What Makes a Great Founder? By 2016 NEFer Chris Pavlou
When people think of great founders, they think of people like Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk or Steve Jobs – people who have this unwavering drive and vision; who can captivate people and lead them on a journey. However, what made these guys truly successful was the support network they built around themselves – their founding team. The reality is that it is almost impossible for one person to have all the characteristics of a great founder. What is possible, however, is having all of these great characteristics shared between yourself and your co-founders.
In a previous post, we explored the essential factors that you need to have present in your start-up in order to maximise your chances of success. One of these factors was having a Great Team. An example of this is Apple. Apple’s most well-known co-founders are Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (Ronald Wayne was a third founder, but he left early on). Jobs and Wozniak were very different characters, yet these differences complemented each other and made them a great team. Jobs’ attention to detail, charisma and vision complemented Wozniak’s unparalleled technical expertise, product knowledge and ability to deliver.
Venture Capital firms (VCs) often look at a founding team and ask themselves questions such as, “Are these guys people that we can work with?” or, “Do we trust this team with our investment to deliver a great business?” so it is important for the team to be complete and credible.
I have met countless founders who have spoken of how difficult hiring is, but finding the right team to start your journey with is arguably more difficult. The relationship between founders is not too dissimilar to getting married so is not to be taken lightly – it’s important that you get it right.
So, what characteristics should you aim for your founding team to have, and what should you be looking for in a co-founder?
As a founding team, you are routinely going to be faced with rejection and disappointment. Angels will pass on investing, while advisors will pick holes in your business and question your beliefs. It is your responsibility to ensure that you maintain your vision (as well as finding a balance between listening to and ignoring different pieces of advice). Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia spent two years getting rejected for funding and seeing stagnant company performance and, had they not maintained their belief, Airbnb would not be where it is today.
Working in a start-up will really push your boundaries – there will be euphoric highs, but also soul-crushing lows. Your team will need to be able to take some “heavy hits” and be able to bounce back stronger, and you will all need to feed off and drive each other and lift each others’ spirits. This is arguably the most important characteristic.
2. Technical Ability
Almost every start-up needs a technical co-founder. It’s no use to say, “We’re going to be great managers and hire technical people,” – if you do not have a technical co-founder, it is so much harder to build a culture and set the vision amongst your engineers. It also adds an unnecessary overhead to your business – if you are building a product, you will need to hire extra engineers vs. companies with technical founders. This increases your burn rate, as well as taking up valuable time that could have otherwise been used doing other things.
Having someone technical enables you to release iteration after iteration of your product – this is essential when operating in areas of uncertainty which most start-ups do. You will usually want at least one technical founder in your team – some of the best founders are those who can combine technical ability with leadership skills (think Tesla’s Elon Musk, Uber’s Travis Kalanick, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Snapchat’s Evan Spiegel).
3. User Empathy
In order to design a great product, you will need to understand what your customers want. This means that you will need someone who is an awesome “product guy” – someone who either needs to be a user himself, has a great understanding of consumer behaviour and what users will want (such as Steve Jobs) or, at the very least, is really great at speaking with customers and running user interviews.
Without this, there will be no-one to understand where your priorities should lie, no-one to push everyone to ensure that the correct work is being done, no-one to champion the benefits of your product and no-one to focus on the excruciating detail that will make your product great.
4. Industry Expertise
Understanding an industry and how things operate is super important. While I wouldn’t say this is an essential characteristic, not having expertise makes things a lot harder and more likely to go wrong.
Expertise lends credibility to your start-up – if you are building a project management business, you’ll want to be able to point to the years of experience that your team has within project management to show that you really understand where the industry is shifting and what your business should be doing/what problems you are solving. Being an expert in your field makes it easier for your employees and outside stakeholders to respect you and follow your vision.
If you are not an expert in your field, then consider becoming one. Spend time working in the field, or do loads of reading around the subject. Relentlessly go through every study to make sure that you understand things inside out – you will be grilled on every excruciating aspect and need to ensure you have considered every single base so there are no gaps in your business.
Having an interest in your industry makes this a lot easier – I know founders who live and breathe health & fitness, learning & development, medical care and technology to name a few areas. Learning no longer becomes a chore, but ends up being something you do for fun!
Because of how difficult running a start-up can be, you’ll want to make sure that you and your founding team have a strong bond. When times get tough, you’ll need each other for solidarity. The best ways to do this are to have just been great friends – having great memories with each other will help get you through tough times.
Some of the best places to find co-founders are at university or at work. You’ll have a good understanding of how you each like to work so you know how to behave around each other in order to avoid unnecessary issues or tensions.