In my work as a startup mentor, I’ve met with a lot of startup founders in the Arab world and around the world; I also listen to podcasts and read startup news and books religiously. When it comes to what sets average founders apart from those who can scale rapidly sit at the helm of billion-dollar businesses, I’ve noticed several differences; below is a list of just a few observations.
1. Pick one thing to be great at
Startups are small. Resources are limited. You are almost always competing against much bigger guys who’ve been around a lot longer than you. Great founders know that to compete and win users, they have to do something really unique, or really, really well. It could be the recommendation engine of a lifestyle site, or the algorithm for a custom suit e-commerce site, but they typically pour their energies into that one thing; trying to be all things to all people is a recipe for disaster.
2. Know their customers extremely well
One question I ask every founder I meet is: "who is your customer?" I'm really asking two questions when I do that. Of course I want to know who their customer is, but I also am checking whether they know who their customer is. Great founders learn their customer base inside and out by doing surveys to ask customers at every available moment what their life is like and how the product helps. But sometimes I get the bizarre response, “everybody.” Great founders know they can’t reach “everybody,” because they don’t have infinite marketing budgets. Great founders think about which types of people are going to be the best customers, and they spend a lot of time deciding how to reach them cheaply and effectively.
3. Get advice from everyone, but know which advice to take
I had a conversation with a UX designer at IDEO last year who had started mentoring a startup, and was scared that she would steer them in the wrong direction. I responded that they were very lucky to get her time, and that it’s their responsibility to tell the difference between good and bad advice. Founders get advice all the time, but great founders know which to use and which not to, even if the person is powerful or influential. I’ve heard good investors give founders terrible advice. Great founders can tell the difference. They know to solicit different opinions, and they know that there is a difference between bad advice and a bad contact, and they don’t risk the relationship with a good contact by being rude or openly dismissive.
4. Ask for help
Great founders ask for help, from anyone who could be helpful. Calling every day could be TOO persistant, but following up and making sure you get what you need is a necessary attitude to have. I even know a founder who asked for a minority shareholder to give up his stake in return for nothing… and the investor said yes. Great founders know that a lot can be gotten just by asking, so they ask. And asking is always free!
5. Take notes, and follow up
One thing that always surprises me is when I meet with founders and they show up with nothing to take notes with. It makes me wonder if they want to recall our meeting (if not, why did they request it?). I’m very specific with my advice, usually recommending 5-10 bloggers, sites, articles, case studies, and startups; these would be hard to memorize. Great founders will not only take notes, but they will make sure to follow up later if there is something that I have forgotten to do.
6. Communicate what they do with energy and enthusiasm
Great founders are good at selling their idea, to investors, customers, partners, and competition judges because they know how to communicate their idea so that the average person can grasp it quickly and remember it well, but the details could impress industry insiders. Great founders know how to describe things well enough to others that they spur word-of-mouth marketing. I once worked with a startup that did this so well that we got calls from friends whose colleagues were begging to know how to get the product.
7. Sell themselves, not just the startup
Great founders know they face an uphill battle convincing people that they are worthwhile investments of time or money. So they sell not just the product, but themselves. They may be funny, engaging, intelligent, hardworking, or experienced, but they know how to make people want to help them. Consulting firms famously hire people who pass the “airport test”; whether the interviewer would want to be stuck in an airport with the candidate. Great founders know this; it’s much easier to get a meeting with a potential investor if they think it will be fun and interesting regardless of the startup.
8. Network… strategically
Everyone knows that networking is important to being a startup founder, but great founders know how to network so that they don’t waste time. Great founders know that some of the most valuable contacts may never come to typical startup events – like lawyers whose clients are VCs, industry conference organizers, or people who have good contacts with investors. When great founders meet with people, they have something to offer as well - contacts, information from their field, or a recommendation. They create target lists and use LinkedIn to systematically get at the people they want to reach, and they also use their networks to perform due diligence on potential partners or investors.
9. Know the difference between ‘No’ and ‘Not right now’
There are many reasons why someone may say no when founders request help or a meeting. Great founders know when the person is giving them a hard ‘no’ or a ‘not just yet. The person may be busy, or perhaps they don’t see the founder at the right stage. Great founders know to come back at the right time – perhaps after a major milestone has been reached, added capabilities, or after they’ve achieved a stage of funding. Coming back to someone who said ‘no’ previously, with updated information- shows that you are not only persistent but also smart enough to give your contact a good reason to say ‘yes.’
10. Find creative solutions
Great founders don’t let lack of funds keep them from what they want to do, and they don’t wait for money in order to build their business. Instead, they find clever ways to get what they need for little or no money, whether through bartering, favors, outsourcing, or creativity. I’m always amazed at the ingenuity of some founders in getting what they need, and in finding ways to bend the rules.