Over the last several years, I've had the chance to work very closely with dozens of founders as I directly or indirectly helped them build their startup. I am starting to see patterns about different types of founders and how they work and act -- the good, the bad and the ugly.
I've narrowed down this list to the most important traits that allow a founder the best chance at success. That doesn't mean that if you possess this traits you will be successful, nor does it mean that if you don't possess them that you'll be a failure. I look at it more as a strong foundation to build upon.
Ultimately, understand this makes me much better at my job. It helps me to align ourselves with the projects where we can make the biggest impact while simultaneously weeding out the ones where we aren't a good fit (which actually is a majority of things that come across our plate). As a two person shop who only takes on 6 - 8 projects a year, our selection process is incredibly important to us.
I get asked this question enough by new founders that I think it's worth taking the time to write it out. WIth that, I give you the 4 S's of Successful Founders:
1) Staying Power
I'm starting with Staying Power for a reason. Nothing else on this list matters without this one. As an entrepreneur, you must find a way to stay in the game. It's much easier to say than it is to do, but that has to be your number one goal. Make sure you are around long enough to give yourself a chance at success.
I've seen so many founders over the years who want to "try" a startup. They come up with an idea. They (sometimes we) build this idea. And then they think it's going to take off on a magically hockey-stick journey of exponentially up and to the right. We all know that is never the case. Even when a startup looks like an overnight success or that they are growing effortlessly, we know that it's just not the case. The founders are like ducks on a pond: calm and moving forward on the surface, but their feet are paddling one million miles per hour below the surface.
Founders need to have the tenacity to stick it out, to know that this is a marathon not a sprint and to do whatever they can to make sure they can stay in the game.
2) Sensible Flexibility
"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"
I can tell you the answer to this glorious question from JMK, because I've seen it over and over again. Some people change their minds. They have the courage to admit that they don't know all the answers, and they are flexible as the answers become clear. Others are extremely rigid in their thinking. They know the correct answer and there is no convincing them otherwise.
Sometimes as a founder you need to have complete conviction. Many people will tell you that your idea won't work, and you need to be the rock that believes it will. But other times, you have to be willing to admit when you don't know the best answer. Ask for help, be open, be flexible. This is what I am calling Sensible Flexibility. Complete conviction when you need it and an adaptable mindset when it makes sense.
The best founders can simultaneously juggle the persona of being absolutely dedicated to their vision but flexible in their approach of how they get there.
3) Subject Expertise
I can make an argument for each one of the 4 S's to be the most important trait for a founder to posses. It's easy to see the incredible importance of subject expertise when building a startup. You know your industry inside and out. You've lived it day after day. You know that there is massive opportunity for innovation, and you know that you are the person to bring that innovation. That sounds completely logical, yet this is one of the most disregarded and under appreciated traits.
All to often, founders come to us and ask us to build a new widget that will completely reinvent the ecommerce industry for example. The idea sounds reasonable, and then we find out the founders come from Wall Street and have no background in ecommerce and actually hate the idea of shopping. How do I know so much about this story? Because that was me many years ago. I wanted to build a shopping app, but I don't enjoy shopping at all and try to avoid it at all costs. Clearly not the founder / product fit. Having been there myself, I can immediately tell when someone is in clear violation of the Third S.
An entrepreneur with the greatest shot at building something useful is the one who has lived through the pain and misery of the problem they are trying to solve.
4) Strong Focus
I love this one because it is the one that I struggle with the most. A founder must be unconditionally focused. Identify problem. Build solution. Listen to customers. Build better solution. Repeat. Everything outside of that is just a noise. And yet it's so easy in this world to become distracted by any number of things.
I need to come up with a perfect name, I need to purchase a URL, I need to register my Delaware C-Corp, I need to be tweeting every day, I need business cards, I need a logo. I could go on for days. Yes, all of those things are incredibly important -- at the right time -- but I've seen way too many people spend way to much time trying to come up with a name before they even know what the problem really is. And by way too many people, I mean myself of course having registered a Delaware C-Corp before I even wrote one line of code. You idiot!!
There are times as a founder where the most important thing you need to do is put your blinders on and just focus and execute.
The 4 S's of Successful Founders
Nobody said build a startup from your imagination was going to be easy. Actually, everyone says that it's really f'ing hard, and they are absolutely right. I can tell you that it is easier if you are building on the right foundation.
I look at these 4 S's as the legs of a stool. With all four, there is no question you never question your stability. You just go right on with your business. With three, you can probably get by unless someone comes by and gives you a big push (and when does that ever happen when building a startup). With two legs, it's going to take all of your effort to keep from falling, and you won't be able to accomplish much else. If you can successfully sit on a chair with one leg, you should consider joining the circus.