My decade-long experience of both founding and sitting on the boards of startups has shown me that the one of the most crucial qualities for a founder is to be a “generalist” in the truest sense of the word.
I say this because there will come a point where a founder will stop building or perfecting their product and will need to focus on building a “company.” This requires the founder to gain deep insight and knowledge into some streams of work that they haven’t even been exposed to before. This is where a generalist approach and a learner’s mindset will come in handy.
In my encounters with founders of successful companies, I realized that they share some very distinct traits in common. I will list them below.
Intelligence is right out of the bat the most important one. The defining quality of any founder is a raw and unyielding intelligence no matter what product or service they are developing. This particular quality not only helps the founder empathize with the potential users in a number of ways and find clever solutions when facing obstacles, but also helps the founder gain deep respect among co-workers—which can only be achieved through some very special interpersonal skills.
Passion for work
Over the years, I’ve seen many bright individuals who had almost everything it took to become a successful founder—except for one thing: Passion for the work they do. This quality showed itself in various behavior. One example is when a founder thinks a particular type of work or work stream is below them or isn’t worth following up on. I have seen this type of an outlook on things cause a chain reaction of unforeseeable and unfortunate events. The other way I noticed this quality show itself is when it comes to perseverance. When a founder is fueled by passion, they won’t take no for an answer as easily as the next person; and sometimes it is that “yes” or “no” from an investor, board member, or provider that determines the path your company will take. If you believe in what you are doing will change some of that bad that is aplenty in the world, don’t take that no easily. Turn to your purpose and mission for guidance. This brings us to the next item.
Oftentimes, when I see a new founder struggle to get their point across, I feel for them. They try to turn to popular semantic tools and comparisons, try to explain their product idea in the form of “UBER for X” or “AirBnb for Y.” Leaving aside the lack of originality in this sort of claim, what is more important is that they cannot turn their idea into succinct and strong words. This makes me ask myself, and also ask the founder in front of me, “What made you believe in pursuing this idea?” “What was it for you that activated you?” If you can’t tell what your idea’s value is to you, to the people around you, and to the world, you cannot tell it to your users. Period. This is also why some founders struggle with recruiting the right people or getting the bright people they manage to recruit behind a single mission.
One last note
One last great quality to top these all that all founders need to train themselves in is not “to get things done quickly” but to “get things done exactly when they need to be done.” A startup in its early days cannot afford to lose time or any other resource only because something isn’t being delivered on time.