A Q+A from TechStars’ Nicole Glaros and David Slayden, TechStars
Nicole is Partner and Chief Product Officer at TechStars and David Slayden is associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s College of Media, Communication and Information & executive director of IXDMA, a graduate degree program
When I am asked what qualities make for an amazing entrepreneur, a lot comes to mind. First I think about graduates of BDW who have started their own companies; and I also think about the students who have participated in the New Venture Challenge out of the Law School at CU. But I can’t think of anyone who is better suited to answer the qualities question than Nicole Glaros who through TechStars has made it her business to mentor and fund early-stage companies. The formula can be tricky to pin down but here’s where we landed.
David Slayden: What qualities make an amazing entrepreneur?
Nicole Glaros: Amazing is a tough adjective to own because it carries with it the qualification of having the ability to cause great surprise and to be astonishing.
However, I have been astonished many times by young entrepreneurs. Such as when they have the courage to make a decision that goes against everything their advisors tell them because they’re doing what feels right. I’m also astonished when an entrepreneur makes a decision that turns out to be wrong and gracefully owns up to it. I admire entrepreneurs who fail and get right back up to start their next company. In addition, entrepreneurs who can make decisions quickly without much information, who can execute quickly, who hire people better than themselves. The trick to being an amazing entrepreneur is having the instincts to know when to be vulnerable and when to be strong.
David: How do you identify who’s got what it takes?
Nicole: Knowing when someone, “has what it takes” is an art, not a science. I get it wrong often and I need to be okay with that. But I do look for a few key traits like: Were the founders put on the planet to build this? If this business is their destiny, chances are they’re going to be successful. I’m reminded of the founder of WeVorce, an online platform to help parents get a divorce with as little drama as possible. The founder tells a heart-wrenching story of being a little girl, sitting on the stand in the courtroom, while the judge asked her which parent she wanted to live with. She went to law school over that experience and has dedicated her life to helping kids and families avoid that kind of tragedy. Her entire life has led her to be the founder of WeVorce and that’s what makes her a successful entrepreneur.
Another element that many entrepreneurs don’t take into account is the trust between themselves and their other founders. Harvard professor Noam Wasserman, author of the book, The Founder’s Dilemmas, wrote that 65% of startups fail because of team issues and I’ve seen this time and time again. The average startup’s life span is somewhere between 7–10 years so the founders must be able to trust each other completely, support each other when wrong and have difficult conversations early and often in non-confrontational ways.
Founders must be able to trust each other completely, support each other when wrong and have difficult conversations early and often in non-confrontational ways.
These traits will trickle down through the entire organization as it grows and scales. If there is distrust, the company turns into a game of politics, which wastes energy that would otherwise go towards building a great organization.
David Slayden: How quickly should entrepreneurs decide, learn, and adapt?
Nicole Glaros: Founding teams often must make high-stake decisions with not enough information. I find that founders who make thoughtful but rapid decisions and execute on those decisions quickly have an edge.
Founders who make thoughtful but rapid decisions and execute on those decisions quickly have an edge.
The ones who learn from those decisions and adapt their strategies based on what they learned always impress me. For instance, I’m working closely with a company who was committed in the early days to launching a consumer service. Advisors close to the company knew early on that enterprise was a great path for the company, but the founders were very committed to the consumer market. They had their product in the market for about 6 months and have learned that it’s incredibly expensive to acquire consumers relative to the lifetime value of the customer. They’re currently exploring the enterprise route — which was a difficult decision because it included admitting to themselves and advisors that their initial gut on the market might have been wrong.
David: How do you recognize entrepreneurs that will execute with speed?
Nicole: This is a talent that’s actually easy to spot. By looking at the founding team over a short period of time and assessing what have they accomplished, what problems they have solved, what features they released and what contracts have they closed will give me a pretty good idea of how efficient they are.
David: Can you learn anything from who the founding team is employing?
Nicole: Looking at the talent of the non-founding team is a great clue into knowing whether they can both recruit and utilize high-caliber talent. You can’t build a great company without being able to recruit a great team.
You can’t build a great company without being able to recruit a great team.
David: How important is having the right idea?
Nicole: I actually don’t spend a lot of time evaluating the merit of a potential idea. A great idea is just that, only an idea. Instead, it’s important to focus more on the market and the qualities of the founding team. If you have a great team, the idea can and will evolve over time. It’s the execution of the idea that’s important, not the idea itself.
A great idea is just that, only an idea. Instead, it’s important to focus more on the market and the qualities of the founding team.
David: What’s most exciting about the entrepreneurs you work with every day?
Nicole: Entrepreneurs are my favorite breed of people on the planet. They can come in all shapes, sizes, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. They are undeniably human because they are a constant exercise in opposites — extreme confidence mixed with extreme self-doubt; joy and depression, usually in the same day. They put everything on the line, they risk it all, with no playbook, usually no support, and a high likelihood of failure. They give the rest of us jobs and inspiration and are the very foundation of our way of living. Entrepreneurs, I salute you.