Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

What makes a successful startup founder?

Brilliant idea? Tech genius? Financial wizard?

I’m a small-time serial entrepreneur — I have founded and run four Silicon Valley software companies. I’ve also had front-row seat to watching hundreds of other startups in my career, including through my work teaching entrepreneurs at Stanford University and coaching them at Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship.

Running companies is hard, and I certainly have plenty of difficult moments to look back on in my life as an entrepreneur and a CEO. But my favorite moments have always been about teams. It’s all about teams, really. Success in business really just distills down to building great teams and encouraging them achieve. That’s it. That’s all that matters.

Some people think the secret to entrepreneurial success is about having a brilliant idea. A giant, disruptive idea. And yet if you look at startup history, there are actually very few examples of “the idea” being the thing that made them succeed. The Twitter team’s original idea was a podcasting app called Odeo. Instagram’s original idea was a mobile checkin app called Burbn. YouTube’s original idea was video dating. Uber’s idea was a fleet of company-owned cars called UberCab. Slack’s idea was a video game studio.

In each of these cases the founders’ original idea failed miserably, but the CEO still led the team to billion dollar success. Because the right team wins. The ability to recruit and lead teams is, I think, the essential quality for an entrepreneur.

Leadership is not about being the best. Leadership is about making everyone else better.

But what about being technology genius? Aren’t many startup founders tech savants? Well, even in the tech world, there are surprisingly few examples of technology genius being the defining characteristic of a startup CEO. Steve Jobs didn’t have a college degree, let alone any engineering experience. Peter Thiel was a philosophy major. Ben Silbermann of Pinterest was a political science major. Stewart Butterfield of Slack was a philosophy major. Marc Benioff of Salesforce has no engineering degree and began his career as a lowly customer service rep at Oracle. So much for that.

You see, Steve Jobs didn’t need to be an engineer because he had an innate ability to recruit and manage world-class engineers. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t have to know how to build the world’s most complex cloud application because he knew he could hire those guys. Elon Musk doesn’t need to know how to fly a rocket or build a solar panel because he’s great at recruiting brilliant engineers who can do those things.

Don’t get me wrong — of course it’s nice to have great ideas, it’s good to know how to build them, it’s good to be able to crunch spreadsheets.

But being good at building teams and getting them to achieve beyond their own expectations? That’s golden.




Silicon Valley guy. I teach entrepreneurship at Stanford, run the 4thly Startup Accelerator, and coach startup CEO’s at Miller Center. Also, I love fish tacos.

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Bret Waters

Bret Waters

Silicon Valley guy. I teach entrepreneurship at Stanford, run the 4thly Startup Accelerator, and coach startup CEO’s at Miller Center. Also, I love fish tacos.

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