Every VC says they only invest in great founders, but the majority of venture-backed business still end in relative failure. Does that mean we as VCs are just bad judges of founders or do we not know what great founders look like? This is a question we’ve obsessed over since we started Loup Ventures — trying to define what makes a great founder and how to test for it. It’s hard. Great founders come from a host of different backgrounds, educations, genders, ethnicities. We’ve identified 10 traits across two categories that make great founders at the seed stage: Innate and Dynamic.
Innate Qualities of a Great Founder
Innate traits are character elements that are difficult to impossible to learn — either the founder has them or they don’t. Regardless of the type of business a founder starts, there are five imperative innate traits for all great founders:
- Commitment to suffering
- Focused curiosity
Warren Buffett has talked about a few of these traits as things he looks for in his managers. Naval Ravikant has also talked about a few of them, so they shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Intelligence is probably the most obvious of the innate traits. To start a valuable company, a founder must have some kind of smarts because intelligence leads to interesting insights about a market (see the next section). These insights translate into vision, which is the only truly defensible element and most important asset of any startup business. Vision is how an entrepreneur attracts talent and creates strategy.
Pure book smarts matter, but emotional intelligence is important too. A founder has to deeply understand his or her customers to deliver products they want, not just products the founder wants to build. A founder also has to deeply understand his or her employees and what motivates them to sustain high levels of productivity.
Integrity is the current buzz word in the startup world. We used to think about integrity as honesty, but doesn’t seem to fully encompass the spirit of the trait. Honesty is a requirement because it means the founder learns from his or her mistakes. Dishonesty assumes problems are someone else’s fault, which means it’s impossible to learn. Ownership is a popular modern term for honesty – taking responsibility for things that happen whether they’re purely in your control or not.
The interesting component about integrity as it relates to startups is that great founders need to be willing to break rules to build valuable businesses. However, there’s a line between what’s acceptable and what’s not, and sometimes it’s blurry. Salesforce.com hired fake protestors to disrupt a Siebel conference in its early days. Clever guerilla marketing. The cases of Hampton Creek, Theranos, and Zenefits are clearly in the unacceptable camp. The ride sharing legal disputes are blurrier, although we agree that the laws are outdated and ride sharing is a significant net positive to the world. In any case, dishonesty and unethical behavior are contagious, so integrity must come from the top and be a guiding light for any startup.
The third quality of great founders is a commitment to suffering for at least five years. This might sound more extreme than necessary, but starting a company is a rollercoaster of suffering. You need to be comfortable with hearing no over and over and not let that destroy your will. You need to be able to withstand low periods that are inevitable — unexpected customer or employee losses, investor rejections, tax bills, fights with cofounders. Entrepreneurs don’t necessarily need to revel in difficulty, but it helps. We like to track the number of times we hear no during the week to reduce the negative reinforcement of it.
Why five years of suffering? It usually takes at least two years before you have any reasonable traction to show that your business might be working, then another few years of driving growth to create something that looks like a moat. Then you can afford to breathe. A little.
Focused curiosity might seem like an oxymoron, but curiosity that is targeted at a specific market leads to a commitment to testing new things. Testing new things leads to new business opportunities and products. Curiosity may be particularly necessary for seed stage founders (our focus) because their businesses are so nascent and require constant iteration. A lack of curiosity at the early stage leads to stagnation, which leads to death.
An early stage startup is an unending series of challenges. This is doubly true for first time founders who not only have to figure out how to deliver their specific offering to market, but how to operate a business in general. The final innate trait, resourcefulness, gives founders the ability to thrive in the face of persistent tests. A great founder is not one that says he or she couldn’t do something because they didn’t have enough capital or it was too difficult. They figure it out and keep figuring it out.
Dynamic Qualities of a Great Founder
Where the innate traits are binary and fixed, the dynamic traits of a great founder are five qualities that exist on a spectrum and evolve over time:
- Market insight
- Operational capability
- Product sense
Market insight is our term for the popular “founder/market fit.” What we want to see from a founder is that he or she has spent a lot of time thinking about and experimenting on a problem they’ve identified. In that sense, market insights are a byproduct of the innate intelligence trait being applied to a specific problem over a length of time. Founder/market fit to us implies that the founder has spent time involved in a market, thus the fit; however, prior market experience isn’t necessary for great founders. Jeff Bezos didn’t have founder/market fit when he started Amazon. He never ran a bookstore before, but he had a market insight about the Internet changing the way people shopped. The founders of Uber never worked in the livery business, but they had an insight about mobile changing the way people arranged transport. Airbnb is another example, and there are many others.
The other four traits are relatively straight forward business-related qualities. Operational capability is the founder’s ability to deliver their product or service and serve customers. Product sense is the founder’s ability to create a product or service that unexpectedly delights consumers. Product sense is what enables a founder to reach product/market fit. Growth is the founder’s ability to market and sell the product or service. Leadership is the founder’s ability to organize his or her team to meet objectives.
All five of these traits work in conjunction with one another, and all five are necessary for an early stage founder to possess in some degree. However, numerous factors influence the relative importance of the dynamic qualities of a founder. In other words, some of the dynamic traits need to be more developed depending on type of the founder’s company. For example, in a highly social company, a founder’s product sense seems to matter more because user growth will be organically rapid and immediate experience will be what keeps them engaged. An enterprise founder should require stronger growth capabilities to directly sell their B2B product, software or otherwise. Hardware companies tend to need stronger operational capability given the manufacturing requirements of their product.
The above observations were specific to seed stage companies, but stage of the investment also impacts the relative importance of the dynamic qualities in a founder. At the A/B round, product should be somewhat established, so market insights and growth might matter more as the founder tries to leverage his or her unique vision into some sort of durable advantage. In a pre-IPO or public company, the importance of leadership matters significantly more because of the likely larger number of employees at the company.
If You’ve Got It, Go for It
It’s boring to hear every VC say they only fund great founders, but it really is true, and their criteria probably isn’t much different from ours. Early stage companies are extremely fragile. VCs obsess over the quality of founders because it’s one of the few variables we can control. Recognizing these qualities in oneself is also an important variable an entrepreneur can control. Whether you’re running a small business or hoping to build the next Google, you must have all the innate traits and the correct balance of dynamic traits to be great. If you know you have them, then focus on your goal and be great. Hopefully we can help you along the way.
Disclaimer: We actively write about the themes in which we invest: artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, and augmented reality. From time to time, we will write about companies that are in our portfolio. Content on this site including opinions on specific themes in technology, market estimates, and estimates and commentary regarding publicly traded or private companies is not intended for use in making investment decisions. We hold no obligation to update any of our projections. We express no warranties about any estimates or opinions we make.