Are You a Resilient Founder?



Startups are never a smooth ride.

Things don’t go the way we want them to, and it can be really hard to create a business out of an initial idea.

Investors say NO to us way more often than they say yes. The same thing goes with customers—sales are hard.

Our favorite and seemingly most-loyal employees quit out of the blue. Oh, and co-founders quit too.

Our families complain that they never get to see us. Sometimes breakups happen. Our friends think we are living the dream when we are fighting for survival.

Bad things happen to us pretty much all the time.

All founders get knocked down. The most resilient of us choose to get up and keep fighting.

I’ve seen some founders give up. They just didn’t have any fight left in them. They were tired and exhausted. They wanted a steady paycheck. They needed a break.

What I also understand about the founders who ultimately gave up is that they didn’t want the idea to exist badly enough

The more I think about it, the more I realize that there are actually different kinds of resilience.

The first kind of resilience is just plain stubbornness.

Stubbornness is pretty great, actually. Kids from underprivileged families, people with chips on their shoulders, and first-generation immigrants like myself tend to be stubborn. Stubborn people have the ability to persevere and keep going like the Energizer Bunny.

The second type of resilience is different and probably even more powerful.

It is the resilience based on a belief or mission— an unshakable, not-for-profit conviction—that an idea, a startup, or business HAS TO exist.

In a way, this type of founder has a biblical, Steve Jobs-like epiphany. They usually experience a moment of clarity where they develop the strongest possible conviction about an opportunity. It is through this conviction that they are so resilient.

When life knocks them down, the conviction and resilience help them carry on. They know their mission and they will it to happen.

When you aren’t so mission-driven, stumble upon a business by accident, and truly don’t HAVE to have the business exist, you are less likely to fight through all the downs. This is why investors want to invest in mission-driven founders—they know that others won’t make it through the storms.

At Techstars, before we invest, we are looking to understand the resilience of a founder, almost like one would understand the physical property of an object.

Some of our founders didn’t even make it into Techstars the first time. However, they were resilient and persistent; they continued to apply and got in on the second or third try.

I have had the privilege and pleasure of witnessing the resilience of dozens of Techstars founders.

For example, the founders of Digital Ocean were told that cloud hosting is a terrible business idea, and got passed on by all VCs. Payal from ClassPass struggled to figure out the business model, along with Caren from Nestio. Bora from Jukely could not figure out her business or raise capital. The same thing happened with Nick from Homemade. Alban from Sketchfab was told NO by VCs who later gave him a check.

These businesspeople and many other Techstars founders were able to close a tough financing round, stretch their runway, and ultimately inspire, attract, and hire amazing talent. They were able to overcome obstacles and make magic happen.

Do you have this same magic inside? How resilient are you? Are you being stubborn or do you have strong conviction about what you are doing?

We would love for our readers to share stories about their resilience.

p.s. Kevin O’Brien, CEO of GreatHorn (Techstars ’15) has added a comment to this post on LinkedIn. It is so fantastic that I felt compelled to add it here as well. Here is what Kevin said:

In most martial arts, you need to have a few things: a good chin (the ability to take a hard hit), good fundamentals, stamina, and heart. You can generally assume that any solid competitor or practitioner will have the first three — those are table stakes, and you can develop them. Heart, however? That’s different.

In Japanese arts, we talk about kokoro (:こころ), often translated as “heart”. It points at something beyond being stubborn, encompassing both dedication and good intention; find someone who trains in a martial art for a few decades, and they’re likely doing for more than simply lessons in being good in a fight. (I’ve always thought that this idea of kokoro was related to the Chinese concept of chi ku (吃苦), roughly, “eating bitter”, or enduring difficulty to develop oneself.)

More philosophically, there is a difference between learning to fight (loosely, learning the “jitsu” arts; the word translates as “technique”) and studying the martial arts as a pathway to something more internal (the “do” arts, which translates as “the way”). They’re very closely related, and often look similar, but the underlying motivations for learning are often different.

Starting a company and enduring the absolutely inevitable frustrations, setbacks, hardships, and pain is not all that different from the martial arts, at least to me; there may be some confirmation bias in play given my background, but I think what you describe as “mission driven” is similar to the idea of studying a -do art. You need technique to make it meaningful—good financials, a strong team, a product people want to buy, etc.—but I think that, like any meaningful endeavor, there are other motivations that differentiate what you do from what you are.

The founders I admire embody the latter, and demonstrate the same characteristics as great artists: their resilience stems from understanding that adversity is a simple part of developing something that is transformative.


Reprinted by permission.

Image Credit: CC by Shumona Sharna

About the author: Alex Iskold

Alex Iskold is the Managing Director of Techstars in New York City.

Previously Alex was Founder/CEO of GetGlue (acquired by i.tv),  founder/CEO of Information Laboratory (acquired by IBM), and Chief Architect DataSynapse (acquired by TIBCO).

Alex routinely writes about entrepreneurship and startups at Alex Iskold.

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