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It’s 2015. Have you founded your startup yet? If not, it may be time to join the club. With 50 technology startups launching each day in Beijing alone, it’s clear that it’s past time to jump on the bandwagon. Accelerators, incubators, and VC funds splash around so much cash that it’s no longer worth counting the number of tech startups with million-dollar valuations. Indeed, as of this writing, 100 unicorns have received billion-dollar valuations.
With all that capital floating around, you might be feeling confident about that bulletproof idea you had. You know, the one for an app that irons your dress shirts for you? You can name-check your all-star forefathers — Jobs, Musk, Armstrong — and you’ve flipped through Art Of The Start. You’re ready. Right?
Wrong. There’s a reason 90 percent of startups fail. So before you start mapping The Iron Fist’s path from beta to billions, let’s take a step back. Having spent nearly 20 years working for a variety of startup founders, interacting with many more in the community, and serving as one myself, I’m constantly disappointed with a lot of the startup founder advice out there. Of course, any successful founder needs to be a savvy leader, an able communicator, a nimble problem solver, and a really really smart person. To run any business, you need patience, resilience, perspective, zen — the list goes on.
But what about the less obvious — and to some, less flattering — traits that make up the remainder of the startup founder DNA? Startup founders tend to be culled from the outliers, the obsessives, the oddballs. Those who find success manage to take what would otherwise be a shortcoming — the inability to sit still, workaholism, pigheadedness — and with a strong vision, mold it into something constructive. Let’s take a look at five of the least-touted traits found in some of the best-performing startup founders.
The popular perception of business scions is that they exhibit a fair amount of hyper-narcissism. In fact, the psychological disorder most vital for startup founders is found a little earlier in the DSM-5. Symptoms of ADHD are often treated as something to eradicate. However, those with ADHD are often innovative problem solvers, able multitaskers, and experts in free association. These are often the most creative thinkers among us and the most willing to forget – or reinterpret – failure and move quickly to the next opportunity. When building a startup, there are few characteristics more vital than those exhibited by people with ADHD.
A recent University of California Irvine study of genetics showed that ADHD is “closely associated” with entrepreneurship. So it’s no wonder that business scions with ADHD, like Sir Richard Branson and JetBlue founder David Neeleman, are embracing their diagnoses. But you don’t need a psychiatrist’s note to make attention deficit hyperactivity disorder work for you.
“To really understand the insanity tech startup founders go through and thrive on, you need to step into a day in their life,” said Adam Singolda, founder and CEO of Taboola, one of the world’s biggest content recommendation platforms that recently received a billion-dollar valuation. “Founders grapple with the unique challenge of balancing investors, board members, employees, executive teams, prospects, clients, and reporters — all while remaining a contributor. (Founders are supposed to also do stuff.) To stay on top of this insanity, it’s important to accept that small mistakes will happen along the way.”
Startup founders worried about personal judgment should choose a career with less pressure and less visibility. As the leader of any company, you deal with employees, investors, customers, reporters, contractors, partners, and competitors on a daily basis. For startups in particular, much of the early stage success is more perception than reality, and it is the (often shameless) self-promoters most aware of this fact who end up with the biggest return on investment. Don’t take it from me; Jan Koum did exactly that years before he sold WhatsApp to Facebook for $19 billion.
Many entrepreneurs who carry this trait interpret their shamelessness as being relentless, and they’re not wrong. Convincing investors to support your product, customers to use it, and reporters to cover it does not happen overnight. Often you have to push for it, shedding shame for a minute in pursuit of a bigger goal. I’m not saying you want to become the next Evan Spiegel, but it is helpful to remember that for all his brash pronouncements, SnapChat was most recently valued north of $15 billion.
3. Addictive Personality
Forget substance abuse, unless you’re referring to coffee or Soylent. This kind of addiction is linked to professional success. It’s been written about by Paul Graham, who founded the startup seed fund Y Combinator, and studied in the Journal of Business Venturing. The small victories that litter any startup founder’s path – securing another $100,000 in funding, hunting that top-brow business deal, media coverage that triggers a firehose of users – flood a startup founder’s dopamine receptors and keep them hitting the well again and again.
While I’m not advocating anybody become a workplace junkie, startup founders consider the workplace a chance for both emotional and professional success. Solving big problems and creating a business that can scale from scratch are entirely rewarding experiences, and rightfully so. It’s important to channel your workaholism in healthy ways, though, which is not always easy when you’re the final say on all company decisions.
“Everything in moderation, right? Those are tough words to live by when you are founding a startup, but they really are helpful,” said David Hirsch, cofounder and general partner at Metamorphic Ventures, a New York-based venture capital firm. “In my 20-plus years founding businesses and helping other founders incubate theirs, I have found that managing your addictive personality and creating a healthy relationship to work are vital to ultimate success.
“All that said, as Ben Horowitz famously put it: ‘As a startup CEO I slept like a baby. I woke up every two hours and cried.’ It’s hard stuff. It takes all of you, so remember to have fun whenever possible.”
4. Napoleon Complex
Contrary to popular belief, this has nothing to do with height – Napoleon himself was of average stature in his era of history. In 2015, a Napoleon complex refers to those who are in overdrive to succeed based on some real – or, more often for startup founders, perceived – professional insult. From celebrity investor Mark Cuban to The Muse founder Kathryn Minshew, the field is littered with founders who pushed through the startup roadblocks with a combination of determination, jealousy, and righteous vengeance. To paraphrase a famous quotation, “Hell hath no fury like a startup founder scorned.”
However, you don’t need previous office scorn to gain an edge with a Napoleon complex. Chances are all you’ll need is a brief scan of your competition — both massive multinationals and modest local businesses — to realize that without an added psychological push, your startup may wind up dead on arrival.
Much of the innovation in the world is down to a simple, often maligned characteristic: stubbornness. Most people have an idea for a business but talk themselves out of it, using reason and logic and popular assumptions. Eventually they decide it won’t work. That’s normal. Startup founders, on the other hand, have an idea and think of ways to make it work.
“Descriptions like tenacity, determination, and dedication — and a hundred more words like them — are just pretty words to describe sheer, pure stubbornness,” said Oren Frank, who cofounded Talkspace, a startup that facilitates online therapy sessions between patients and licensed professionals. “At Talkspace, we support and endorse stubborn innovators and individuals that refuse to give up on making this world a little better.”
Take some time to consider these startup founder traits. Maybe you’ve been diagnosed with some or accused of others. Take solace in the fact that whatever their popular perception, they can ultimately be augurs of success in startups. So what’s the holdup? The market awaits!
Yarden Tadmor is the founder and CEO of Switch, a job matchmaking app out to disrupt the job search and hiring space. He has nearly two decades of experience helping to launch and build a variety of technology startups, including Quigo (acquired by AOL for $370 million), Dapper (acquired by Yahoo for $60 million), and Taboola.
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