Off Brand

How to Become a Successful Founder in 2020

A new study by investors debunks conventional wisdom when it comes to the most critical traits required of entrepreneurs

Rob Walker
Published in
4 min readJan 1, 2020
Photo: d3sign/Getty Images

WWhat traits do you need to succeed as a founder? Usually, we think about the answer as if successful entrepreneurs were quasi-magical beings with skills so extreme and unusual we insist on calling them “superpowers.”

But Basis Set Ventures, a San Francisco-based fund focused on early-stage investments, has spent a year researching this question, and a useful theme emerges from its findings so far: Often, founders succeed not because of a single extreme trait, but rather by achieving a kind of balance. They use the term “nuanced superpowers.”

Okay, that’s a bit of an eye-roller, but the underlying notion is a great one to pursue in 2020: Stop obsessing about the extremes; focus on balance.

The research

Basis Set asked early-stage investors at funds with a cumulative $40 billion in assets under management to “rate 60+ founders on a number of dimensions including demographics, behavioral, and psychological traits, in an effort to understand what makes a successful (that is, IPO, raised substantial capital, large exit) or struggling (that is, shut down, stagnant, small exit) founder.”

This project produced a range of conclusions and assertions — see Basis Set’s fuller breakdown and slide deck here — but the most interesting piece involved an assessment of critical traits in founders. These include confidence, humility, storytelling ability, agile thinking, day-to-day effectiveness, and the like. The surveyed investors were asked to rate founders on each, and the results were used to create six founder “archetypes.”

Some of those archetypes — like the “Humble Operator” — correlate with success. Others, like the “Passionate Outsider,” didn’t. And the fascinating part is that what can separate the successful archetype from the also-ran isn’t the absence of a key trait — but an excess of that trait. Here are three examples of what that looks like.

Storytellers rule — but be careful