What does it take to be a successful startup founder? An innovation that you turn into a product which customers will pay for? A great team that rocks? A scalable sales process? Timing is an essential ingredient, as is an intelligent marketing strategy. However, for me, it’s all about the founder’s mindset.
Founder’s mindset means creativity, determination, resourcefulness to act at speed with purpose and intent, taking risk. Founders make hard choices. They have better instincts and believe in a long-term perspective, building a sustainable, high growth venture. Founders believe that advantage lies with the front runners in the closest vicinity to the customers.
Founder’s internal traits drive them to act like insurgents, agitated to move forward. The founder’s mindset is a lens that identifies strategic priorities, hearing the voice of their customers to build their unique version of the future. The thestartupfactory.tech invests almost exclusively in embryonic startups yet to develop their MVP, and we have a ‘founder first’ approach to evaluating new ideas, whereby the founder’s mindset has become the single most important thing to assess.
In my opinion, mindset plays the most significant role in whether a founder finds success or not. Let me elaborate. A growth mindset leads to a desire to learn, embrace challenge, persist in the setbacks, see efforts as a path to mastery, learn from criticism, and find lessons and inspiration in the success of others. This leads to higher levels of achievement.
Clearly, early-stage investment has more chance of success with founders holding a growth mindset, which is why it surprises me that I don’t hear investors talk more about this. In my opinion, it is the single best attribute to evaluate as a marker of potential startup success. As you can imagine, everyone believes that they have a growth mindset. Why would someone not want to have a growth mindset? So, you may be asking, well then, what do you look for?
It is simple. I look for proof that someone veered from an established path and learned from being off that path. In my mind the founder mindset ultimately consists of initiating, adapting, learning, and coming out ahead. If this pattern continues in a startup journey, it is likely that they will be successful.
There are many attributes which contribute to this, and here are my ten ‘founder mindset attributes’ which shape the profile of successful founders I’ve worked with.
1. The curiosity of a child
Founders need a critical thinking attitude to look at things from a different perspective, being curious and inquisitive to come up with varying solutions before homing in on their one thing. Entrepreneurship is a personal skill in my view, founders learn to think for themselves. Yes, jump into startup support programmes for functional skills development, peer group learning, community support and networking, but cut your own path. Go figure stuff out for yourself. Thinking from first principles and trying to generate new ideas is challenging, the next step is to find easy, fast ways to test these ideas in the real world.
2. Self-belief & relentless optimism
Self-belief is needed to keep going. The most successful people I know believe in themselves almost to the point of delusion – not ego, just relentless in their ability to make it happen. Cultivate this early. As you get more data points that your judgment is good and you deliver results, trust yourself more.
If you don’t believe in yourself, it’s hard to have contrarian ideas that make your startup different. I remember watching an Elon Musk video of a tour of the SpaceX factory, the thing that remains with me was the look of certainty on his face when he talked about sending people to Mars. I thought that’s what conviction looks like.
Never doubt yourself, but don’t become arrogant, and maintain self-awareness. It’s impossible without a hefty chunk of self-belief to do something new, as the more ambitious you are, the more naysayers appear and will try to tear you down. You only need to be really right about the future once, but do listen to others to ensure your blind spots are not causing your radar to malfunction. Having a positive attitude allows you to tackle problems and obstacles head-on without the clouded judgment brought about by negative emotions.
3. Openness to anything
You’re on the treadmill, you can follow your hunches and spend time on things that might turn out to be really interesting. Keeping things flexible for as long as you can is a powerful way to do this, but obviously comes with trade-offs, but be openminded to other’s suggestions and hold an experimental mindset.
Taking risks is important because it’s impossible to be right all the time. Don’t bury your head in the sand or make excuses for poor results. You have to try many things and adapt quickly as you learn more. Be openminded, look for small bets you can make where you lose x1 if you’re wrong but make x10 if it works. Then make a bigger bet in that direction.
4. Ability to focus
At some point you need to fine tune and make the bet, then execute with focus. Focus is a simple multiplier for a startup: What am I going today that will move the business forward? Avoid cruise control and simply working through a task list just ‘doing stuff that needs to be done’. Work on the right thing , even if the results are not immediately visible. Most people waste time on stuff that doesn’t matter. Once you have figured out what to do, be unstoppable about executing priorities quickly. I have yet to meet a slow-moving person who is successful.
