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:

––––––

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.”

––––––

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.