In my role at Accel, I meet a lot of founders.
If I include my earlier stints at NASSCOM and iSPIRT, I’ve probably met over nine thousand founders in my career. Amongst them, I enjoy a rewarding acquaintanceship with around five hundred entrepreneurs and even closer relationships with a smaller group of a hundred or so of them.
I always try to build meaningful relationships with founders and usually prefer meeting them one-on-one which allows me to have deeper conversations. This is exciting for me, and this means that I’ve had an opportunity to see entrepreneurial strengths and weaknesses both up close and from a distance.
Over the past decade, I’ve observed patterns in individuals who want to be entrepreneurs and learnt to spot the kind of co-founders who would fit each of them best. Many founders are strong in product/tech, but very few have a sales DNA or a customer-centric skill set. Many have the strong urge to start a business, but few have any idea about the market or how to tell a story or even who they’re solving a problem for.
For context about why I’m writing this post, I’d recently attended a session by my colleague Shekhar Kirani on Starting a Startup.
Some of the things he talked about reminded me of founders who were brilliant in some particular aspect of the entrepreneurial journey.
I started thinking about this and decided there may be some value in attempting to highlight some of the essential skills an entrepreneur needs to succeed. Of course, these are by no means must-haves, but they definitely help build better businesses and scale faster.
If you are starting up or thinking about doing so, you might want to reflect on some of these skills. All of them are useful in any arena in life, but you will need to either possess or build some of them to be a successful entrepreneur. If you know you don’t possess these skills, the best way to fill those gaps is by finding a co-founder who does.
To illustrate this better, I’m taking as examples some founders I have observed and worked within the last couple of years.
This is a very unique skill, and arguably the most important. As a founder, you will have to articulate why you are doing many times when you are starting up. And each time you do it is as important as the first time
Our brain, in general, is ingrained to listening to stories — people want to listen to how you started, why you started, your story of getting the first customer, your first employee and so on. Your ability to weave stories around every episode is important. I remember great pitches till today, the boring ones I have forgotten long ago.
For Abhiraj of UrbanClap, this comes naturally. I attended one of his sessions at Accel, and was blown away with his storytelling, articulation, and the way he used the stories to construct a narrative for his audience. He had some amazing stories on fundraising, and that explained his success to me almost immediately.
The Indian middle-class is used to having most of its decisions made for it. This gives us a cushion that renders us a bit clueless in the workplace at times. And in today’s high-intensity workplace, we have to make our calls and own them.
Decision making is stressful, and because we haven’t been trained to make decisions based on data, we go with our gut. That doesn’t work all the time. The art and science of decision making are very important. You can always ask for advice, but a founder should be able to make good decisions based on data.
And most importantly, you must take decisions fast. In startup environments, dithering is almost always equivalent to not making a decision.
Last year, Zenoti’s business In India and Southeast Asia was growing and they were doing reasonably well. However, Sudheer Koneru, the CEO, knew and understood that this market was not big enough. The moment he had a strategy ready for the market opportunity in the US, he got his colleague Dheeraj to relocate, and Zenoti was up and running in less than 30 days in the US market. Such fast-paced decision making is critical. Otherwise, you may let an advantage go. Sudheer is brilliant in not letting them go, something to learn from.
Be prepared to get rejected in your startup journey. By customers, investors, potential employees, even family. And this will happen again and again. Your inner conviction that this is a good market, that you have good unit economics, that this is really a great idea and worth solving — all this is important. You should remain focussed, you should be able to argue with data, and should be able to persist. If you look at some of the successful founders today, they all got rejected in the early days of their startups. Starting up is hard; you have to rewire your brain, but the sooner you do it, the sooner you will shake rejections off and move on. And persevere.
Someone who understands this is Anand of Clevertap.
At a conference, Anand met another successful entrepreneur, someone he admired. He had been wanting to show this person his product and had even written to him a couple of times. But obviously, he had been busy and hadn’t replied back. Now, as they got talking, Anand asked if he could demo the product. Though the entrepreneur was reluctant at first, Anand was persistent, and he agreed. The only problem was that he had left his laptop back in his room. Luckily, he had met a fellow entrepreneur a little earlier who he befriended just a while back. He located him in the busy conference, borrowed his laptop, and gave the demo. The entrepreneur loved the product, complimented Anand, and gave him some actionable feedback.
Anand had persisted to get what he wanted, and it shows in where he is today.
One of the big challenges that a founder will face in the early stage is hiring. You will certainly meet lots of potential employees, but your ability to spot raw talent — where even the said individual doesn’t know their potential — is invaluable. You can also get that talent at a very inexpensive price, and that individual can scale with the company.
This was what Swiggy did, and Sriharsha Majety explains how in this podcast in which my colleague Anand Daniel talks to him about his journey. Harsha talks about how he went about finding talent for Swiggy. You’ll understand that just spotting talent isn’t enough, you need the ability to influence people and sell dreams.
This is truly unique, and an ability worth having. I have seen folks at Swiggy do things they have never done before, and excel at them. Swiggy has built an amazing culture and a strong employer brand. Their brilliant marketing campaigns are conceptualised in-house, a rarity in our domain.
The ability to learn continually is hugely important. The learnability index for entrepreneurs should be so high that they should be able to learn new things even as they unlearn things they already know. This is something I know Shekhar looks for in the founders he invests in.
This is a great marker of future success.
Girish Mathrubootham of Freshworks is an inspiration to any entrepreneur in this regard. The way he keeps learning and reinventing himself and his company at every stage of their journey is key to the success they are racking up. He has been able to build an amazing leadership team, and I can see how each of them is inspired by Girish. My colleague Shekhar says that Girish never needs any help; he is always prepared, well read, and ready to take action.
In fact, Girish is planning to relocate to the US even as you read this. He wants to learn more and feels that he will be able to learn a lot more from the community in the Valley. Knowing how much he loves Chennai, this must not have been an easy decision, and that makes it all the more admirable.
Startup journeys are tough by their very nature. Sometimes, you may need to develop certain skills before you are ready to take the plunge. Do consider working at a startup first before starting up on your own.
However, if you believe you are ready, look for co-founders with complementary skill sets. Never try to partner with co-founders with the same skill sets you have. Ultimately, you will need new and varied skills to scale a company.
The list above comes from what I know, and what I’m sharing here comes from the founders I understand. I’m sure there are many more who are really good at what they do and possess other skill sets I haven’t mentioned here.
I would love to hear more stories about such skills and the founders who wield them effectively to produce results.