5. Persuasion comes naturally
It’s essential for a founder to have the ability to persuade people, regardless of if it’s about a sale or proposing a solution to a problem. Being able to influence requires an inspiring vision, strong communication skills, some degree of charisma, and evidence of execution ability. The key to persuasion is to be an effective communicator, and it’s more than just selling. When you’re an effective communicator, you know how to influence and drive your point across. You know how to deliver your message.
The founders’ mindset must hold a belief in their ability to be able to convince other people of their ‘thing’. It’s not about a pitch, it’s about building rapport, trust and credibility. Customers buy the founder first, then their product. Founder led sales is one of my mantras. Show up in person whenever you can. Always be willing to make the first investment in a relationship. I’ve lost count where that effort and that moment was a turning point for a startup that otherwise would have gone the other way.
6. Continuous learner
Successful founders are voracious learners, on an exponential learning curve following an ever-increasing up-and-to-the-right trajectory. This has a compounding effect, each unit of learning you do should generate more and more results. One of the notable aspects of compound growth is that the furthest out years are the most important. In a world where almost no one takes a truly long-term view, the market richly rewards those who do. Trust the exponential, be patient, and be pleasantly surprised.
7. Intrinsic motivation – driven by passion
The most successful founders I know are primarily internally driven by passion, doing what they do for themselves, compelled to make something happen. This is the only force I know that will continue to drive you to high levels of performance.
Yet most people are primarily externally driven, they do what they do because they want to impress other people with their success and wealth. This is bad for many reasons, but here are two important ones: firstly, you will work on consensus ideas and are pleased if other people think you’re doing the right thing. This will probably prevent you from doing truly interesting work. Secondly, you’ll be focused on keeping up with other people and work hard to not fall in the mimetic trap.
8. Work hard
You can get close to a breakthrough achievement by working either smart or hard but getting to the 99th percentile requires both. You get out what you put in. One of the great joys in startup life is finding your purpose, acting upon it, and discovering that your impact matters, creating something larger than yourself.
You have to figure out how to work hard without burning out. People find their own strategies for this, but one that almost always works is to find work you like doing with people you enjoy spending a lot of time with.
Successful founders are driven by passion, but it’s about graft, Michelangelo said: If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.
There’s no doubt technology entrepreneurship is becoming its own kind of celebrity – the story of Facebook was portrayed in The Social Network – but the reality is as Eric Reis said: Entrepreneurship is not cool, it’s not sexy and it’s totally uncomfortable. It’s boring and gruelling, and that part is never part of the movie.
Also, a startup is unpredictable. You have to be prepared for what’s to come, even if you think certain situations are unlikely to happen. You need to be able to take everything in stride and roll with the punches. Work stamina is a big predictor of long-term success.
A big secret is that you can bend the world to your way of thinking a surprising percentage of the time. Most people don’t even try, and just accept that things are the way that they are. Successful founders refuse to accept the status quo and have a capacity to make things happen. A combination of self-doubt, giving up too early, and not pushing hard enough prevents most people from ever reaching anywhere near their potential.
Ask for what you want. You usually won’t get it, and often the rejection will be painful. But when this works, it works surprisingly well. Almost always, the people who say I am going to keep going until this works and mean it, go on to succeed. They are persistent long enough to give themselves a chance for luck to go their way. To be headstrong, you have to be single minded to the point of obsession. I have never met a successful meek and mild person.
10. Community oriented
Successful founders maybe headstrong and work in isolation, but are also highly gregarious and social, thriving in a community with like-minded others. They find a place to share their setbacks, failures, and successes, and create connections. Being part of a community with connectivity to like-minded entrepreneurs creates energy, folks help push and pull, reshaping your thinking and make it better.
Look at the impressionist painters in Montmartre. The Cafe Guerbois, near Manet’s studio became the gathering spot for Manet, Renoir, Degas and Pissarro, and the movement was born and flourished.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. Sort your mindset out, embrace the attributes outlined above. Sail away from the safe harbour. Explore, Dream, Discover. Challenges are what make life interesting. Overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.
Fundamentally, a successful founder’s mindset means they quit talking, start doing. If you have the above attributes, you become unstoppable. You lose the uncertainty and reticence that I don’t know how to do that thinking becomes irrelevant. Make the most of yourself.