If you Google “what are the key traits of entrepreneurs” you’ll get an overwhelming number of hits and and equally overwhelming list of traits – from perseverance, to vision, to creativity, persuasiveness, risk tolerance, flexibility and more.
So what’s the right answer? All of the above? Yes, but my take on key traits is that their importance is correlated with the phase of the company.
Starting with the stage zero company what you need most is vision: the ability to see a solution to a problem that others haven’t seen or have seen, but haven’t implemented correctly. Vision is what generates a viable business concept.
Close behind vision for early stage founders is persuasiveness – the ability to convince others to buy into your vision. Vision plus persuasiveness is what will inspire others to work with you – co-founders, investors, staff, and partners.
Obviously the most important people to convince of your vision are customers. So you need to love your customer! I’ve seen too many founders who actually had contempt for their customer! If you aren’t driven to help your customer succeed your company won’t succeed – it’s as simple as that.
But having vision and loving your customer are necessary but far from sufficient. To get from idea to something more tangible – the idea validation stage – you need to translate the vision into something others can see and preferably touch: a presentation, a demo, or best of all, a working prototype. That takes creativity.
Once the company has passed the idea validation stage and has released its MVP (Minimum Viable Product) a new set of traits comes to the fore. Flexibility and open-mindedness become critical, as potential customers react to the MVP and changes in the company’s product or even direction or staff may become necessary.
As the company generates revenue and begins to grow it becomes what I used to tell job candidates is a decision machine – you’ll never make as many decisions in your life as you will as a founder. From the name of your company to the design or your logo to whom to hire as CTO to which investors to work with, the need to make decisions grows exponentially. That’s where tolerance for ambiguity and decisiveness come in. Founders have to not only get used to, but thrive in an environment of imperfect information. You’ll never know if you set the product pricing correctly until you try selling it; how to divide equity needs to happen early on, but it may be years before you know if the founders each really earned their shares. As the saying goes, the worst decision is no decision – so make that decision and move on to the next. Also important is the ability to distinguish between the urgent and the important. To everyone asking you for a decision their request is urgent, but as founder/CEO you have to look at the seemingly endless decision request queue and separate what is truly urgent from what is important to the company, not just to the requestor.
Growing a company to scale requires drive and motivation. Not every founder has it. Many may be satisfied with a nice lifestyle business or selling their app for a nice price and moving on to the next project.
But there are some qualities that are required at every stage of the company. Those are determination/perseverance, focus, positivity, and a craving to learn.
All ventures have their ups and downs. Sometimes there are more downs that ups. Without the determination to push through the down stages ventures will fail. If there is one quality I would put at the top of my list it would be determination/perseverance.
A recent Inc. survey of entrepreneurs found that positivity was the number one trait rated most important for leaders. But it’s important to note that while all founders are leaders, not all leaders are founders. One of the first things I learned as a startup founder is that everyone else in the company – from co-founders to the receptionist (yes we had receptionists in those days!) watches the founder for every telltale sign of how the company is faring. Are things going ok? Great? Poorly? So no matter what fire you are fighting, and there will be many, it’s vitally important to come across as positive at all times. Even when it’s necessary to deliver bad news.
As the saying goes, More companies die from indigestion than starvation. One of the biggest problems I see with founders is a lack of focus. The great thing about startups is that they have 360 degrees of freedom; the dangerous thing about startups is that they have 360 degrees of freedom! Without exacting focus you’ll easily spread you and your company too thin. As Scott McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems once said, Put all your wood behind one arrowhead.
Finally as posted previously, startups are learning machines, and as a founder and leader that starts with you. Change in the worlds of technology and business is constantly accelerating. So despite your tolerance for ambiguity or drive or determination or other necessary traits, if you aren’t driven to learn you and your company will fall behind.
This list of traits may seem overwhelming and of course, not every founder will possess them all in equal measure. That’s why it’s important when choosing co-founders to not only find those who share in your vision and whose personal objectives for the business align with yours, but whose leadership traits complement your own.
To cut this seemingly endless list down to a manageable number, see the post Top three traits of successful founders, where I’ve extracted the key traits from a video interview with Jessica Livingston, co-founder of Y-Combinator.