call it failure, but it was. You have a goal, you don’t achieve the goal. To me, it was a failure. I experienced a spine injury about two-and-a-half years into my service, and I was out (Navy SEAL training). So despite training for years to get in, two-and-a-half years in, I was out undoubtedly. On my way out, as I was doing rehabilitation for about eight months, I recognized that there was a serious need when I would ask the community members who were in transition, “Hey, what’s next?” And that’s a question that everyone listening right now, if you were to close your eyes and go back to a moment in your life where you were faced with that question, whether it was personally, professionally, or in a relationship,. . . it’s the two-word question that can give the most fearless people on the planet great pause.
What’s next? Most people spend their whole life looking for their dream job. This community had their dream job, and now we’re asking them to find another. That’s a very different thing. I was the perfect cocktail and mixture of vulnerability and insecurity, mixed with enough stick-to-itiveness and grit, like I have to prove my value and meaning to this community still. Despite me not being able to be an operator or a trigger puller, I can provide value in other ways. I was the perfect mixture for that idea to find me at the time because I didn’t do anything that was exceptional. This isn’t a new idea (let’s help veterans transition), but there hadn’t been anything to date that was at the level and experience level and caliber and quality for this community, which is obviously high caliber, high quality. The top 0.01 percent warfighter on the planet is right down the street in San Diego and Coronado and then also in Virginia Beach. We needed to go where they were. And that resulted in five campuses over the next five to six years that resulted in tens of millions of dollars raised. It resulted in a full staff of twenty and a ten-thousand-square-foot award-winning campus here in Sorrento Valley, California. And now when the community asks themselves that question of what’s next, they know: it’s The Honor Foundation. We’re super proud of that.
What was the idea that led to Broom Ventures? How did you go from working with Navy Seals to founding a venture firm?
That is the question. Well, I had to go through my own program. I don’t wish that I would have made it easier, but it’s certainly harder to do and follow your own advice. You will quickly feel overwhelmed if you start to ask yourself the question - what’s next?
It’s very overwhelming because you’re talking about whats; you’re talking about features. You’re talking about a billion different things of what you could do. When you pin it to a who, meaning you should ask yourself, in a state of transition, who is doing something that inspires you. Whos are traceable. Whos you can research. And for me, when I asked myself that question in transition (who is doing something that inspires me?), when I really broke down my network at the time, it came down to two buckets of people. It came down to entrepreneurs, and it came down to VCs. I didn’t recognize it right away. I had to dig deep into my own network and figure out who is truly someone that inspired me. I took it to a totally different level where I defined what inspire means. I defined what it meant for them to inspire me and what was I inspired about. That is exactly the first exercise that I did. I looked at what they were doing, I looked at who was doing it . . . And I got on the phone with all of them. I talked to fifty founders, and I talked to fifty VCs over a period of around a year. And if you pay attention to the timeline here, it’s quite important. I went from January and February of 2020 to January and February of 2021, then I was told to stay in my room and not leave for about a year. It’s amazing what you can read. I clearly had an addiction problem with reading (Joe points to the packed bookshelf behind him).
The idea was taking as much as you can from these people. I’m very much a real-life MBA person. I am not knocking MBAs or the value of MBAs, but you put me in a room with one hundred people for a year who have done extraordinary things, who are valued at eighty-plus billion dollars personally for the decisions and for the investments that they’ve made and then I came across this discovery. I couldn’t shake it. It was the itch, it was the vision, mission, and value set for a fund, idea, and concept and thesis that I could not shake, and that’s the idea of teams, leadership, and culture: TLC.
How did you figure that out? Was that where you were trying to figure out from all the interviews?
I had no idea what I was looking for. You just wanted to talk to the smartest people that you knew that you respected? I call it a listening tour. If you haven’t gone on a listening tour . . . and you may not call it that. You may just call it cold interviews, or you may call it something that means something to you. But for me, a listening tour is very explicit. I’ve never heard of anyone getting themselves into any trouble because they were listening so hard.
Listening tours imply that you are there to listen. I defined what my activities and actions are when I’m in the interaction. That’s very ninety-ten. If you were to track your conversation and realize how hard it is to let someone else speak for 90 percent of the time and you speak for 10 percent, it’s very hard, and it takes practice.
And what I learned along the way is that all the founders were saying a version of the same story about both their successes and their failures. For example, “Tell me about all the successes that you’ve had. Pick a milestone and walk me through it: the people that were around you, things that were being said.” I try to get very sentient with my questions because it gets people to open up very quickly. They would always go to a version of this story: “The teams at the time were remarkable. We had great leadership at the board level,” or “We had great leadership inside of my co-founders,” and “We just had good leadership concepts at this company. And the culture was trending up and to the right as a result.” Teams, leadership, culture. When I asked about failure . . . “Well, you know, we hired some bad teammates. We had some bad teams.” “We had poor leaders at the time, and our culture, as a result, started to become toxic and trending down and to the right.” Teams, leadership, culture.
