What are the common traits of the best founders?
In asking that question more than a hundred times to investors, and in our own experiences through Startmate and Blackbird, a set of repetitive traits emerge that distinguish the best founders.
There are stories founders will need to tell customers about their product, stories they’ll need to tell the team about the company, and stories they’ll tell investors about their mission. Great storytellers are authentic, they are clear, and they are magnetic. Great storytellers empower their listeners to tell their story as well as they do.
Their stories are easy to explain and understand.
Your Life’s Work
The best founders appear to be doing their life’s work.
Great founders are obsessed with a problem, and a company is simply the most efficient means of solving it.
Doing your life’s work makes you a more authentic storyteller and a more resilient leader.
Starting a startup is hard.
At Pixar, they have the mindset that every Pixar movie is bad for two years, and they embrace that, and use it to push them forward, to seek feedback, and to be fearless in sharing their creation.
But the flipside of that, is that for 2 years, every Pixar movie looks like a flop.
Startups are much the same. Inevitably, they will look like a failure for many months or even years. There will be plenty of evidence for every founder to believe that their startup isn’t going to make it.
If you are not resiled to that fact, if you are not emotionally ready for that discomfort, you will burn out before you get a chance to succeed.
The best founders have resilience, a cheerfulness about the difficulties, the ability to tolerate pain for long periods of time, the capacity to withstand the doubts of others (including customers, employees and investors) and the strength to carry on regardless.
All founders can find rational reasons why things aren’t working out. The market isn’t ready, the product isn’t done, the team isn’t good enough, investors don’t believe the story…
The best founders refuse to accept any of those reasons and find a way regardless. Great founders are easily described by others as relentless, formidable, intense, unstoppable, determined, ambitious and passionate.
Integrity is a binary. There is no 87% integrity. You either have integrity, or you don’t.
The best founders are good people. The best companies play themselves out over decades. There are many phases to company building, both ups and downs. Through that, the bad actors will eventually reveal themselves. Life is too short to be a customer, an employee or an investor of a company run by anything but good people.
When things get rocky, it’s the good people that keep their best employees, that retain investor faith, and that maintain the connection with their customers.
The best founders show early signs of good habits: putting product first, getting product into the hands of customers, creating short loops of customer feedback and product iteration, achieving meaningful units of progress within months, and getting to sales within that same time.
Great founders are fanatical about their customers. They make customer support a top priority. They track NPS from day one. They spend time with them on the phone. They meet them face to face and watch them using the product.
The company culture at 2 people will mirror the culture at 12, 120, and 12,000. Culture will reflect the founders, right down to their biorhythms.
Great founders know this, and they set about deliberately building great culture. They protect it, they fire quickly so as not to dilute it, and they hire as much for skill as they do for fit.
The best founders won’t know it all, and won’t pretend they do. They will learn it all, however. As soon as new problems arise, the best founders quickly hack their way to expert levels of knowledge in a specific problem area. The hunger for learning will have been evident throughout their entire lives.
A Well Calibrated Scale
Founders will have to decide, of the thousand things that matter, which matters most? In that way, they operate as well calibrated scales.
They’re able to quickly determine the weight of what is in front of them, and ignore all but the heaviest things.
The Relentless Pursuit of Truth
Great founders respond by asking themselves, ‘is this true’?
They strive for intellectual honesty. They can handle the critique of others, as they see it as an opportunity to improve. They listen well, they’re easy to talk to, they synthesise all the inputs quickly, and they come quickly to a decision that’s uniquely theirs.
At the earliest stages of company building, the founders are all you have to go on.
Early products and early revenue will soon wash away in the sands of time. Markets will shift, teams will rearrange, customer needs will evolve, and all you have to go on as an investor is a belief in the founders’ ability to respond in the right way.
Great founders are fresh and strange.
They’re exceptions to the rule.
Great founders emerge. The challenge of company building brings the great founders out of themselves.
Their ambition will reveal itself as soon as they achieve some modicum of success.
Their hunger won’t wane.
Great founders are worth following.
As investors, that’s what we do. We follow the most ambitious founders, helping to supercharge their ambition.