Category Archives: Meta

The Founder Spectrum

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.

The Scientist

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.

The Expert

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.

The Outsider

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.

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. 

How I Can Help

I receive many requests for help from entrepreneurs based on my experience and the content of this blog. While I enjoy helping, I am not always the best person to help depending on the problems you are facing. To help save both of us time, I’ve put together a list of the main ways I can help you build your company. You can find it on my website or in this post below.

This list was inspired by Leo Polovets (who has a great blog that you should read) and his “Ways I Can Help” post. If you think I can help you based on what you see here, feel free to contact me as I’d love to help.

How I can help you build your business:

1. Leadership and Team Building

Over the past 20 years as a CEO and CTO I have built teams as small as 3 and as large as 100 across multiple industries, hiring everyone from interns to senior executives. I can act as an executive coach for you and help you improve your management skills, and/or help you with any of the following:

  • Recruiting and interviewing strategies.
  • Onboarding processes and team mentorship.
  • Providing effective feedback and performance reviews.
  • Team motivation and chemistry.
  • Dealing with problem employees.

2. User Interface/User Experience Design

I have spent over 15 years building award winning user interfaces for both consumer and enterprise companies, working as both an independent designer and with some of the top design firms. I can help with:

  • Usability studies and customer surveys.
  • Wireframing and user flow designs.
  • Visual design including color palettes and font choices.
  • Design reviews and peer evaluations.

3. Marketing and Sales Strategies

I have successfully grown businesses from zero to hundreds of thousands of customers and tens of millions in revenue. I can help with:

  • Designing your launch plans and messaging.
  • Building a customer communications plan.
  • Refining your sales pitch.
  • Preparing for investor pitches.

4. Complex Algorithm Design

I have a Masters degree in computer science with a focus in Machine Learning, which I have applied to complex problems faced by real businesses. I also provide open source libraries that implement common machine learning and other complex algorithms. I can help with:

  • Complex algorithm design and evaluation.
  • Machine Learning applications, model and feature selection.
  • Complexity analysis.

5. Large Scale Software Systems Scaling

At Flurry, I built one of the largest data processing systems in the world spanning thousands of servers and multiple data centers. I can help with:

  • Capacity planning and load testing.
  • Security and compliance protection.
  • Large scale/distributed software architecture.
  • Systems design and monitoring strategies.

6. Analytics and Business Intelligence

I have helped dozens of companies across a dozen industries design their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), metrics dashboards and analytics to help improve their business. I can help with:

  • Analytics tool selection.
  • KPI selection and monitoring.
  • Metrics investigation and analysis.
  • General business analysis and intelligence.