Understanding your own weakness is very difficult. Most people have a positive self image, and company founders tend to have an extremely positive self image. That self confidence is what allows us to persevere when everyone else is saying stop, and can carry you through the worst parts of The Struggle. However, it also prevents you from objectively evaluating your own weakness.
Many start up failures can be traced back to founder weaknesses that are either exacerbated under the heavy stress of starting a company or are never compensated for by the rest of the team. No one is perfect, and understanding your weaknesses will allow you to compensate for them before they become risks to your business.
One way to make sure you are objectively evaluating yourself is to find entrepreneurs similar to you and examine their weaknesses. While all founders are created differently, you can group founders together at a very high level. I call these groupings the Founder Spectrum and there are many. One of my favorite, and most useful, founder spectrums is what I like to call the Scientist, the Expert and the Outsider.
Many of the exciting start up companies you read about in the news are started by university researchers who have been developing new technologies for many years. This is not a coincidence, since pushing the boundaries of what is possible can take a long time and require deep study. These founders have created new technology that was never possible before, and are true innovators in their field. Their companies use this technology as their core asset to build a new business and compete with existing companies. An example Scientist is Tillman Gerngross (GlycoFi, Adimab) who has repeatedly pushed the boundaries of protein synthesis.
- Through their technology, Scientists have a head start on the rest of the industry. It may take many years for competitors to match them.
- Through their deep expertise, they can maintain that head start by continuing to improve the technology.
- If they are part of a university, they can spend many years developing the technology without worrying about burn rates and capital requirements.
- If the technology fails for any reason, the company will fail. While their expertise is deep, it is not broad and everything is bet on the specific technology.
- If the technology is too new, it may take a long time to convince customers to buy it. Something truly innovative will be strange to customers who might not have any idea how to value how much it is worth.
How to compensate
- Test the market value and potential of the technology as much as possible before founding your company. Make sure that companies are willing to pay for the products enabled by the technology starting on day one.
Experts are people who have worked in a given industry long enough to understand all of the nuances and details that make it run. While they might lack the deep technical expertise of the Scientist, they make up for it by understanding the business deeply. That understanding brings with it the ability to see opportunities that are not available from the outside, while maintaining a wide perspective that isn’t limited to a single technology. Examples of experts include Lew Cirne (Wily Technologies, New Relic) and Craig Walker (Dialpad, Grand Central, Uber Conference).
- Deep understanding of the industry allows Expers to see opportunities that no one else can see.
- Able to adjust within their market as things change, staying flexible. In many cases they see changes coming before others.
- Can have difficulty getting out of the rut of industry thinking and see things differently than everyone else. This becomes more true the longer they spend in the industry.
- Limited to their industry of choice, even if that industry is challenged.
How to compensate
- Change your environment as much as possible (office, people, places) to encourage new ways of thinking. Bring in advisors from outside the industry to challenge your thinking and open up new avenues of exploration.
Sometimes, it takes someone from outside of an industry to see opportunities and create new innovations. While an outsider might lack the deep expertise of the Scientist or the Expert, they are also free of any preconceived notions of what is possible. That freedom can allow them to approach problems in novel ways that change the way the business works. Examples of outsiders who have changed industries where they had no previous experience include Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX) and Palmer Luckey (Oculus Rift).
- Fresh perspective on the industry which allows them to find new solutions to existing problems.
- Lacks any preconceived notions of what is possible or what might have been tried before.
- Prone to making a large number of mistakes as they learn the nuances of the industry.
- At the start they have a disadvantage against existing companies due to their lack of relationships, experience and reputation in the industry.
How to compensate
- Constant customer development and market validation of ideas while developing the first product. The more customer feedback you get, the less likely you will veer off in directions that prove fruitless.
The best founding teams (See 5 Rules for Choosing a Co-Founder) are made up of many different types of people. In fact, some of the best founding teams have a Scientist, an Expert and an Outsider. Having such a diverse team compensates for the weaknesses of any given member while building up a wider array of strengths.
If you read those descriptions and found one that matches you, then you are very self-aware and ahead of the game. If not, don’t worry. Remember, this is a spectrum so there are many people that fall in between these categories.
This is one way to think about the spectrum of founders, but there are many more. The most important thing is to understand your strengths and weaknesses and how they compare to those of your competitors. If you do, you can recruit the kinds of co-founders that will make you stronger.