People often ask me, “what makes some founders exceptional?” And I feel there’s no straightforward answer to that.
There’s no single notion that makes some founders turn their idea into a unicorn.
You will notice that it’s always a few elements mixed together to get the right recipe. These elements can be: being exceptionally good at a useful skill, having the courage to take the right risks, coming up with an idea at the right time, or being smart but very hardworking.
Now, when you spend more than 25 years, helping startups grow, building exceptional teams, working with some of the biggest tech companies, running accelerator programs, hosting a top-rated podcast, and so on. You meet all kinds of founders.
These founders have built unicorns, introduced fresh products, run thriving businesses, and everything in between.
As a result, I noticed a few characteristics that were shared by this small percentage of founders.
With that, here are the 11 characteristics that distinguish the top 10% of founders.
1. They are Quick Learners
If you’re not a quick learner, then you simply won’t be able to keep up in the fast-paced world of tech.
If you don’t pick up new skills quickly, then your competition will pass you by. You need to be able to learn quickly, and that includes both hard skills (technology) and soft skills (people).
And it might sound obvious, but I think that makes it essential as well.
2. Having Product Sense
Product sense is one of the most important traits of successful founders. It’s vital that you have an understanding of what makes great products work.
You need to have a strong grasp on how to create something that people genuinely want, and something that is truly innovative.
The good news is, just like any other skill, it doesn’t have to come from mystic sources, but you can practice and develop it.
3. Technical Ability
“Top ten percent” founders are those who have the technical skill to build the product, but also understand what it’s like to be an entrepreneur and work with others.
They’re not afraid of getting their hands dirty and they’re willing to collaborate with other people on a new product or idea.
In fact, they’re often the ones building it in the first place.
Someone who can take their ideas from concept to execution seems like an obvious choice for a “top ten percent” founder.
But it’s something that many entrepreneurs either don’t understand or don’t see in themselves. It takes a special kind of person who can manage multiple projects at once.
These people have the ability to keep moving forward even when there are bumps in the road, getting things done and making progress towards their goals.
5. High Standards
The best founders have high standards for themselves and for their team members.
They’re perfectionists who never take shortcuts in order to get things done quickly or easily. Instead, they focus on doing things right instead of doing them quickly or cheaply.
The top 10% of founders understand that there’s more value in taking your time to do something right than rushing through without thinking about what you’re doing at all costs.
Having good communication skills means you can not only influence the best people to work with you. But you can gracefully share your ideas with — product managers, writers, board members, engineers, and so on.
In essence, top-tier founders are able to clearly communicate their vision and product, which is essential when trying to raise money or sell customers on your idea.
If you’re talking about your business with someone and they don’t understand the core concept, it could be a sign that you’re not explaining things well enough or that the idea isn’t clear enough itself, both of which could lead to problems down the road.
The ability to understand your own emotions and manage them effectively is key for any leader.
It’s what allows you to take criticism constructively and use feedback from others to help you grow as a person and an executive.
A high degree of self-awareness will make you more comfortable with yourself and your decisions, which will also make you more confident in front of others.
That confidence will be crucial in times like when you’re trying to recruit an A-player or closing an investor who’s considering several other opportunities.
9. Leadership & Management Skills
This is probably one of the most important skills a founder needs to have.
There are many ways to define leadership and management. I am talking about these skills in the context of having a vision, setting goals and KPIs, breaking down goals into milestones, setting expectations with employees (both co-founders and other employees), setting benchmarks for when to re-evaluate milestones, and making decisions as an organization.
Many early-stage startups suffer from a lack of direction because they don’t have strong leaders or managers at the helm.
10. Hustle Nature
“Without hustle, your talent will only get you so far.”
A founder is someone who wants to start a company or build something big, and they’re prepared to put in the hard work it takes to see it through.
A lot of people talk about starting companies as if it’s some sort of glamorous endeavor with no hard work involved.
I’m not one of those people, because I’ve seen the damage that can be done when you’re not doing your due diligence, whether it’s from lack of focus or simply being too lax with your time.
Once you’ve started a project, hustling is one of the most important traits of a successful founder.
11. Writing Skills
Although writing skills are not the most important asset for a tech founder, they are certainly necessary. Founders need to communicate their vision and plans with other team members, investors, customers, partners, and even the media.
If you can’t write a clear email or Tweet, how can you expect to get other people on your side?
The top 10% of founders are able to express themselves clearly in writing and avoid the common grammar mistakes that result from using text messages.
If English is not your primary language, that’s fine — but you need to work extra hard at perfecting your written communication skills if you want to be successful.