What It Takes To Be A Founder: Vision, Grit, Passion


Ever since the drama emerged around Travis Kalanick and Uber, I’ve been thinking about how few people really get what it takes to start a business from scratch.

  • Especially one that is carving out totally new territory.
  • It will be interesting to see if Jeff Immelt, formerly of GE, gets the CEO position at Uber.
  • If he does, expect an outcome not unlike Sculley at Apple. Hashtag #UberIsOver.

But back to what it takes to be a successful founder: It’s so easy to pass judgment about a founder not being nice enough or caring enough about work/life balance or that company culture may not be quite to your liking.

The Founder’s Mindset/Values vs. Non-Founder Executives

  • It’s clear to me from numerous discussions over the years with friends and colleagues that unless you’ve been a founder, you don’t really fully comprehend what it means to love your company more than anything else in life and that you are willing to sacrifice everything for that company.
  • Naturally when things go off the rails, it is not pretty and founders can be a pretty unforgiving lot
  • In other words, there are two sets of lenses through which you can judge founders: the lens of an employee or the lens of a founder. The latter sees the behavior and the attitude in a different light than do employees.
  • As a founder/entrepreneur there are a million things you are responsible for, you are “never not working.”
  • In the early stages, every problem is ultimately yours to solve (and founders are notorious control freaks)
  • With so much at stake and so little time, most entrepreneurs/founders, who are scrappy to begin with, don’t have the patience for bureaucracy and niceties.
  • Quite frankly, as a founder, being nice is a low level priority when you’re putting everything you have on the line.

Company Culture/Hiring

  • From personal experience I can understand how everyone at early stage startups reflects the founder’s profile. You tend to hire friends of friends.
  • For example, at Zandl Group, we had 8 women and 2 men. Presumably, men could have taken umbrage that we were too female, too gay, too so many things.

Case Study Founders

  • Combative, headstrong traits are not restricted to Silicon Valley although the most well-known examples, at the moment, are from the tech sector including Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg (now morphing into a poster child for philanthropy), and Bill Gates, hell to work for while leading Microsoft but now the philanthropist-in-chief.
  • However, if you go back in history, there are plenty of examples of brilliant minds that changed the world in profound ways who were exceptionally tough and not at all nice to those working for them e.g. Thomas Edison, Frank Lloyd Wright, even Walt Disney was notorious for his ill-treatment of staff and close friends.
  • There are also examples of women who lead their companies with the same toughness. Two role models for me are Anna Wintour (not a founder but a strong leader) and Martha Stewart. Many of my friends consider Wintour an absolute monster. I see her as someone desperately trying to save a dying print business, she offends some by asking pointed questions and annoys others by cutting silly expenses. All done to save Vogue and many of their jobs.

The Bottom Line

  • Founders have a vision of what they are trying to create. They give it their absolute all – and then some.
  • When those working for them come up short, founders can go off the deep end.
  • Apple and Amazon employees (two of the toughest companies to work for) routinely say that as hard as it was to be reamed out by Jobs or Bezos, they became infinitely better at what they were doing and produced more and better work than they ever conceived possible.

Read on below for more on the companies I founded and what I learned from those experiences.

When I started my business (Xtreme Inc.) almost 30 years ago, I was self-funded so the economics of building a company made for crazy stressful times.

  • Every bad decision cost me money and cash flow was a constant problem. It took 4 years before I no longer had to tap my personal savings to tide us over between projects.
  • Xtreme, and then Zandl Group, were obviously tiny businesses compared to the kinds of companies we’re talking about but I do know that I couldn’t have survived if I wasn’t iron-willed, to the point of jerkdom.
  • There was no room in my life for distraction. Work was 24/7 which is also the only way I know to build something from scratch and overcome naysayers.

For those of you not familiar with Xtreme or Zandl Group, our point of difference from others in the consumer research and trend space at that time, was our “anything but focus groups” stance.

  • If not the first, we were definitely among the first handful of startups in the mid-80’s to develop immersive experiences for our clients.
  • At that time, research was more traditional vs. what we were offering.

Disrupting the Status Quo

  • I was hell-bent on disrupting a research culture that I saw as boring, not forward-looking, not experiential enough.
  • We innovated with deep dives into various subcultures including skateboarding, hip hop, born-again/evangelicals.
  • I was so adamant about getting as many of these immersions scheduled as possible, I insisted they be done on weekends when more people were available. Only problem: Clients hated working on weekends.
  • When it finally dawned on me that clients didn’t mind taking a week out of the office to do immersion trips, I was set.
  • However, it took me so long to get there because I was stubborn about doing the work only on weekends. Fortunately, I learned my lesson and became more accommodating before it was too late.

The Alpha Consumer

  • All of our work was done in-home or on-location with “alpha consumers (our version of influencers and tastemakers).
  • Our book on the subject, Targeting The Trendsetting Consumer, was published in 1992. The publisher (WSJ) refused to put “Alpha Consumer” on the cover because it was too unknown a term.
  • More often than not, our work with alphas anticipated cultural and social changes well before traditional companies picked up any signals on these emerging trends e.g. hip hop in the late 80’s, evangelical movement in early 90s and the fashion/retail implosion in mid-2000’s.

My Newest Startup

  • With The Opinionator I’m starting again, exploring what’s next in how live, work and play. Not sure where it will lead but so far so good.

Finally, two excellent books if you want to read more about the founder’s mindset. Both are by Brad Stone:

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