May 13, 2006

The most important quality in a startup founder: determination

Paul Graham has yet another great article for entrepreneurs; this time, titled "The Hardest Lessons for Startups to Learn".

In point no. 5, he argues I the most important quality in a startup founder is determination. Not intelligence -- determination.
You can lose quite a lot in the brains department and it won't kill you. But lose even a little bit in the commitment department, and that will kill you very rapidly.

Running a startup is like walking on your hands: it's possible, but it requires extraordinary effort. If an ordinary employee were asked to do the things a startup founder has to, he'd be very indignant. Imagine if you were hired at some big company, and in addition to writing software ten times faster than you'd ever had to before, they expected you to answer support calls, administer the servers, design the web site, cold-call customers, find the company office space, and go out and get everyone lunch.

...If an acquirer thinks you're going to stick around no matter what, they'll be more likely to buy you, because if they don't and you stick around, you'll probably grow, your price will go up, and they'll be left wishing they'd bought you earlier. Ditto for investors. What really motivates investors, even big VCs, is not the hope of good returns, but the fear of missing out. So if you make it clear you're going to succeed no matter what, and the only reason you need them is to make it happen a little faster, you're much more likely to get money.

You can't fake this. The only way to convince everyone that you're ready to fight to the death is actually to be ready to.

You have to be the right kind of determined, though. I carefully chose the word determined rather than stubborn, because stubbornness is a disastrous quality in a startup. You have to be determined, but flexible, like a running back. A successful running back doesn't just put his head down and try to run through people. He improvises: if someone appears in front of him, he runs around them; if someone tries to grab him, he spins out of their grip; he'll even run in the wrong direction briefly if that will help. The one thing he'll never do is stand still.

Arun Natarajan is the Founder of Venture Intelligence India, which tracks venture capital activity in India and Indian-founded companies worldwide. View sample issues of Venture Intelligence India newsletters and reports.