People often ask me what kind of personality traits successful entrepreneurs possess? I’ve always maintained a mental list, based on my observations over years of meeting with entrepreneurs who have founded, scaled and exited businesses.
To explore this further, I thought it might be interesting to gather the perspectives of professional investors at venture capital funds who have backed some of the biggest names in technology startups including Pinterest, Uber, Boxed and SeatGeek. In general, several recurring attributes emerge, supporting the fact that investors believe there is a certain personality profile that is predictive of success. Furthermore, many of these traits are areas that entrepreneurs can diligently work on and improve, and not necessarily things that are innate — meaning people aren’t just born with it. Five traits that tend to be associated with the most successful entrepreneurs include:
In my interactions with VCs, this probably comes up as the single most critical ingredient to realizing entrepreneurial success. The value of tenacity was not lost on Woody Allen, who’s credited with coining the notion that “80 percent of success is showing up.” Nihal Mehta, ENIAC Ventures, looks for a founder’s ability to break through walls. He suggests, “startups have many twists and turns, ups and downs. Founders who go the distance look at each challenge and pace themselves to overcome each and every one.”
Related to tenacity is motivation — why is an entrepreneur so focused on solving a particular problem? Chances are, if it’s purely about fame or fortune, the inevitable frustration that will come along when things don’t go smoothly may start eroding the intensity needed. Some investors look for opportunities where an entrepreneur is trying to solve a personal problem. “I like entrepreneurs who decided to solve a pain point that affected them personally,” says Vasu Kulkarni, Courtside Ventures. “The conviction to solve a problem is always stronger when you are passionate about it, and generally that tends to stem from issues that you can relate to personally.”
3. Confident humility.
Though it may sound like a contradiction, investors cite confidence and humility as traits that they’d like to see in the founders they back. Changing the status quo requires conviction and steadfastness that is convincing to investors, customers and employees. At the same time, the ability to listen and adjust is critical in being responsive to ever-changing challenges. Checking individual pride at the door is key to this. David Frankel, Founder Collective, looks for “audacity” but encourages entrepreneurs to balance this with some degree of humility and to always be asking questions.
4. Clarity of thought.
A straight line between a problem and a solution demonstrates a mastery of knowledge that presents an entrepreneur as someone who knows his or her stuff, as well as as an ability to effectively communicate. Having domain expertise is critical, but if you cannot present it as such, it can give the impression that there may be holes in the vision or ability to execute it. Matt Turck, FirstMark Capital said, “The best founders are deep students of their industry and entrepreneurship in general. They focus on understanding every single nuance. This manifests itself through clarity of thought.”
An important part of being innovative is thinking about the “what ifs” of a business. Being reactive and responsive is important but it should be blended with a proactive approach to identifying and solving problems. This requires a level of curiosity which can save time and money. Matt Hartman, Betaworks, says “we invest in people building products that are fundamentally about new consumer behaviors. In these types of products, it’s critical to be curious about how and why new behaviors emerge.”
It is no coincidence that as businesses evolve and go from one stage to the next, so does the development of their founders and leadership team.