6 Traits of Successful Founders

March 29, 2017

by Amr Shady, Co-founder and CEO, AiNGEL

What makes a successful founder? Many in the startup ecosystem have stepped in to answer this question, which is constantly being asked by founders and — not so publicly — by other VCs. A few days ago, Dave McClure just answered a similar question here (disclosure: 500 Startups is an investor in our startup, Aingel.ai)

Given what Aingel does with predicting startup success based on founder attributes, and considering that “What makes founders successful?” is the number one question we’ve been asked by every VC we meet, we decided to share some of our findings here.

We analyzed the digital footprint of more than 3,600 founders and used AI to transform this data into 50 personality attributes. One of the most interesting discoveries we made was that — contrary to popular conceptions — startup founders’ single traits could not conclusively be linked to their success. However, when you start to pair personality traits, the ability to predict success changes quite dramatically.

Out of many pairs of traits, here are six that tell a strong, instantly recognizable story of personalities of successful founders.

Type 1: Slow to Trust and Very Altruistic

Founders of this type appear shrewd and skeptical, and are less likely to take people — or even data — at their word. However, while they may require concrete evidence to make that initial buy in, they also are concerned about other people, and take the time to help when others are in need.

Hypothesis: In building their startup, these founders are constantly getting feedback from employees and customers, looking at data and hearing a variety of often conflicting opinions, while also supporting and providing a positive environment for employees and customers. Alone, the traits can be a recipe for disaster. We believe that when paired together, these traits are beneficial because they balance each other out. These founders don’t take anything at face value, and their efforts to be truly helpful to others keeps them well informed of different perspectives, while growing a supportive, trusting following.

Type 2: Achievement Seeking with High Self-Awareness

These are founders who have the drive to keep pushing towards success and are motivated to give maximum effort. They also possess high degrees of self-awareness and emotionality. They are able to experience both their own and others’ emotions at a profound level. They also tend to be very good at expressing their emotions. In our research, Scott Dorsey (ExactTarget) ended up in this group.

Hypothesis: When combined, this pair of traits is beneficial because launching a successful company requires continued determination over time that is tempered with an ability to reach out and connect with people. Sometimes, individuals that are achievement-oriented can be seen as overwhelming, single mindedly focused only on results. But achievement-seeking founders who also possess high emotionality are able to experience and project their emotions, allowing them to communicate on a deeper level the benefits of achieving the best possible outcomes, and maintain a high level of support as they drive toward their goals.

Type 3: Highly Empathic but Not Agreeable

Founders of this type tend to be disagreeable but are skilled at monitoring and reacting to the feelings of others. In other words, they stand up for what they believe in and are adept at discerning what others are thinking, which allows them to either bring dissenters to their own point of view or simply disagree without alienating themselves. In our research, Amr Awadallah (Cloudera), landed in this group as a good example of one such founder.

Hypothesis: We’ve found this to be a winning trait pair because individuals who are less agreeable are often considered aggressive or hostile, which can drive employees, customers or even investors in the opposite direction. Being high in both traits allows these founders to be assertive while maintaining positive and productive relationships. They are skilled at reading emotions and beliefs in others, and are more adept at managing the push-pull aspect of working in a business environment.

Type 4: Highly Anxious but Low on Immoderation

Founders of this type are very anxious but focused on long term results and consequences. Short-term gains are secondary when not in line with the big picture. They seem to channel their anxiety and fear of failure towards a longer term goal.

Hypothesis: This seems to tie in with the concept of “healthy paranoia” we’ve heard about many times before. Alone, it can lead founders to take short cuts that can hurt them and the startup in the long run. Coupling anxiety with the focus on the long run seems logical and absolutely necessary for enduring success. Constantly thinking about long term market changes, internal operations or competitive positioning are bound to prepare founders for the future of their startups.

Type 5: Very Moody but Slow to Anger

Founders of this type tend to react easily to life’s ups and downs. They readily experience a range of emotion, with the exception of anger. This moodiness includes positive emotions such as joy and excitement, as well as negative emotions such as sadness. They do not display any forms of anger with their negative emotions.

Hypothesis: Expressing and communicating emotions, such as joy, excitement, and even sorrow leads to a deeper connection with employees. It can be a source of inspiration and drive for their teams. Founders with expressive personalities that are reactive to the world around them, while maintaining control over their anger, can build stronger, more durable connections.

Type 6: Highly Imaginative and Empathic

These founders possess high levels of both imagination as well as empathy. Their imaginative minds lead to creativity and innovation, which are skills of immense importance to the founder, while their empathetic nature gives them invaluable perspective. In our research, Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn) ended up in this group, and you can easily see these traits present in the way he speaks about industries in years to come.

Hypothesis: Founders with only empathy tend to simply focus on solving for the short-term needs. Yet when coupled with a strong imagination, this pair of traits becomes a keenly effective combo to founders because they can easily read where their business or industry is heading and position their startup for success based on the reality that many others do not necessarily see. Creativity and a deep understanding of their customers and industry also means that they tend to outpace their competition on product features and roadmap.

Successful founders come in different shapes and forms. We know from our work at Aingel.ai that you can’t predict a startup’s success on individual traits of a founder. But when we begin to pair those traits, we start to see how they work together and complement one another to bolster a founder toward startup success. If there is enough interest, we will work on some helpful tips on how both investors and employees should handle working with these types of founders.


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