Top three traits of successful founders


Jessica Livingston, co-founder of Y-Combinator, is interviewed by Y-Combinator President Sam Altman in a video in their How To Build the Future series, available on YouTube. Jessica has been involved with the 1500 companies funded by Y-Combinator that are worth more $70 billion in total including AirBandB, DropBox and Stripe. So pay attention to what she says!

There’s a lot of valuable information for founders in this interview, including choosing a co-founder and what works and doesn’t work in founder/co-founder relationships. However, what really got my attention was Sam’s question: What are the traits of successful founders, starting at 2:38.

The most important traits of the most successful founders are:

  • Determination – by far the biggest determinant. Which agrees with my hypothesis, which I had phrased as persistence. Or as a co-founder of mine used to say “winners never quit and quitters never win.”
  • Understanding your users and building a great product. Building something people want and talking to your users.
  • Hyper Focus – not getting distracted. Great examples of how to get distracted: talking to big companies to get better distribution and get more users, doing a lot of PR before you nailed down the product, talking to corp dev people before you are even thinking of being acquired, talking to investors when you aren’t fund raising, and going to conferences and networking events. These are all not important in the very early stages of the company when you need to focus on two things: building the product and getting people to use it.
  • Flexibility – being open minded. I tell my mentees that you need to be flexible, but you can’t be so flexible that you are floppy. This gets back to using the scientific method as you build the company: generate a hypothesis, set up an experiment to test the hypothesis, gather data, and decide if you have proved your hypothesis or not. And if not, change what you are doing!
  • Being a good leader and being convincing – this is a much better way of phrasing my second success determinant, which I think of a sales ability. That you always need to be selling: to investors, employees, partners, advisors and of course, customers. But “being convincing” is a much better way to look at it. After all, the endpoint of sales is convincing the prospect to “buy” what you are “selling”.

As I tell my mentees there are only two job in a startup: building your product and selling it. I not only recommend that you watch this entire interview with Jessica Livingston but also watch the other interviews in the Building the Future Series, including the interview with Mark Zuckerberg.


Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

2 thoughts on “Top three traits of successful founders”

  1. What a good blog: urging science esp. and that great quote re winners and loosers. Was it John Connolly who said it? Sounds like it could be.


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