Do you have the right personality to be a startup founder?

Oct 8, 2017

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Startups have always existed, we just didn’t call them startups…

Before Uber Eats, there was McDonald’s — the first example of a convenient, assembly line meal. Long before Kickstarter, the Statue of Liberty was crowdfunded, and every single app on our iPhone has AT&T’s transistor to thank for getting the ball rolling.

Put simply, a startup is a ‘disruptive’ business venture in its very first stages, when the founder foots some, if not all, of the bill. These kinds of businesses are now held up as a millennial ideal too, conjuring up images of workplaces with pool tables, flexible hours, and standing desks.

In reality, and well away from the clichés, it takes a lot of time, energy and (this is the big one) resilience to make a startup a success, particularly when you’re wading into an established industry (taxis, banking, the food we eat) and trying to change things. Despite this, there are 80 startups born in the UK every day, and there’s no blueprint for who or what makes some a success, and others disappear.

What kind of person decides to take an idea, work really hard on it, and change the world? Potentially someone like you.

Failure is never going to feel entirely comfortable, but when it doesn’t feel like it’s chipping away at you, you’ll know you’re doing something right.

There’s no good time to kick things off

The humble beginnings of some of the world’s most famous startups are familiar to most of us (Jeff Bezos’ sent out the first Amazon orders from his garage), but these little ‘did you knows’ put a gloss of mythos over what’s usually years of struggle. We see the garage and then we see the global, $500 billion enterprise, everything in-between is a blur. When you focus on that blur, you see that Amazon didn’t make a profit for years, and the compulsory working week was 60 hours for the earliest employees.

At the centre of a disruptive startup is usually a new use for familiar technology, or a familiar service that uses new technology to make it faster or more convenient. Launching at a time when people don’t realise they need something yet is a tricky thing to estimate. What leads up to that launch, and how many years it could take, is completely unpredictable though — Paul Graham, who co-founded Y-Combinator, eloquently phrases it as ‘bad shit is coming’. It’s inevitable, so, reassuringly, he doesn’t think startup founders should be too hard on themselves when the shit does come to challenge them.

Starting a business is a bit like introducing a crying baby into your life, no matter how much of a run-up you think you have, and how much you want it, you’re never fully prepared. There’s no triumphant day when you wake up and feel ready to take on the world, it’s an inch-by-inch, sometimes torturous process. You may as well start now.

Balancing patience and eagerness

More than just a virtue, being patient when you’re developing a startup is often the one thing that keeps the engine going when technical issues, staffing problems and sleep deprivation are trying to shut things down. Always question someone who talks about ‘quick wins’, no matter what industry you’re in — their plan is usually built on sand.

That doesn’t mean you’re an unsuitable startup founder if you find yourself enraged by long Post Office queues, or if you constantly see ways to make things faster — that demonstrates a creative and practical mind. You’ve identified what needs changing, but you still need to be able to gradually, persistently push towards it.

Launching a product or service may feel like the one big aim, but will usually be stage one of many. According to Rob Kalin, co-founder of Etsy, “the last 10% it takes to launch something takes as much energy as the first 90%”, so being the kind of person who can push through discouragement is vital and at the centre of startup life.

A successful startup founder avoids trying to predict what success looks like, or imagine what it will feel like.

“You only have to be right once”

When the latest big idea is reported to receive millions (or even billions) in investment, it’s easy to assume that startup founders are in it for the riches and cachet. Founding your own company can be a path to financial and creative freedom, but no one’s immune to failure.

Dropbox’s co-founder and CEO Drew Houston said “Don’t worry about failure; you only have to be right once”. Failure is never going to feel entirely comfortable, but when it doesn’t feel like it’s chipping away at you, you’ll know you’re doing something right. A successful startup founder avoids trying to predict what success looks like, or imagine what it will feel like. The road ahead is just too long for distracting, hypothetical fantasies like that.

Just be a do-er

Hearing tips and advice from highly successful people can feel a bit like being given one, torn out page from a very long book, but the one consistent piece of advice that can be grabbed and used immediately is to just do it. Whatever your idea is, whatever your business’ aim, just be willing to put your blinkers on and get to work. That app won’t build itself, that ecommerce website won’t launch itself, and the people who are going to be your users or customers need to know why they’ll love it. Pretty much everything worth having is achieved by thinking and doing at the same time.

Walt Disney said “quit talking and start doing”, Estée Lauder deliberately didn’t dream about success, “(she) worked for it”, and CloudFlare founder Michelle Zatlyn dissuades people from “overanalyzing” and encourages them to just start.

There’s no specific personality type suited to founding a startup, and the various legends and stories about how famous founders run their operations demonstrates that.

Take a look at these youngest billionaires (even if they are slightly older by now) and get inspired:

Image courtesy of Boostlikes.com

Remember, that if you’re not easily discouraged, have a world-changing idea, and the willingness to make it real, you’ve already got three essential ingredients — the rest is just doing.

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