Entrepreneur

VC Roundtable: What makes a great founder?

(Editor’s note: OpenView Partners surveyed several venture capitalists to get their thoughts on a variety of issues relevant to start-up owners. This story originally ran on the company’s blog.)

We tracked down some of the brightest minds in venture capital to learn more about what makes great companies tick. We asked Phin Barnes, Brad Feld, Rob Go and Alex Taussig to discuss the top qualities of the best company founders and weigh in on whether they should extract equity upon receiving funding.

We broke the inquiry into two parts. Here’s what they had to say:

What makes for a great founder or co-founder at startup or early stage organizations?

Phin Barnes, principal, First Round CapitalDeep integrity and the self-awareness to know your weaknesses, combined with the ability to attract a team to support you in these areas.

Brad Feld, managing director, Foundry Group LLCA great company founder is someone with big vision, a drive to accomplish something substantial, the desire to learn, and a deep willingness and ability to lead.

Rob Go, co-founder, NextView VenturesI like to think of [great founders] in terms of three pairs of traits that don’t often go together:

1. Run-through-walls determination + mental dexterity

2. Creativity + an obsession with execution

3. The ability to sell and promote + introspective, intellectual honesty

Alex Taussig, Highland Capital

Great founders are all different, but they usually share at least one common attribute: a maniacal focus on solving a given problem. They often spend years thinking about ways to do so, and this obsession exists without regard to feasibility or practicability. It is an unusual quality to find in someone, which is why great founders are so rare.

What is your view of founders who want to extract equity upon receiving venture capital?

Phin Barnes – I don’t have a problem with founders receiving some liquidity around financing events. I find some personal financial comfort can help entrepreneurs continue to take the risks necessary to build disruptive companies at scale.

Brad Feld – I’m fine with founders taking some money off the table in financing. It never makes sense to me early on — I never understand why someone would want to do it early in the life of the company or at a low valuation. But as the business develops, it makes total sense.

Rob Go – I think this is appropriate in some cases where alignment between entrepreneurs and investors can be maintained. If an entrepreneur really believes in the business he or she is building, it makes sense to not sell equity early, but build value toward a future liquidity event.

But if a company founder has been at it for a long time, it can be best to provide some liquidity so they can diversify their wealth. It’s also important when an investor wants a founder to be incentivized to swing for the fences, and be in a financial position personally that they are comfortable enough to take that risk.

Alex Taussig – In most situations, I find asking for founder liquidity to be an unpalatable request. Why should we be buying equity if you’re selling it? Usually, it’s a tacit admission that the stock being purchased is overvalued.

That said, there are a few situations where I believe selling founder equity is appropriate. The most common example is when a founder has worked with a small salary for three or four years and has built a valuable business. As such, I see no issue with founders taking some chips off the table as compensation, especially if it puts them in a more comfortable and diversified financial position from which they can truly “swing for the fences.”


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