Humble founders will rule the world
What exactly do they look for?
As I’ve written before, every organisation dedicated to supporting startups emphasises the importance of people / founders in their mission statement. What exactly do they look for?
Sources listed here | Selection based on variety & amount of readily available info | Subjective, not objective :)
That’s quite a diverse set of words… almost every positive attribute a founding team can wish for!
However, I was surprised to see that not many investors look for humility as a core founder quality — at least not formally. This could be because:
- humility is hard to assess at an early stage, when there’s not much to show off;
- humility is hard to assess even when there’s a lot to show off (there are low-key people that are still extremely arrogant);
- looking for “humility” in founders as an end in itself may be dangerous: it may come across as as a lack of confidence, as it can be hard to reconcile with having that gut sense of “I can do this”.
Still, I believe humility — or humble confidence — should make every investor’s top 3, as I think the best of the startup world will eventually be led by humble founders. I define humble confidence as that skill some founders have to use their abilities and courage to bring others up rather than arrogantly pushing them down.
If compared to other industries such as entertainment, hedge funds, etc., it can even be argued that the startup world has always been looking for a special combination of humility and confidence. As Paul Graham put it,
If you want to build great things, it helps to be driven by a spirit of benevolence. The startup founders who end up richest are not the ones driven by money.
The ones driven by money take the big acquisition offer that nearly every successful startup gets en route. The ones who keep going are driven by something else. They may not say so explicitly, but they’re usually trying to improve the world.
To successfully improve the world, you need to be able to attract the best and most aligned people you could ever wish for.
As a pretentious founder driven by money and other vanity signals, you may be able to attract good people that will put up with your ways because they need a job, but this won’t last; the best people will have other options and gravitate towards more inspirational leaders. Going back once again to something Paul Graham said,
While having the best people helps any organisation, it is critical for startups.
In this sense, finding success in the startup world is more subject to good, humble leadership than that found in traditional industries.
This said, I’ve identified a couple of trends that that seem to indicate that in 2018 we’re moving even further in this direction:
(1) Growing transparency amongst founders 💧
A movement of public humanisation around the founder role is happening in a big way: from personal content about mental health…
… to honest lessons by more experienced entrepreneurs, not aimed at portraying themselves as demigods, but instead at helping younger founders deal with adversities as normal human beings…
… to statements encouraging candour & humility.
(2) Growing numbers of humble role models 🕊
Humility doesn’t have to be public. Indeed, in most cases it isn’t, and there is an enormous number of people we rarely hear about in the media whose impact on the startup world is deeper than that of all the startup superstars put together.
I spoke to a few people to learn more about these hidden fighters, and was happy to find a general sentiment that arrogant / pretentious founders driven by money and fame are a thing of the past.
Even just looking at people in our network at The Family, I’ve seen dozens of founders that deliberately try to live under the radar to focus on building things, improving the world & helping others. Here’s a few of them:
… and the list goes on and on.
So, if I was an investor trying to spot these talents early, I’d look out for people who:
- say great things about their colleagues when they could say them about themselves
- acknowledge what they don’t know, and put their pride aside when you question them
- learn from their mistakes rather than hiding them
- know what they are lousy at
- treat everyone well, from Uber drivers to team members to waiters to celebrities to personal assistants
- get shy / awkward when you congratulate them
Who knows… it may even help as a predictor of success ;)
Originally published on medium