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Four Ways Startup Founders Do and Don’t Impress Me

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Over the course of my LaunchX experience, through thousands of applications, there are certain qualities that never fail to impress me about startups and their founders. Then there are things that I really wish I could stop seeing. Below are just a few things that grab my attention and impress me enough to want to learn more about founders’ startups.

Authenticity

I like being able to get a real feel for the person behind the resume. When the applicant conveys their passion, dynamism, and interpersonal capacity alongside their checklist of accomplishments, it shows me that they are going to be someone I can work with and who can work well with others. When I see a stale resume that just has a  bunch of accolades and supposedly impressive accomplishments, I don’t connect as well with the person and don’t want to know much beyond what they’ve already shown me.

For this reason, I like seeing the quirky jobs, unique volunteer activities, or self-guided projects applicants have undertaken. Even if they never “went anywhere”, even if they were rough around the edges or ended in disaster. It’s good to see passion and ingenuity, in their many forms. Having interests and hobbies outside the day-to-day requirements, or taking some jobs that are not immediately related to the startup they’re currently working on, doesn’t make someone any less dedicated or committed to that endeavor. And it’s possible to pick up useful skills and knowledge from a completely different activity and adapt them to your work as a founder if you have the right mindset and can make those connections.

I don’t expect the teen entrepreneurs I work with to be ultra polished or socially savvy in every instance. I’d rather they show me their awesome, lively selves, rather than some boxed in version of what they think I want to see, or what might make them seem ambitious and mature.

Strong values

I’m impressed by people who want to start a company because they’re driven by a need to solve real problems, innovate, and help others. I am underwhelmed when I see people motivated simply by the desire for recognition, money, or CV-worthy accomplishments.

A founder’s values can be seen pretty quickly based on their priorities. Those who come to entrepreneurship for the “wrong” reasons prioritize external markers — putting up a website fast, forming a legal entity right away, trying to get a trademark or a patent above all else, monetizing before they even have a solid prototype — while ignoring the customer and real traction. It becomes obvious they care more about being able to put a shiny credential, project, or company on their resume, instead of being dedicated to the thing they’re building or the customer it’s helping.

Part of the reason I like seeing people’s values reflected in their startup endeavors is that starting a company is a bad path if your main goals are glory and gold. First off, realistically (and yes, I know I’ve said this many times before, but it’s still accurate and very relevant) most startups fail within the first few years. Most startups don’t make their founders big bucks.  

Someone who’s driven by their values is not going to quit because they haven’t gotten rich in a hot minute, they’re going to keep at it as long as they can stay financially above water because they’re in it for something else. It’s easy to knock out a founder or a startup that’s in it for quick money or fame. Those are the ones that will bail when things get tough. Which brings me to the next startup characteristic I find impressive…

Resilience / Grit

While some people love founders who seem to hit it out of the park on their first try and turn an idea into a successful business in a matter of months, I actually like seeing a little bit of struggle behind an entrepreneur. I’m impressed when I see people have stuck with their initiatives for a while, through hard times, and peaks and valleys, because I know that’s how the long game works.

Every startup has challenges and pitfalls. It takes genuine entrepreneurial character — which includes resilience, adaptability, resourcefulness, grit, and an openness to feedback — to navigate challenges and hang in there until you find the right path forward.

That’s why it’s hard for me to get behind someone who’s started and abandoned a half dozen startups. I don’t mean someone who spent months or years working on something that just didn’t take off, or someone who’s started several successful companies from which moved on once the company needed a new kind of leadership. I mean those who show all signs of expecting something to happen overnight and bail when it doesn’t. People who chase overnight success (which, by the way, is not a real thing) and are unwilling to stay the course when the course has hurdles or gets bumpy are not good candidates for leading a startup. Startups that survive and thrive are those in which the founders don’t head for the hills.

A resilient mindset and approach can very much be taught and nurtured, just like many other qualities that go into being a great entrepreneur. A big part of it is keeping your expectations realistic, and staying flexible enough to change course when it’s needed. It’s also crucial to keep an eye on both the final prize and the smaller milestones along the way. You can’t simply say “My startup needs to make $1M or have 15,000 customers within 6 months or it’s just not worth my time.” Being resilient requires preparation and acknowledging that there may be weeks or months when the needle doesn’t feel like it’s moving at all in the direction of success.

Spikiness

Here’s a notion I hold firmly, due to my own experience and knowledge of startups and markets: It’s more valuable to be really passionate, good at, and knowledgeable about a few select things, than to be average or fairly good at many things. That’s partially because the process of honing a skill, craft, or area of expertise requires dedication and depth, which are essential to entrepreneurship.

Let’s say you put someone’s skill sets, knowledge, and capabilities on a bar graph. Those who find a few passions and dig in to gain mastery in them would have noticeable “spikes” in those two or three areas. Those who like to dabble in everything without ever really delving too deep will have bars of very similar height around the midpoint of the graph. I look at this as “spikiness vs. well-roundedness”.

Spikiness also tells me that person isn’t going to try to do everything on their own, which often results in most things being done only partially as well they could or should be handled. Instead, a person who is spiky will recognize their strengths and find others (cofounders, team members) who complement those strengths and bring their own skills and expertise at something else to the table.

I’ve written before about the three types of founders: Builder, Brander, and Business Developer. In short, Builders make or create the thing at the heart of their startup (the offering). Branders envision and solidify the story and mission around the company and startup, Business Developers understand and capitalize on the niche the company fills in the market. Ideally, each of these is present in a startup, if not in the form of equal founders, then at least somewhere within the team.  

The fabled one-person-show who does the business development, the prototyping, the marketing, and the customer service is likely to be doing each one of those things at a lower capacity than if they were focused in on just one or two. Someone who is self-aware enough to realize that they’re better suited to building and making than to selling and marketing can drill down, learn more, and focus their attention on making the most of those abilities. In the end, those are the people who end up running successful, world-changing companies.

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