Eight Qualities Startup Founders Must Possess

Frederic KerrestMarch 30, 20226 min

Do you have what it takes to be a founder? Founders are all unique. Steve Jobs was different from Mark Zuckerberg. Katrina Lake is different from Elon Musk. Bill Gates is different from Arianna Huffington. Despite these differences, though, they all share eight qualities. Does this look like you?

1. The ability to thrive in ambiguity. Running a startup means never having near as much information as you’d like when it comes to making important decisions. Forget about taking 30 data points and running a regression analysis. You’ll be lucky to have three. You’ll effectively be guessing most of the time. Are you comfortable with never knowing anything for certain?

2. A knack for salesmanship. You’re going to be selling every moment of every day. Not just to customers. Also to investors: Why should they back you? To talent: Why should they abandon their secure jobs to come work for you? To vendors: Why should they give you favorable terms? And don’t forget your spouse or partner (if you have one): Why should they agree to let you imperil your family’s future with this crazy dream of yours?

3. Equal parts EQ and IQ. Most great founders aren’t the stereotypical socially awkward geeks. They’re actually great with people. They know how to inspire and motivate. They can put their egos aside and listen to their teams, advisors, and investors. So be sure your EQ (emotional intelligence) rivals your IQ.

4. Organization and discipline. When you’re the boss, no one is going to get on your case if you’re disorganized or slack off. You have to be your own backstop. Do you naturally create plans and knock things out on your own? Can you keep track of the big picture while also figuring out what needs to move forward in any given week or month?

5. Energy and drive. You’ve probably heard the expression, “It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon.” That’s true, except that founding a company is a marathon made up of seven-minute miles. You need to keep moving, at all times.

6. Inspirational leadership. Can you set a vision—and a mission—and get people excited to follow you? This doesn’t necessarily mean pulling off a Henry V on St. Crispin’s Day (though kudos if you can). Inspiring people come in all kinds of packages. It’s not about how you do it. It’s just that you do it.

7. Self-confidence. When I started Okta, I always said I was “betting on myself”— that I had what it would take to grow Okta into a successful company. Sure, that confidence wobbled in our darkest times. But I always believed that if I just kept chipping away at our problems, I would find a way.

8. Resilience. Napster founder and early Facebook president Sean Parker famously said running a startup is like chewing broken glass—to succeed, you need to fall in love with the taste of your own blood. And it’s true. You’re going to get punched in the mouth every day. Are you the kind of person who’ll just keep getting up? Or will it eventually flatten you?

More Skills Entrepreneurs Need To Master

A lot of people think being an entrepreneur is just about coming up with a great idea. (In the tech industry, they often think it’s about having a great idea and being a great programmer.) But taking your idea from zero to IPO involves so many more tasks than simply building out the concept you’ve thought up. Take a look at this checklist, and ask yourself: Can I do that? Am I going to enjoy doing that? Because these things are what your job is actually going to consist of, especially the bigger you get.

  • Can you recruit a team, especially people willing to leave safe jobs at established companies, when you can’t pay them as much and you can’t guarantee they’ll have a job a year from now?
  • Can you attract investment capital, or at least convince a bank to give you a loan?
  • If you’ll be selling to corporations, can you figure out the right executives to approach and convince them to give you time to pitch them?
  • Once you have a prototype, can you persuade customers to test-drive it? Or better, to pay you to participate in a pilot program?
  • Can you build a financial model, learn to forecast, and manage a budget, cash flow statement, balance sheet, and income statement?
  • Are you comfortable with conflict? Can you resolve conflicts between people, such as differences of opinion among senior leaders in your organization who have competing goals?
  • Can you tell a compelling story about your company, so that the media will want to cover you?

What do you think? If you were set loose today, could you do all these things? More importantly, would you enjoy doing all these things?

What Makes An Entrepreneur Tick?

Wisdom straight from the founders’ mouths.

Julia Hartz, Eventbrite

Serial entrepreneurs are missing a chip in their brain that says, “This might not work out.” That chip is just not there. They don’t tend to see the ways in which something might fail. They only see possibility. It creates a sort of infectious optimism.

Therese Tucker, Blackline

I like to make decisions. I like to be in control of my own time and life. I don’t answer well to others. I’m confident. I feel like I have the best idea, and everybody should buy into it. It’s completely unfounded, of course, but it carries you through when nothing else does.

Sebastian Thrun, Udacity and Kittyhawk

I live to empower people. When you come across something as powerful as hundreds of thousands of people all around the world all of sudden being able to participate in the gift of great education, there is no way you can’t do it.

Josh James, Omniture And Domo

I remember being in my freshman year in college, and we’d go sit up on top of the mountain and look down over the valley and be like, “Someone’s got to be on top. Why not me?”

Melanie Perkins, CANVA

I really like thinking about the future. I love spending a lot of time imagining what the world would look like.

Fred Luddy, Servicenow

An entrepreneur is somebody who so passionately cares about solving a problem that they will disregard a large percentage of what otherwise might be their life. I’ve had my electricity shut off, I’ve been evicted, I’ve had my car repossessed—not because I didn’t have money but because I didn’t take the time to pay my bills. The bills would come in, and if the envelope wasn’t pink, I didn’t even think to write the check.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Frederic Kerrest, excerpted from his book, Zero to IPO: Over $1 Trillion of Actionable Advice from the World’s Most Successful Entrepreneurs

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