Are you a resilient founder?

Startups are never a smooth ride.

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

Investors say NO to us way more 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, more often than not, think we are living the dream, while we are fighting for survival.

Bad stuff happens to us pretty much all the time.

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

I’ve seen some founders give up. They just didn’t want to, or could not, fight anymore. They were tired and exhausted. They wanted a steady paycheck. They needed a break.

What I also understood about the founders who ultimately gave up, is that they didn’t want the idea to exist as badly as other founders.

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

The first kind of resilience is just plain stubbornness.

It is pretty great actually. Kids from underprivileged families, people with a chip on their shoulder, and first generation immigrants, like myself, tend to have it. They have the ability to not back down, to keep going no matter what.

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

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

In a way, those founders have had a biblical, Steve Jobs-like epiphany. Through their experiences, one day, they had a moment of clarity. They’ve attained the strongest possible conviction about the need, and the opportunity. It is through this conviction that they are so resilient.

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

When you aren’t mission-driven, when you stumble upon a business by accident, when you 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 a physical property of an object.

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

I’ve 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, and so did Caren from Nestio. Bora from Jukely could not figure out the business or raise capital. The same thing with Nick from Homemade. Alban from Sketchfab was told NO by VCs who later gave him a check.

These and many other Techstars founders were able to close a tough financing round, they were able to stretch their runway, they were able to inspire, attract, and hire amazing talent—they were able to walk through walls and make the magic happen.

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

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 and awesome 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 (心: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 simple part of developing something that is transformative.

Startup Advice

6 Comments Leave a comment

  1. After two years of slow growth decided to go back to investment banking after my ex boss offered me a position. A year after that I’m taking part of my paycheck to redesign the product which is launching later this year. Still not giving up.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think Alissa and I have been proven to be resilient, as our company has been around over 15 years, and we have scaled quite a bit. In our case we changed the vision a fair amount based on experience and technology trajectory: another critical quality is being in tune with change and responsive to experience. You absolutely need to learn from your mistakes and identify opportunities based on feedback and observation. We didn’t exactly “pivot” as the two new things we got into were really in line with the core vision, but definitely the nuance of our products and direction are extremely well-connected with commercial/technical reality thanks to intense interaction with our partners and clients. Vision + Interaction with real world response to Vision = viable product/service.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great article Alex,
    My entrepreneurship journey started with my main founder’s idea and our belief that we could change an industry for the better, but our initial idea didn’t work and wasn’t a good product market fit. After we had spent countless hours on the MVP, we were forced to abandon it and I have to admit things were getting tougher as friends and family started to question us.

    Both me and my co-founder were a bit worried about how much success we could have but having each other’s support really helped us take our product to the next level and pivot faster than we had thought we could. Another thing that helped us was the fact that we realized how important it is to understand the customer’s perspective first and base the product around that. We couldn’t have done that without fantastic mentorship from some of our current advisors.

    I think the two forms of resilience you mentioned above are spot-on. What I would like to add to these is that you also have to be flexible and open to transforming your product per the market needs.

    Thanks again for the great article as it truly gives us early stage start-up entrepreneurs a lot of hope and courage to keep pursuing our dreams.