Lesser Known Traits of Successful Founders

I’ve worked with several hundred entrepreneurs over the past few years, and after the first 50 or so I began to notice a pattern. There are traits that successful founders possess that tend to be weaker or absent in people who are never quite able to make it work.

There are obvious traits that you need as a startup founder: a strong work ethic, perseverance, a desire to learn, etc… But at this point we’re all bored to tears of these entrepreneurial generalities. If you need someone to tell you to work hard and persevere, you should cut your losses now and head back to your cubicle.

So today I want to focus on a handful of lesser known traits that will contribute to your success as a founder.

How Quickly Do You Respond to Opportunity?
Some people will contemplate a course of action for months before taking action. Others will do it in a matter of days.

Transitioning from an idea to implementation should not take months. If you can take an idea, perform the proper research, and make a swift but logical decision to move forward or cut bait, odds are better you’re going to succeed in the long run. Maybe not with this idea, but at some point in the future.

The main reason for this is that wasting time on over-analysis is just that…a waste of time. Successful founders don’t tend to waste time. They decide quickly and get things done. Productivity comes not just from effort, but from deciding to begin that effort months before the other guy.

This can be taken to an extreme and become a weakness, of course. Some people react too quickly; spending 5 minutes on research when they should spend 5 hours, and bouncing from one idea to the next. So with quick response must come the ability to see an idea through to its conclusion.

How Flexible Are You?
Are you dead-set on a specific product idea? Or hell-bent on customers using your product in a certain way? These are both strikes against you.

As you research and ultimately build your product, you’re going to find you need to make major changes not only to the product itself, but to your vision of how people will use it. If you are unwilling to make these changes your venture is less likely to adapt to customer needs.

Flexibility is hard, especially since most of us tend to hold tightly to the initial vision of our product. This is almost by necessity; it’s the only way some of us can keep from throwing in the towel. But that commitment to your idea will need to change as you move forward.

Think about it this way: if your market asked for it, would you be willing to switch from a web app to an iPhone app? Or from iPhone to desktop?

How about switching from building a product to providing services? Monthly to one-time billing? Or from selling your application to open-sourcing it?

If the business justified it, would you be willing to make a drastic change?

Do You Have Confidence in Your Ability to Execute?
Notice the question is not “Can you execute?”, it’s “Do you have confidence in your ability to execute?”

One thing you have to get used to as a founder is the ongoing stream of setbacks. Development always takes longer than you think, you always have more bugs than you’d like, your mailing list is never as large as you want, and on and on.

When you have high hopes for your product, everything seems like a disappointment.

Those who have a high level of confidence in their ability to execute and are able to look past these setbacks, are more likely to succeed. Confidence is not easy to come by, but those that have a realistic self-image (not out of whack in either direction), stand a far better chance of creating a successful company.

Since “confidence” is a hard concept to evaluate or even understand, I’m reading an excellent book on this subject called the Six Pillars of Self-esteem. I realize it sounds like a cheesy self-help book, but it’s not. It’s written by a researcher who has spent his entire career studying what motivates people and contributes to their success in life.

Highly recommended, even if you already feel like you have this one knocked.

Can You Focus Long Enough to Deliver?
We all know the guy who moves from one idea to the next and never finishes anything. He’s freakishly smart, but leaves a trail of half-finished carnage in his wake. Staying focused is a huge part of being successful.

To evaluate your level of focus, look at your history. How many half-finished apps are sitting on your hard drive? How many blogs have you started and abandoned within three weeks? How many have you worked on until they were done?

People who have trouble staying focused on an idea often feel intense passion for it early on, obsess about it for a week or two, and burn themselves out on it by the one-month mark.

If you have trouble with this you may need to give yourself a cooling off period. What often happens is you become so engrossed in the idea that you never stop to look at it rationally and realize a glaring flaw. A flaw that you find 2-3 weeks later when you realize you probably won’t be able to pull it off after all. Things that would have been nice to know 2-3 weeks earlier.

I’ve found that the first several hours (or even days) after coming up with a new idea are filled with irrational, euphoric thoughts of how easily it can be executed and how well the market will receive it. You’ll often hear yourself saying “Why hasn’t anyone thought of this?”

I have a rule that I never spend money on an idea in the first 48 hours. During this time my judgment is clouded by the euphoria of having this amazing new idea. Given that I’ve had several hundred ideas over the past few years, at a minimum I’ve saved myself a few thousand bucks in domain registration fees.

When you have an idea, write it down and come back to it in 2-3 days. You should have a better sense of its true merits after giving yourself time to cool off.

If you do your research and decide to pursue it you should stand a better chance of making a decision based on logic rather than emotion, which will ideally mean you’ll have a better chance of sticking with it in the long-term

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8 comments ↓

#1 Wesley Verhoeve / Family Records on 09.16.10 at 10:05 am

This post was JUST what I needed. I’m going to have to apply the waiting period in particular. I have too many domains to begin with ;)

#2 Karan Vasudeva on 09.16.10 at 11:42 am

Hey Rob, I thought you didn’t recommend taking time off to read business books? :)

#3 Swizec on 09.16.10 at 11:47 am

Hey thanks, I’ve lately been plagued by the feeling that me and my startup have the “it” needed to succeed, but could never put my finger on it.

Now you’ve put it for me. We’ve proven to have all the traits on this list :D

#4 Jason Roberts on 09.16.10 at 12:46 pm

Those are some very good points, but I think your first point about being quick to respond to opportunities is particularly strong and isn’t something that’s discussed all that often. We’ll be discussing your post on the next TechZing podcast for sure. ;)

#5 JP on 09.16.10 at 1:55 pm

Great article! I couldn’t agree with you more on the focus part and letting a idea rest. I call it the “idea marinating phase” I wrote about it here: http://techneur.com/post/935550443/the-startup-idea-filter

#6 Doug on 09.17.10 at 12:17 pm

How Quickly Do You Respond to Opportunity?
Ouch, that cut to the quick. Truly analysis paralysis is killing my startup dreams.
Thanks Rob.

#7 Colin8ch on 09.19.10 at 5:32 pm

React quickly, focus for the long term, AND be flexible to changing everything…these sound contradictory but they are bang on when describing what it takes to succeed in a startup. Thanks for sharing.

#8 It’s Easy to Be Great…It’s Hard to Be Consistent | Software by Rob on 11.04.10 at 4:18 pm

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