startup founder 101: what the best are made of.
When you’re in a startup, the first ten people will determine whether the company succeeds or not. Each is ten percent of the company. So why wouldn’t you take as much time as necessary to find all the A-players?.… A small company depends on great people much more than a big company does – Steve Jobs
So, people are important. Founders especially so. Whilst venture capitalists indeed invest in ideas, products and services, they also always invest in founders. But what makes an exceptional founder? Some say older entrepreneurs are likely to be more successful startup founders. Others say that younger entrepreneurs are better positioned to be disruptive. Some say charisma is key, that technical skills are important or that persistence is a must.
In reality, it’s likely to be an ever-shifting blend of traits and experiences based on the founder in question. Since there are many answers to the source of founder excellence, we thought we would share our thoughts. Here’s our list of what makes the best startup founders.
1. A listener
Unfortunately, as Stephen Covey wrote, most people listen to reply rather than to understand. This is exceptionally true for founders. As people who are deeply invested in their idea and vision to the point of obsession, it can be difficult to take off the blinkers and truly listen to those around you. And when a startup is so personal for a founder, it can also be easy to defend and dismiss criticism.
Listening is fundamental to building a positive, welcoming culture where valuable team members feel at home, it’s crucial to creating meaningful connections with customers and revealing previously unthought of use cases Is your product/market fit anything but a hypothesis unless you truly listen to and understand your users? And internally, being able to listen is what employees value. In one study of 2000 employees, centeredness was the most inspirational, highly valued leadership trait. And centeredness is about being present, empathising with others and listening well.
Working hard, that’s the only thing I know better than my competitor. There are so many more smart people than me here in Silicon Valley. […] If my competitors say, ‘I work eight hours a day,’ then I can work 10 hours. If you don’t need sleep, I also do not need sleep. Hard work is in my DNA. — Eric Yuan, Zoom
Eric Yuan epitomises the humble founder. Undoubtedly confident, but still humble. Whilst confidence is another vital piece of founder excellence, it can come at a risk. The utmost belief in what a founder is doing may get them through countless hurdles and bouts of people saying “that’s not possible” early on, but quickly that confidence can grow into arrogance, and that can grow into risky complacency.
It doesn’t help that the perception of founders has long been fuelled for by ‘superstar’ figures, but times have changed, and the humble founder is now the quiet superstar. People are waking up to the benefits of being humble and the dangers of not, seeing this characteristic as a way to empower others as well as founders themselves. Keep humble, keep learning, keep growing.
As a founder, you will face challenges, setbacks, doubt, criticism and failure. Teams, investors and customers add to stress. 90% of startups fail. Even for those startups who have made it to the heights of unicorn status, it takes an average of seven years to get there. So, in the face of all this, resilience is a necessity.
Resilience is learning and growing through experience, regardless of whether that experience is good or bad. It’s a healthy optimism, openness and courage towards everything you encounter. And resilience is supported by building this trait into your startup’s culture so that as a founder, you look after yourself and your entire team. So, build an open work culture that encourages people to talk about their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, be transparent and honest at all times, ask for help from mentors, coaches, other founders, friends and investors and maybe even find a co-founder who will complement your skills.
And as recent times have demonstrated, black swans do happen. But it is founder resilience that enables a startup to keep moving through such unprecedented challenges. If you’re in need of resources, inspiration and insights on resilience, start here.
Humbleness, communication and resilience are all part of being adaptable; having the humility to recognise the need for something new or different, being able to listen to those talking about change and being resilient enough to commit to new ideas.
Whilst maintaining a strong sense of vision is important, change has to be embraced for a startup to survive and thrive. Unwavering attachment to tradition isn’t healthy, and for a founder to recognise this and be pro-active in enabling change is an essential leadership skill. But, like resilience, adaptability is not a one-man-band. It starts with the founder being open towards the principal of change, but it requires a startup to have a culture that holds evolution as a core value.
As a founder, can you dedicate time to talking with team members about what the future may look like, how your startup will fit into that future and if your values will change? How can you support a culture of experimentation and risk-taking? And how can you understand your customers’ needs and desires in real-time? Don’t hold onto the dream idea of what your business should look like, and instead strive for what it could look like.