What Makes Founders Succeed

I recently dug up my introduction to Founders at Work, which I wrote in 2006, and I was amazed how accurate it still seems:

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Some kind of magic happens in startups, especially at the very beginning, but the only people there to see it are the founders. The best way to understand what happens is to ask them, so that’s what I did.

In the book, you’ll hear the founders’ stories in their own words. Here I want to share some of the patterns I noticed. When you’re interviewing a series of famous startup founders, you can’t help trying to see if there is some special quality they all have in common that made them succeed.

What surprised me most was how unsure the founders seemed to be that they were actually on to something big.  Some of these companies got started almost by accident. The world thinks of startup founders as having some kind of superhuman confidence, but a lot of them were uncertain at first about starting a company. What they weren’t uncertain about was making something good—or trying to fix something broken.

They all were determined to build things that worked. In fact, I’d say determination was the single most important quality in a startup founder. If the founders I spoke with were superhuman in any way, it was in their perseverance. That came up over and over in the interviews.

Perseverance is important because in a startup nothing goes according to plan. Founders live day to day with a sense of uncertainty, isolation, and sometimes lack of progress. Plus startups, by their nature, are doing new things, and when you do new things people often reject you.

That was the second most surprising thing I learned from these interviews: how often the founders were rejected early on. By investors, journalists, established companies—they got the Heisman from everyone. People like the idea of innovation in the abstract, but when you present them with any specific innovation, they tend to reject it, because it doesn’t fit with what they already know.

Innovations seem inevitable in retrospect, but at the time it’s an uphill battle. It’s curious to think that technology we take for granted now, like web-based email, was once dismissed as unpromising. As Howard Aiken said: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

In addition to perseverance, founders need to be adaptable. Not only because it takes a certain level of mental flexibility to understand what users want, but because the plan will probably change. People think startups grow out of some brilliant initial idea like a plant from a seed. But almost all the founders I interviewed changed their idea as they developed it. PayPal started out writing encryption software, Excite started as a database search company, and Flickr grew out of an online game.

Starting a startup is a process of trial and error. What guided the founders through this process was their empathy for the users. They never lost sight of making things that people would want.

Successful startup founders typically get rich from the process, but the ones I interviewed weren’t in it just for the money. They had a lot of pride in craftsmanship. And they wanted to change the world. That’s why most have gone on to new projects that are just as ambitious. Sure, they’re pleased to have more financial freedom, but the way they choose to use it is to keep building more things.

Startups are different from established companies—almost astonishingly so when they are first getting started. It would be good if people paid more attention to this important but often misunderstood niche of the business world, because it’s here you see the essence of productivity. In its plain form, productivity looks so weird that it seems to a lot of people to be “unbusinesslike.” But if early stage startups are unbusinesslike, the corporate world might be more productive if it was less businesslike.

My goal with these interviews was to establish a fund of experience that everyone can learn from. You’ll notice certain classes of problems that constantly bit people. All the founders had things they wished they’d known when they were getting started. Now these are captured for future founders.

I’m especially hoping this book inspires people who want to start startups. The fame that comes with success makes startup founders seem like they’re a breed apart. Perhaps if people can see how these companies actually started, it will be less daunting for them to envision starting something of their own. I hope a lot of the people who read these stories will think, “Hey, these guys were once just like me. Maybe I could do it too.”

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I often get asked if I'll write another volume.  Most likely yes, but I'm not sure when. With 2 kids and over 900 investments, I just don't have the long, beautiful stretches of time I used to.

Founders at Work took a lot of time.  I prepared a lot before each interview. I transcribed the tapes (yes, tapes) myself, which helped me do a better job of editing. Each introduction, though only a few paragraphs, often took a day or two. I cared so much that this book be good. It wound up being the publisher's best selling book the year it came out, and I still get people telling me that it inspired them. I don't want to write another one till I have the time to work as hard on it as I did on the first.

If I had the time though I'd start tomorrow. Often familiarity with something kills your excitement, but 900 startups later I'm still just as excited about them. Startups are fascinatingly complicated.  I wrote in the introduction to Founders at Work that I wanted "to share some of the patterns I noticed." I'm still trying to find the patterns.
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"I’m especially hoping this book inspires people who want to start startups. The fame that comes with success makes startup founders seem like they’re a breed apart. Perhaps if people can see how these companies actually started, it will be less daunting for them to envision starting something of their own. I hope a lot of the people who read these stories will think, “Hey, these guys were once just like me. Maybe I could do it too.”" This is exactly what happened for me. I read through Founders at Work when I was 21 in two days because it was so inspiring. This is coming from someone who really didn't enjoy reading at the time and would much rather be coding. Reading the origin stories in the interviews got me thinking, "everyone starting out seems to know nothing at first.. and even though I know nothing right now too, starting a startup doesn't seem so daunting anymore because I can just figure it out like these founders." Thanks for writing Founders at Work and really opening my eyes up to the world of startups. I hope you write a second volume at some point and please let me know if there's anything I can do to help. - Andy
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Wondering if you saw the Ted Talk with Bill Gross about timing being the number one factor in the success of a startup. Thoughts on that? Obviously there a ton of factors that must all work symbiotically for a startup to succeed, but I found it interesting that "timing" trumped all.
I'd also add that determination and perseverance are such important qualities because as founders, you can never fully understand how difficult it is to build great teams to accomplish things together. It's an art form to get people to follow you and work together. Every company and every team is different. Companies and visions change so quickly that the only thing you can rely on all the time is your team. Founders should prioritize and invest in hiring and investing in great people, especially when you are early stage.
Founders at Work, definitely made a difference for me Jessica, thanks for writing it.
Dear Jessica, your aritcle is execllent. Assure me what am i doing is right. I am ray chung from Malaysia, we develop wonderlist. Wonderlist is a mobile social network application for property agents to co-broke, negotiate and share property transaction. Tq
Thanks for crafting "Founders at work". I grew up in a far away country when those companies were growing. Reading about how their founders started them was amazing. I'm writing my own chapter now, and the path is hard, painful, and fascinatingly challenging. I loved the most where founders persisted against intense betrayals.
Hi Jessica, I got the link to this article through my co-founder. We were brain-storming our strategy(4 years into business) and I had some doubts on my mind...this article cleared it all up and motivated me to work harder and stay focused !! It brought to light our basic goal "Help learners"...Thanks you so much and I am grabbing a copy of Founders at work today !! Warm regards...Aruna
Never give up on a dream ! There is always an answer somewhere believe me as I have been there and done it.
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