The Most Important Characteristic of Successful Founders

There are an infinite number of blogs (including this one*) that provide advice and insight into starting companies. Many of them will have flashy posts like “5 characteristics of successful entrepreneurs” or “10 things that make you a good founder”. Those lists often focus on the personal traits common in successful founders such as their personality, their work ethic or their prioritization process. They imply strongly that if you model yourself after these successful entrepreneurs you are more likely to be successful yourself.

I disagree with every single one of those articles. I think the most important characteristic of a successful founder is simply to be yourself.

Success is the only measure of whether you are a good entrepreneur, not who you are as a person. If the business you build is a success, people will attribute that success to who you are. If the business is a failure, it will be because of who you are. In either case you are the same person, but the opinion of you is shaped by your success of failure.

There is a phenomena called Survivorship Bias and it’s a well understood and common cognitive bias where we mistakenly attribute success to the wrong factors. It happens when you ignore failures and draw conclusions from only a group of successes. In this case, it means only looking at successful founders and drawing conclusions about why they were successful while ignoring all of the failures that might be comparable.

So, why do I think that it is so important to be yourself?

Building a business is hard enough as it is, but if you try to change who you are while building you are making your job even harder. Everyone, including you, has natural strengths and weaknesses. Your chances of success are much higher if you rely on your natural strengths than if you try to mimic the strengths of others.

Yes, you will need to learn new skills in building a business. Yes, you will need to overcome some of your weaknesses to be successful. But if you are to succeed it will be because of your strengths.

Remember that all of the entrepreneurs we idolize today have in some way broken the mold of what a “successful entrepreneur” was thought to look like at the time they got started. Bill Gates was too young, Colonel Sanders was too old.

Maybe if you don’t fit the mold you will break it too.

* Of course, of all those blogs this one is the best. Seriously, you should tell all your friends about it. And strangers on the street, they need to know as well. 

6 thoughts on “The Most Important Characteristic of Successful Founders

      1. isomorphismes

        Sorry, you’re right I wasn’t being clear.

        It could be the case that trying to “be someone you’re not” is a deleterious distraction. Or it could be the case that one/s default reaction to [arbitrary stimulus] is not the best one for the company.

        I don’t see any evidence either way; the only thing I know is that success wins admirers.

      2. Sean Post author

        In the absence of conclusive data either way I am arguing that you are best to be yourself instead of emulating someone else. I see that as being much more objective (“What is the best decision I can make with what I know?”) rather than subjective (“What would Steve Jobs do?”).

        The irony is that there is plenty of evidence both ways, just nothing conclusive.

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