Successful Founders Must Be Determined
Director of Venture Capital firm Y Combinator Denis Mars discusses what he looks for in founders.
Chris Duell When someone comes along with a great idea, but you can tell they themselves just aren’t ready, what would be the single skill you’d push them to nail before anything else?
Denis Mars The most fundamental skill every founder needs no matter what they’re doing is determination. You have to be determined to take an idea and turn it into something real, otherwise it will never happen. With determination anything is possible. But without it, you most certainly won’t succeed.
You can be smart and have great ideas, but if you’re not determined and willing to walk through fire to make it happen, then you’re better off doing something else, no matter how good the idea is.
Duncan Anderson What do you look for in YC applications? Are there different flavours / types of people that make things work?
Denis Mars Somewhere in the founder’s history, I want to see evidence that the person has taken a chance on themselves that didn’t include immediate or obvious returns. This tells me a lot about the true character of the founder. If you are not willing to take a chance on yourself to do things that don’t seem like they have obvious return, then you’re probably not the type of person that is willing to do unconventional things, think outside the box, solve the hard problems, motivate others and more, all of which is every founders day job.
It doesn’t take much character to trod on the beaten path, but it does take exceptional people with courage and conviction to defy conventional wisdom and go against the tide to do something truly amazing.
Right now, it’s cool to do startups — so I don’t look for past startups as evidence of taking a chance on yourself, I look for really unconventional things that are really subtle but says a lot about the courage and character of the founder. That’s why the question on the application that I think is the most important is: “Please tell us about the time you most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage.” Some of the answers to this question have totally blown me away.
Hari Jeevakumar Should a founder launch an MVP that works or an MVP that works + has great design?
Denis Mars A founder should launch the minimum thing that proves that people want the underlying value it is bringing them even if they’re willing to put up with shitty design. That’s the ultimate proof that the product or service is of sufficient value to the end user. Then once you prove that, you do want to make it seamless and easy to use so that you can add more delight to your end user. That’s the time to add great design and to really think through a great experience. When you have both a product/service that people want so bad that they’ll put up with shitty UI + you give them a great UI/UX = then you have something that will probably stand the test of time and grow into something big.
This is why at YC we always say launch early, launch early, launch early. Only then will you get to the truth sooner to know if people actually want what you’re giving them.
Duncan Anderson What compelled you to go and do another startup?
Denis Mars I really didn’t want to do another startup. I was quite happy to spend my time helping other founders build great companies and take a bit of a back seat, especially after my daughter was born.
Simon and I had this idea that just kept burning in our minds. We wondered what great experiences could be gained if we gave every person on the planet their own personal signal so that everything around them can detect it whenever they’re nearby and securely use it to serve them better. Everything would be just so much easier in life. Image paying for your bus fare by just jumping on, and off, and the fare happens automatically. Or walking up to any random TV screen on the wall and as soon as you touch it, it automatically has all your TV programs and Netflix account there for you to play your shows having never used any apps or set up any account. Or jumping on any treadmill and it already knows your workout settings without you touching any controls. The use cases are just endless. And it all stems from that same one signal (we call it your Proxy) that these things can use to detect your physical presence and to securely use it to serve you.
It was so clear to us that the world would be so much better if this had existed, yet nobody was working towards making it happen. Eventually, we just got tired of thinking about it and waiting around hoping someone else to do it, that we decided to just do it ourselves and not care whether it was a success or not, we just wanted it to exist. Even then we didn’t treat it a startup. It was a project to us, like a little experiment to see if we could make it work for ourselves. It was only when we met with the team at Blackbird.vc that we decided to pull the trigger and turned into a fully fledged startup to take it idea beyond an idea and experiment and turn it into a reality for all to one-day experience.