What does it take to found a startup? - 4 traits of successful Entrepreneurs

Aug 27, 2012

Table of contents:

  1. Jason Goldberg - Focus on your one thing
  2. Dennis Crowley - Follow your vision
  3. Sahil Lavingia - Jack of all trades
  4. Chris Sacca - Networking
  5. Conclusion

There are many opposing views for what it takes to be the founder of a successful startup. Some successful founders attribute their success to extreme focus, whilst others point there success on their ability to wear multiple hats.

In order to understand these and other conflicting opinions on success, I decided to do some research into how a couple of today’s successful founders got to where they are today.

I tried to find conflicting opinions and opposite views in order to get a full picture of the characteristics, attributes and motivations it takes to found a successful startup. I also tried to pinpoint the reasons and the chain of events that lead to these individuals gaining success.

There is no single source on the Internet that tracks the life stories and backgrounds of successful startup founders. Therefore, in order to complete my research I re-watched the Foundation video series from Kevin Rose.

The following are the founders which I will be covering.

Jason Goldberg - Focus on your one thing

Jason Goldberg is the co-founder and CEO of the wildly successful Social Commerce website Previously Jason founded Jobster and Social Median.

Whilst Social Median was a moderate success (XING acquired them after 11 months), Jobster was a failure because the product was not managed correctly. Jason is a self confessed “Product guy”, but did not have any input into what Jobster’s product ultimately become.

When Jason was founding his third startup, Fabulis, he decided he would dedicate his time to focusing on the product. Fabulis ended up creating a good product, but it failed to get traction.

Jason and his co-founder, Bradford Shellhammer decided to pivot Fabulis into, a Social Commerce website that was heavily focused in affordable designer products.

In a recent talk to the Behance 99U Conference, Jason talks about his road to success and how he has decided to focus on the product and completely block out any other distraction or outside noise.

Focus is a common theme amongst extremely successful people. It is a natural human tendency to produce work of a higher quality when attention is focused on one precise thing. Focus is also something you should do at a company level. If you chase too many goals, you will likely end up missing them all.

By focusing on a single goal that is your passion and the thing you are the best in the world at, you will ensure you produce a high quality end result.

Watch Jason Goldberg’s interview on Foundation.

Dennis Crowley - Follow your vision

A lot of the biggest and most successful companies in history are those where the founder spotted an opportunity to build and bring to market something completely new. Dennis Crowley’s vision was a crowdsourced guide to cities that allowed people to share the hidden insights and knowledge that escaped the traditional city guides.

In 2003, Dennis co-founded a startup called Dodgeball. Dodgeball was a text messaging service that allowed it’s users to announce where they were and have that message broadcast to their friends. Dodgeball was acquired by Google in 2005.

Dodgeball did not progress under Google, and so Dennis and his co-founder Alex Rainert left the Search giant.

In 2009 Dennis co-founded his second company, foursquare with Naveen Selvadurai.

It would be foursquare where Dennis’ vision of a crowdsourced city guide would finally gain the critical mass needed to be a success.

Dennis’ story is the epitome of a founder with a vision. Despite 10 years of failure, Dennis finally managed to turn his vision into a success.

One of the important lessons of Dennis’ story is, being too early is not the end of the world. Often a startup founder with a great idea will take one shot at it and then give up after one failure. Failure is an emotional, capital intensive process and some people can’t bare to go through it again with the same vision. For 10 years, mobile technology was not nearly sufficient for Dennis’ vision to take off. It was only the final coming of age of mobile internet and the introduction of the iPhone that really enabled this vision to work. By experimenting and getting early traction without big bets or investment, you can save your opportunity for when the time is really right.

Dennis also featured in my previous post on inspiring commencement speeches.

Watch Dennis Crowley’s interview on Foundation.

Sahil Lavingia - Jack of all trades

One of the most important attributes of anyone in the online and technology industry is the ability to make things happen. Whilst a degree is still very important if you want to work up the traditional corporate ladder, the ability to create something, or help someone right now is a much better characteristic for getting ahead in the startup game.

Sahil Lavingia started out self teaching himself design, but quickly transition into learning development for mobile. After returning to the United States to attend college, Sahil started a blog that gained him the attention of a number of a promising startups. This eventually gave Sahil the opportunity to work with Turntable FM and Pinterest.

Whilst working at Pinterest, Sahil got the urge to start his own company, despite Pinterest’s trajectory of success. After spending some time creating a Photoshop file, but without an outlet to quickly share and sell that product, Sahil found the idea of creating an Ecommerce service that was as easy as sharing a link.

Sahil created a prototype of his vision and submitted it to Hacker News for feedback. With resounding feedback, Sahil went on to raise funding for his idea and so Gumroad was born.

Sahil’s story is the perfect example of being a “Jack of all trades” with the ability to create a product from a vision by himself. By working alone, a founder can move quicker and cheaper than if hired designers and developers are need to create the initial product. This allows someone like Sahil to create the product in just a couple of hours and receive feedback and validation without investing anything but time.

Watch Sahil Lavingia’s interview on Foundation.

Chris Sacca - Networking

Chris Sacca is a successful Angel Investor and Venture Capitalist who has invested in the likes of Twitter, Uber and Kickstarter. Chris was once over $2 million in debt, but managed to fight his way back into the black after a successful spell at Google.

Whilst in the depths of debt, Chris would regularly attend all of the business networking events around San Francisco. It was at these events where Chris’ natural people skills and his tenacity to work created opportunities that allowed him to meet important people and gain a reputation as someone who could help others.

Chris attributes a lot of his success to the time he spent turning up to those types of events and trying to help people where he could. The things you find easy, or the areas where you have a depth of knowledge will be extremely useful to people who struggle with those types of things. Chris advocates creating value for others before ever expecting anything in return.

In a connected world, it is often more who you know, than what you know. By networking and connecting to the right people, you are far more likely to be considered or thought of when new opportunities arise.

By creating value for others, you will gain a reputation for being helpful and possessing the abilities to make things happen and successful.

Watch Chris Sacca’s interview on Foundation.


So which method is the right one for success? It’s clear that there is no one right way to pursue startup success. Each and every one of us is unique, and we all posses talents, characteristics and strengths that separate us from the crowd.

Some people are naturally extroverts who like nothing more than meeting new people, whilst others shy away from that attention and prefer to work alone.

You might be an amazing Designer without the ability to code, or a Developer without the ability to design. Finding like minded colleagues to work with can be a huge opportunity to create really amazing new products.

I think it is interesting to see how successful people got to where they are today. It’s easy to attribute success to what someone did right. However, I believe it is more firmly routed in just taking a new step each and every day.

Philip Brown


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