Mark Crowther talks about the qualities that make a great start-up—they’re more subtle than you might think.
Back from Boston. Always great to be back at HBS. Love the enthusiasm of the students, and meeting up with my mentor Mike Roberts.
So how was Super Saturday? A lot of consumer Internet ideas. A lot of very smart and talented student founders. As a judge at this event, I like assessing the personal qualities of the founder, as well as the company and market.
In the last 18 months I’ve consulted to a handful of start-ups, and the stars that you need to align are roughly speaking: market, product, team and funding. If any one of those elements is missing it can throw off the entire venture. I heard a lot of great ideas on Super Saturday. These are smart, well-trained business students. At the instinct level, their ideas were all good ones and their targeted markets relevant. But what made the difference to me was the founders – their experience and personal qualities. If I saw any area of concern in the pitch, whether it is product, team or market – I could almost trace it back to the entrepreneur – good and bad.
As an example, one pitch lacked any financial projections – the founders while brilliant had a top-down driven idea. These are talented soon to be HBS grads, so they have a right to be confident, but when that confidence comes at the expense of taking care of fundamentals, then it’s a concern. There’s no need to add risk to a business, when it can be managed.
As well as a great product and market opportunity, what I really like to see is a founder who has relevant experience and a network in the industry they are launching into. That network will become their support system, and for a network or industry to want to support you, the founder needs humility. As an entrepreneur, you are trying to influence more resources than you have control over – you can’t boss the system, you need to use a combination of charisma, conviction, perseverance, determination and humility to get resources aligned and working for you and supporting your success.
There can be no questioning that all the students at HBS who presented on Saturday are talented. Humility is a key quality in a founder. Sometimes the founder’s ego can get in the way of a great idea. Founders need to be humble. They need passion, conviction and confidence too, but not at the expense of humility. They need to know when and how to ask for help. They need to be confident and comfortable in self-analysis that they can identify their own weaknesses so they can assemble a team or partners that complement them.
Of the five new ventures presented, two founders stood out as having a combination of product, market and founder quality. A third had all the qualities I want to see in an entrepreneur, and while I didn’t quite see the potential of his idea, I am sure he will go on to do great things. He has that combination of humility, infectious enthusiasm, as well as idealism and naivety. Without that naiveté – and I mean that in the best way – many new ventures wouldn’t get started, mine included.
The two plans that I really liked – all have the potential to raise funding. The qualities of the founders will decide whether that’s the case or not. In addition to humility, determination and perseverance are qualities they’ll need to get to the funding table. It takes humility, determination and perseverance to take a “no” and still keep going.
What was also great to see at Super Saturday this weekend was how much engagement with the market and customers has taken place already – and how many of the plans already had beta products in the market (much of this the result of the popular Lean Start-up method). Talking to customers, engaging with vendors and partners, makes founders’ humble. Some will love their product, some will not. Some will want to support them, others will not. And the founders will start to appreciate the challenges needed to have a market adopt your product and have partners want to work with you. Again, as a founder it breeds humility to put your idea (product or service) into the marketplace.
The most compelling pitches were from those who had launched a beta and had some customer interactions, and were realistic (read humble) in what that beta meant: it was some signal of possible interest (not confirmed interest), it was a learning experience, it was a targeted launch in one niche or metro – and they now wanted to scale. All smart and humble approaches.
Product, market and founder are the three key elements to get to the funding table (I am putting aside “the deal” for now). The ecosystem is very supportive of new ventures now. It will be the founder’s qualities that will drive success.
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