r.i.p. craig johnson

Craig Johnson passed away this weekend – in the peak of his career, he was one of the great startup company advisors of Silicon Valley.  In the late ’90s he left legal giant Wilson Sonsini to form “a new kind of law firm” that supplied both legal necessities and business advice to growing startups.

I joined Craig’s firm in Menlo Park a few years after beginning my career in New York.  In the large Manhattan firms, the partners have big offices with spectacular views of the city.  Craig opened Venture Law Group in a modest suburban office park, and he liked to change his own office location from time to time, to dispel the office politics around a physical locus of power.  At one point soon after I joined, he occupied the small office right next to mine, making me a very lucky neophyte to Silicon Valley.  He was always kind and generous with his time and advice.  There are two bits of his wisdom that I particularly remember:

Timing and sequence are as critical as any other factors in building a successful venture. People tend to obsess over having the right idea, and building the right pieces to pursue those ideas.  And undoubtedly, it matters greatly that you pursue the right idea, building the right pieces, with the right people.  But all of those things can be right, and you can still fail if you start at the wrong time.  And more subtly, even being in the right time is not enough – you have to do things in the right order.  Attention to timing and sequence requires extraordinary strategic focus and discipline.

You are an undiversifiable piece of human capital.  This advice grows out of the notion that we are all investors in our own careers.  And one of the first principles of good investment management is portfolio diversification – by distributing your investment across asset classes with varying risk profiles, you can maximize your return while minimizing overall risk.  But as a human being with one life, you have a limited number of opportunities to diversify your career portfolio.  Life is about risk in a deeper way than rational investments.

Craig inspired us with his humility and gentle wisdom.  He carried his great experience lightly, with a twinkle in his eye at the chance to share a new thought with you.  Most of all, I’ll remember the boyish enthusiasm he always had for helping new ideas become realities.  Rest in peace, Craig Johnson.

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