Myths about successful founders are more prevalent than mosquitos in Minnesota. That’s why I asked Ali Tamaseb, the author of Super Founders and parter at DCVC, to explain the data. He went through 30,000 data points on all the unicorn companies founded in the last 15 years and all the non-unicorns who raised funding. He then compared and contrasted them.
The data is insightful not just for major startups but for all founders at any stage. How much does age, education, number of co-founders, domain expertise, competition, and passion for a problem matter? Perhaps not as much as you think.
Interview summary with Ali Tamaseb
The reason popular startup stories we know and love are elevated to such a degree is because they make great stories for magazines and media. But many of these iconic founder stories aren’t the rule—they’re the exception. In this 30 minute interview, Ali Tamaseb brings truth sucker-punches one after the other.
Did you know only 30% of consumer tech founders and 40% of SaaS came from the same domain? The actual successful founders came from outside their disciplines. They did more research and learned more than domain experts. They “out-experted” the experts.
Education level, age, and technical expertise also didn’t correlate with founder success. While the top 10 schools did create 36% of unicorns, more unicorn founders went to schools not in the top 100, compared to those who went to schools in the top 10.
University location had an impact on successful startups for obvious reasons—proximity. If you go to MIT in Boston for example, you’re more likely to succeed in MedTech.
It’s also false that the number of co-founders a company has makes it more or less successful. No matter how many founders you have, it’s all the same percentage of success rate. It’s also not true you have to be first to market. Only 30% of successful founders had zero competition.
What do successful founders have in common?
So what did founders have in common? Ali Tamaseb explains they had a concept bizarrely different that focused on time/money saving, and had a history of building or selling something. They may not even have been successful before; they just tried a lot.
The majority of successful founders in the past weren’t driven by a major mission or sought to correct some epic wrong. Those stories make great TV or clickable articles, but they’re not common. The founders of Door Dash, for example, had no idea what to do. They just wanted to start a company and did some research to fill a need. Eight months before Clubhouse was created, the founder was working on a crypto idea.
The most common pain point was “saving time” and “saving money,” and successful models usually had something bizarrely different. Airbnb, for example, is built around the idea of sleeping in a stranger’s bedroom. People thought that was bizarre, but even Joe Keohane’s research shows that stranger danger isn’t really a concern. Successful startups have to be radically different to make it.
More Background on Ali Tamaseb
To learn more about Ali Tamaseb, here are a few helpful links.
- Learn more about the book here.
- Learn more about Ali Tamaseb here.
- Follow Ali Tamaseb on Twitter here.
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