What to look for in a successful founder

Whilst scrolling through my twitter feed, I cam across an article that caught my eye, since the title seemed so contrary to public opinion. The title read, “Paul Graham on why he doesn’t like seeing college-age and younger founders”. This title immediately caught my attention, since I feel as though the exact opposite is encouraged in today’s society. I have always though that creating a start-up at a young age would be the dream, since you would have a job that you are passionate about, and you would get to be your own boss. However, Paul Graham, a computer programmer who founded Y Combinator (a seed accelerator), thinks just the opposite. Graham shares his view that your 20s are meant to be spent discovering what you want to do, and trying new things, rather than tying yourself down to one company. From his experience working with start-ups, Graham knows that a start-up is an all-consuming gig, and will therefore seriously restrict your social life. He thus recommends young adults to not dive into a start-up directly out of school, but rather take some time in your life to have fun and figure out what direction you want to pursue further down the road.


In watching the interview that this article was based off of, I was able to learn more about Graham and his perspectives, some of which aligned with Ben Horowitz, author of my summer read, The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Graham shared his perspective that determination was more important than intelligence in a start-up, similar to Horowitz’ emphasis on courage and endurance to push through “the struggle”. I have found this commonality in other articles and interviews I have read about start-ups, as it seems to be a consensus across the board. Determination, grit, courage, and other similar attributes seem to be the driving forces of successful founders. These attributes would be extremely necessary if you were the sole founder, since you are responsible for keeping morale up in your employees, and in yourself.

Another interesting perspective Graham offered was the idea that people shouldn’t start a company with the full idea mapped out in their head, but rather approach it with a “let’s see what happens” mindset. As a hacker, Graham said that this was always the mindset he held, and feels that this carries over into the start-up world as well. This also reminded me of Horowitz’ discussion on the importance of a founder accepting that the product they start out with will not stay the same down the road. Being able to accept change and adapt seem to be fundamental aspects of being a founder, since the whole objective of a start-up is to grow, which often implies change.


In talking about his own company, Y Combinator, Graham said they often look to fund people who have not been employed by a large company for a long period of time. When hearing this I assumed it would be because he feared the individual has a greater chance of being a slacker, since in a large company you may have the ability to fly under the radar. However, his reasoning behind this is that he feels the two are entirely different types of people. “If you were the kind of person who would make a good founder, you wouldn’t be able to stand working for a large company for 20 years.” I feel that this reasoning makes sense, however I am sure that there are exceptions to this theory.

Graham also offered a somewhat different viewpoint than what I am used to hearing about start-up founders. Often I hear that start-up founders require a large amount of creativity and vision in order to make their product successful. However, Graham believes that if you care enough about the users you are targeting, and pay attention to their needs, you don’t necessarily need excessive creativity. All you need in this case is the ability to see what is missing in the user’s lives.

Overall, I found this article and interview very informative about the start-up world, and what it takes to be a founder. It was great to see similar points made in this interview and in my book from this summer, validating what I had learned from Horowtiz.


9 thoughts on “What to look for in a successful founder

  1. What an interesting article. I strongly agree with Graham’s idea that a good employee won’t be a good founder because they are two completely different kinds of persons. When we choose our careers’ paths, we should think about who we are and what kind of persons are we.


  2. This is a super interesting article, and I can see how it relates to young entrepreneurs now. I have a few friends who started a company that began attracting the attention of investors. When the investors/VC were looking to invest in their company, they asked the founders to drop out of college to commit full time to the start-up. Tom Coburn, the co-founder of Jebbit (the company I worked at this summer!), also had to drop out of BC in his senior year to work on his start-up. It is definitely a hard decisions to make, but some entrepreneurs find it hard to leave the “traditional” route to success.


  3. The idea that you don’t need an abundance of creativity as a founder is really interesting! Having insight into what your users need is a rare skill and I agree one can succeed with just that. Another way to avoid needing that creative skill as a founder is being exceptional at choosing the people you work with. If you know your weaknesses you can find those who compliment you to make the perfect team.


  4. Really nice post. There was actually an article floating around the a few months back that noted most successful founders were actually in their 40s. I do think it’s possible to work for startups, bounce around to several to learn new skills, until you’re ready to do your own thing. There’s just so much to learn right out of college, why not spend time learning. It would stick to have a billion dollar idea just to get beaten out because you couldn’t execute on it well enough.


  5. This was such an interesting post! One of the things I am most excited about for this course is to meet the founders of such successful companies and see the similarities and differences in their personalities. It will be interesting to see the variations in age, experience and foundation at each respective company. It is so refreshing to hear someone in the field advise young people to take advantage of their 20s and explore their interests, especially when getting the perfect internship or perfect job out of college has become so competitive.


  6. This post is very refreshing in a tech world so focused on an early start to ideas and creating something as quickly as possible before competitors are able to act. I do believe it is important to dip your toes in the business / “real” world before you immediately start to build a business. Also, I enjoyed your comments on the similarities between the article/video and Horowitz’s book, which I also read. They both stand by the saying “hard work beats talent”, and I certainly agree in relation to building a business. Great post, Mary!


  7. Great post! I can definitely relate to that signature 20s temptation to try everything before deciding what I want todo. That being said, I think it’s important to note that being the successful founder for a given idea is not formulaic and cannot be universally applied. In my Portico group project, I tried to tackle the question of “What differentiates successful startups from failed ventures” and could only find vague adjectives to describe successful founders. Instead, I stumbled upon this article (definitely worth a read!) that further examined the factors behind a successful startup: https://doi.org/10.1016/0883-9026(87)90010-3


  8. Awesome post! As the founder of Y Combinator, I can’t imagine how many different entrepreneurs Graham has assisted in building their companies. I think he brings up a valid point about using your 20s to explore different areas instead of committing to one company. Additionally, I thought the point he made about approaching a startup with a “let’s see what happens mindset” is good advice. Sometimes I think entrepreneurs tend to fall in love with a specific vision that can blind them to potential issues and prevent them from making necessary pivots.


  9. Very interesting read. I agree that while young entrepreneurs often have the vitality, drive, and passion to try anything and everything, sometimes it can be a little less risky to invest in a more established serial entrepreneur. Something I learned this summer about investors is that they often would prefer not to invest in dating/married cofounders. When I first heard this, I thought that was extremely harsh and an unfair way to judge a business idea. However, when business communication can be hampered by emotion, I can see how this would be very detrimental to the company’s success. Overall, a very thought-provoking concept! Really highlights that so much more goes into an investment than you think, as it is an investment in the person and team they plan to build.


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