At Startups.co, we’ve made it a habit to study the trajectory of entrepreneurs on their paths to success, and from our qualitative observations, we’ve noticed that there are definitely some common habits that have helped them succeed along the way. From ice cream powerhouses to e-commerce pros, here are some traits from great founders that I’ve observed and tried to emulate throughout my 20-year career as an entrepreneur.
1. Treat Customer Opinion Like Currency
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of the eponymous Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, consider their customers to be a huge driver in their creative process and the success of their company. From the moment they opened their original location—a rundown garage in Vermont—they constantly polled customers on their opinion on new flavors. When Ben & Jerry’s was big enough to start selling stock, they held statewide community meetings. Never forgetting their original customer base, any resident of Vermont who wanted to buy part of Ben & Jerry’s was given the opportunity. The company continues to give back on a global level, and the founders continue to be directly involved with customer suggestions, frequently sorting through customers’ emails and letters themselves.
2. Be Confident in Your Expertise
As the co-founder of HTC, Cher Wang is one of the most wealthy and powerful entrepreneurs. She’s also one of the least well known, which she admits is a conscious decision that allows her to focus on the most important aspect of her business – creating quietly brilliant mobile devices.
In the beginning of her career, Cher worked for a computer company that required her to transport unwieldy computer boxes while navigating train stations in Europe, where she was selling motherboards. She began to dream of the convenience and portability of a mobile computing solution. Years later, when Cher and her executive team were forced to make a choice on the direction of their company, and choose between hand-held devices or notebooks, Cher confidently urged that they make cell phones a top priority.
Her confidence and expertise in her field led to an extremely profitable move for HTC. Within a few years, 1 in 6 cell phones purchased in the United States was an HTC model.
3. Become a Great Spokesperson
Steve Jobs remains a constant inspiration and study for entrepreneurs looking to improve their presentation skills. In a world of wordy PowerPoint presentations, Steve Jobs was a maverick spokesperson. Steve valued visuals over verbal, and put on a show for each new product he was unveiling.
His presentations looked so effortless that few would guess they were the result of countless hours of preparation and an entire team dedicated to making each inflection and movement perfect. Jobs was meticulous in his preparation and rehearsal and considered it to be a large part of his job. Jobs is a great reminder that no one is born a great spokesperson – it’s a skill that must be cultivated, practiced, and rehearsed.
4. Remain Humble
Tony Hseih, the founder of Zappos, is notorious for his humility and approachability – so much so that he included “Be Humble” as one of the core values of his company.
After founding a successful technology company, Tony was certain that the health of his company and culture was dependent on the rapport built by an equal playing field. No matter the level of talent, if a job candidate shows any egotistical tendencies, Zappos will look for a candidate with a better attitude. Tony himself strives to be a model of this core value, forgoing an executive office for a desk in the middle of a sea of cubicles, and maintaining personal relationships with employees despite Zappos’ enormous success.
5. Let Passion Drive Your Business
John Mackey did not come up with the idea for Whole Foods overnight. He spent years working and living in urban food communes and was a member of three separate food co-ops. He learned some important lessons from his time there, and it sparked a fire to improve the quality of food and products for customers on a larger scale.
According to Mackey, his desire to create a better food supplier is what led him to become an entrepreneur, turning his passion into a household name. Mackey is a huge proponent of work bringing satisfaction beyond a paycheck, and has used this philosophy in his hiring practices. In his (semi-autobiographical) book, he says that his goal is to create an environment where everyone is “so engaged in work that it feels like a calling.”
6. Embrace Obstacles
Elon Musk is an entrepreneur who knows very well the risk of starting a new endeavor. After a successful exit from Paypal, Musk netted an estimated $165 million, and could have retired for life.
An entrepreneur at heart, Musk was not content to give up his passion for starting companies, and chose his next two ventures because of the challenges they presented: SpaceX, a rocket-building and space transporting company, and Tesla Motors, a high-performance electric sports car manufacturer. Creating radical technology for the automotive and aerospace industries at the same time almost sent a well-capitalized Musk into bankruptcy. After several failed rocket launches and a rapidly depleting tranche of capital behind Tesla Motors, many doubted that Musk could carry on.
Many would have cut their losses and moved on to a new industry, but Musk embraced the challenge, and found success as a result. After successfully launching a spacecraft into orbit, SpaceX signed a $1.6 billion contract with NASA. Tesla Motors launched its initial public offering in June 2010, raising $226 million and has sold over 7,000 Tesla vehicles.
7. Value and Reward Great Employees
Few CEOs are as revered by their employees as Herb Kelleher, the founder of Southwest Airlines – and for good reason. This month, Southwest Airlines announced that all workers will share in a record $228 million profit-sharing payout this year. Southwest has a long history of profit-sharing and employee stock offering, as well as unparalleled employee benefits.
Herb has made employee satisfaction the top priority of his business since its founding. According to Herb, “Employees come first. And if you treat your employees right, guess what? Your customers come back, and that makes your shareholders happy. Start with employees and the rest follows from that.” Herb credits the success of Southwest to his productive and motivated staff, even going so far as planning an entire advertising campaign extolling his employees’ customer service as Southwest Airlines’ strongest advantage over the competition.
Whether you’re a veteran entrepreneur or aspiring startup founder, it’s incredibly valuable to study and learn from those that have come—and succeeded—before you. It has been a critical part of my growth as an entrepreneur and I couldn’t have founded or successfully exited from past companies without great advice from passionate mentors. If you’re interested in picking my brain or hearing more entrepreneurial tips, follow or message me @wilschroter and I’d be happy to continue the conversation.
Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes Bizplan, Clarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.