So my last question toward the end of the interviews with both subsets of both founders and VCs was pretty simple: “Have you ever heard of a venture fund that uses teams, leadership, and culture, otherwise known as TLC, as their investment thesis of the fund—that’s all they focus on?” And the unanimous answer was no. So for me, I wanted to go and quantify what I knew to be true, what we all know to be true, because I don’t care what company you’re thinking of right now. It was once a startup. I don’t care if you’re a Fortune 50 company. Every company in the world at one point in time was a startup. So why not try to instill the idea of TLC at the earliest stages possible into founders who already think, act, feel, and communicate in this way and then sharpen them over time by doubling down on asking, “Are you paying enough attention to teams? Are you sharpening your own leadership skill sets? Are you paying attention to culture?” Because as we know, culture is that funny thing that if you pay attention to it or you don’t, it’s being created, and you can’t deny it. So that’s the birth of Broom Ventures.
How are you now looking at investments through that lens of TLC and how are you different in your approach?
So a good friend of mine, Rich Diviney, wrote a wonderful book called The Attributes, and it breaks down all these different traits that live within all of us. There’s a free assessment that everyone should take, and it breaks down your attributes and where you fall. But the moment a founder goes from a founder to founder plus you-name-the-number, you are now a team. Rich talks about teams. His definition is fairly straightforward: a team is when two or more people are headed toward a common goal or objective. Then you become a team. That’s when investors will now look at you and audit the team. It has very little to do with traction, revenue, or your financials at the seed stage. It’s all up for grabs. It’s about the people who are behind all of those things that are going to make it successful. Yes, there are indicators. There’s the company’s value.
But in order for us to truly be different, we had to incorporate a specific lens, and the lens is TLC. I have this rubric that I created as a result of that year-long process of interviewing. We do due diligence sometimes backward, which is what makes us different. We have a TLC call after we review the tech. I have two remarkable co-founders who are very technical and brilliant. They review technology. Their top picks get sent to the top, then I have a call that’s focused on TLC. If you’re a founder, you can listen to everything I said, and you can try to manipulate responses. It won’t matter. I’ll get to questions that will take you off guard. They’re never the same. They’re all variations of the same theme, which goes across eight major themes in these conversations: vision, mission, values, principles, ethos, teams, leadership, culture. I go in that order, but I never actually ask you about vision. I never ask you about missions. I ask you everything about those things in order to get to the thing that I need to know. It’s been a remarkable experience. I’m learning every single day. Fund-one results come out in the next couple of years. We’re already seeing that our thesis is working. We’re seeing unbelievable potential. The markups on our companies are so strong, and we’re so proud of them because none of this has anything to do with us. I just want to be clear. It’s 100 percent a result of our founders and what they’re doing on the ground, and I’m super proud to be a part of these companies in a very small way.
Having worked with both SEALS and now entrepreneurs you know a lot about top performers. What makes these people top performers?
Top performers certainly have a few things in common. One thing I’ve noticed that a lot of these top performers have in common is common sense and the way they view the world. Their intuition, although I describe it as common sense, is actually quite uncommon, as we all know. But there’s also a fierce curiosity that you can barely describe when you feel it. I mean, the questions they ask are so direct and so precise. There’s a certainty and a confidence that you wonder where that comes from when you’re an investor. And I’ll use, truly, one of the greatest founders I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. His name is Krenar Komoni of a company called Tive.
T I work with this company intimately to form their vision-mission-value set, to trickle that down into what people are doing on Monday at 8:00 a.m. That’s tough for any company to do. We have this big vision. We have this excellent mission. We’ve got a great value set. How do we layer that into objectives, key results, to do subtasks, to the minutia of what we have to do to make sure it’s all aligned? Krenar we were in very early with, and we’re super proud of the progress of the company. Fierce curiosity. He is an immigrant to this country. He has a certain respect for the business-creation process. He has a respect for competition, and he’s managed to find ways to collaborate where otherwise people would think it was competitive. That is really hard to teach. But it’s easy to recognize, at least according to the rubric that I follow religiously. It came out through conversation and off-the-cuff responses. And now it proves, on the bottom line, to go from a million to twenty-five-plus million ARR very short amount of time. It shows in the bottom line.
You’re a huge believer in mastering your craft in whatever you’re doing. How are you trying to master your craft? Is that something you try to take a step back from your day-to-day fires?
Yes, intentionally. And this goes back to managing your time. How often do you self-assess yourself with those who care most about you? And so at the end of every quarter, there’s a week that is completely wiped clean on my calendar, and that whole week is to review me, my performance with those closest to me, and begin asking very direct questions to a subset of people who are around me most. And I add comments, feedback, reviews, both review formally and informally, to a document that I’ve been building now since 2015, 2016. It’s called the “You” document. It’s just called “You.”
It’s a huge performance report on you, basically?
That’s right. I eventually want to publish it, “publishing” meaning I’m just going to throw it on my LinkedIn profile as a post, because it shows all my weaknesses. It shows all my peaks, all my valleys. It shows what I’m great at, what I’m not so great at. I’ve taken everything from these assessments that resonates with me and resonates with the feedback I’m getting in real time, and I put it on one single document.
