Leadership

Google-backed entrepreneur shares the No. 1 way to turn an idea into a billion-dollar company

An entrepreneur dreams of building a successful company. If everything goes right, perhaps even one worth millions.

Serial entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky has founded eight businesses, including two garnering valuations north of $1 billion. Many have been funded by big-name firms, such as Google Ventures, Microsoft and Sequoia Capital.

Varsavsky, who currently teaches entrepreneurship at Columbia University, credits a specific management practice for moving from one venture to the next. "I think that I would destroy my companies if I tried to do everything myself," he tells CNBC Make It at New York's Millennial 20/20 Summit. "I really think that delegating is crucial."

That's a skill the Argentine entrepreneur learned from his first venture in 1985, a New York real estate development company he founded with a personal investment of $25,000. The returns that he and his team earned positioned him to retire at 27.

"I could have not worked again, but I don't work to make money," he says. "Money is a byproduct of my work."

Serial entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky spends one year building up a company before trying to dial his own involvement back.
Martin Varsavsky | Flickr
Serial entrepreneur Martin Varsavsky spends one year building up a company before trying to dial his own involvement back.

Instead, he built Medicorp Sciences, a medical services company, after recruiting top scientists from his native Argentina, including a Nobel Prize winner in Dr. Cesar Milstein. When he grew tired of paying for long distance calls to speak with family back in Buenos Aires, an idea hit him that sprung Varsavsky into the world of fiber optics and internet connectivity.

First, there was Viatel, a pan-European telecom that grew to be worth $1.2 billion at the time he sold his shares. Then came Jazztel, a Spanish telecom company that eventually swelled to $3.6 billion, followed by Ya.com, a popular Spanish internet company that sold for over $500 million.

His resume continues with his Google-backed wifi-sharing company Fon, a German cloud computing venture that was before its time, and Prelude Fertility, the start-up he founded to help couples have children. His experience begs the question: How is one founder capable of repeated success like that?

For Varsavsky, as much as the aura of entrepreneurship might revolve around iconic founders like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs, a company's success has more to do with the teams its founder builds.

"The most important skill an entrepreneur has is recognizing the talent of others, which then leads to delegation," he explains.

Varsavsky counts Einstein.net as a rare business disappointment. He lost $50 million on the cloud computing company after it failed to live up to expectations.
Martin Varsavsky | Flickr
Varsavsky counts Einstein.net as a rare business disappointment. He lost $50 million on the cloud computing company after it failed to live up to expectations.

Coming up with a compelling idea worth chasing is only step one. "The next step is to look at yourself in the mirror," says Varsavsky. "I know it's paradoxical because you see yourself, but you have to think, 'What am I not?'"

He adds, "And, 'What is it that my company doesn't have?' Once you have parts of your company, it's sort of like the missing person's mirror."

The now 56-year-old entrepreneur says he surrounded himself with workers who had traits he lacked. His employees were patient, organized and methodical coworkers, which helped balance his more improvised style.

"Without them I never would have built what I built," Varsavsky says. "They're amazing people who went on to be CEOs themselves."

"When I start companies, I work like a maniac — for one year I really work an incredible amount," he adds. "But after that year, I put together a great team and I work much less."