There’s this crazy story that I heard as a teenager that has stuck with me for a long time about Michelangelo. This goes back to one of his greatest pieces of art that he has ever made. He made a comment along the lines of “It’s in this piece of stone, what I hope to create,” and at the same time, “I had to look at it for a really long time to see it.” Nothing was done for months except that he was sitting there and just looking at it, looking at it, looking at it. And then, finally, he just started chipping away, and the next thing you know, there it was months later.
I think of ourselves in that way. We continue to look at ourselves, and we need others to tell us about ourselves. Those that we know, trust, and love have to be part of chipping away at us and know that they’re coming. Self-accounting and asking how I improve is constant. It’s infinite. It will never stop. And the more I learn about me, the less confidence I gain in basically every other aspect of my life, meaning we are so flawed that if you’re not trying to be in a constant state of improvement, you’re lying to yourself. And one last thing too. EQ is different than IQ. We can change EQ. We can’t change IQ. We’re stuck with it. But we can change EQ, and that’s how the world perceives us, so why wouldn’t you want to get better at that.
And how are you getting better at it? Do you do anything specifically?
You have to trick yourself to get better at things. Around 2017, I started to choose things that I wanted to see a 1 percent improvement based on direct feedback. Right now, the 1 percent is important. You read these different books like Atomic Habits and The Perfect Day and all these different types of books that break down human psychology and biology. The percentage isn’t what we think about. It’s the awareness of the thing. If I say 1 percent improvement, statistically, I’m probably going to make a 10 to 15 percent improvement just by focusing on it.
But 1 percent is not intimidating. So that’s why I like to use 1 percent. Every single quarter at the end of the year, I pick out the four to six things that I’m trying to improve on. Then at the end of every quarter, I take that week to self-account and self-assess. It has to come from other people. It can’t come from me. I can’t sit there and say I got better at feedback this quarter or I managed my time with my wife better this quarter or I managed me being a dad to Jack and my now daughter, Sophia, to my standard. You outline these things personally and professionally, and then you have to ask the people that your actions will directly impact. You can’t even call yourself a leader until others call you a leader. It’s not up to you. That’s how I think about self-improvement, and it can’t come from you. Those that are closest to you have to recognize that improvement’s been made.
From someone who has overcome a major setback in their life, how do you teach your founders to overcome failure?
A good way to think about it is you don’t have to get over something that you signed up for. That’s the wrong way to look at it. I’ve got to get over this failure. You signed up for it. And I signed up for service, and what I had hoped to have happened failed. I signed up for it. That’s what I signed up for. I got injured. I get it. How can I continue emulating the vision, mission, purpose of this community into the next great adventure of my own life? Well, that was honor.org, and look what happened. It’s a national organization. Nearly fifteen hundred families are now in jobs as a result of that mission. I can at least hang my head up high and say that although I didn’t serve in uniform, I serve those in uniform, and I serve those in uniform in scale, probably in a greater way than I could have ever done as one of their teammates or a trigger puller out in the field for them. It’s just different. I wouldn’t have been able to make that same type of impact at a very stressful and vulnerable time in their lives.
And so with founders, it’s the same thing when failure happens. This is a very real-time example. One of our founders, who I’ve been back and forth with on calls and emails and Slacks, was very engaged in this process of basically letting one of the employees go. I said something to this founder that gave great pause. Once the scenario was explained, I kind of just
paused and sat back and said, “Well, this is what you signed up for, right?” The whole attitude changed because it was a reminder that - This is what I signed up for. I said, “All right, well, let’s talk about how we hope to grow.” Let’s make sure we handle this well because how people bring people into an organization and how people let people go from an organization tells me everything about what’s in between. It tells me everything about the culture that I need to know in how you bring people on and how you let people go.
As we conclude, what is your parting advice for those trying to make it at the highest level in their respective fields?
I can give an opinion. I hate giving advice. It really puts me out there like I know what I’m talking
about. But I can give an opinion for sure. For those out there that are out there trying to make something happen . . . I don’t care what it is. I don’t care if you’re trying to make your marriage happen, make a business happen or if you’re trying to make anything happen. It’s funny how all of it is universal on what it takes to actually make it happen. You have a choice. I’ve developed this mindset where you have to be objective and honest with yourself that before you give something up, you have to ask yourself a very real question that only you can answer. No one else can answer
Only you can answer it: Have you done all that you can?
That’s a very serious question. Whether it’s with a friendship, whether it’s with your marriage, whether it’s with your business, can you honestly look at yourself in the mirror? And it’s brought me to tears several times when I’ve asked myself that question across all of those topics. Have you really done all that you can, Joe Musselman? No, I haven’t. There have been times where I said, “Yes, I have,” and then moved away from the friendship. I moved away from an opportunity. So I would say ask yourself that question, and if the answer is no, you’ve got to get back to work.