The idea that successful people are similar in some fundamental ways is enticing — once there’s a map, we can follow it — but when it comes to founders of so-called “disruptive” businesses, parsing out what’s behind their success outside of a good idea and some luck is difficult.
The lore that develops around these companies often does have similar beats: there’s a problem, an idea, then raising investment, fans, more fans, mainstream success. But when it comes to the people who had the initial idea, and what drove and allowed them to build it out into something that in some cases altered the landscape of an industry, similarities are few.
Let’s compare Natalie Massenet, whose brainchild Net-a-porter arguably blazed the trail for designer fashion to go online, and Michael Preysman, founder and chief executive officer of Millennials’ favorite online brand Everlane.
The daughter of an American newsman turned movie publicist and a French model, Massenet had been working in and around fashion for years with stints writing for WWD, W and Tatler under the late Isabella Blow before she found herself in 2000 wishing designer goods were available to at least peruse online. It would make pulling for photo shoots easier and faster. Massanet was married at the time to a French investment banker and was able to gather some initial backing from friends like Anya Hindmarch and Tamara Mellon and, despite the bursting of yet another tech bubble, Net-a-porter was making thousands of daily deliveries to well-heeled ladies and turning a profit by 2004. Richemont, which in 2002 first invested in Net-a-porter, is now making a roughly $3.3 billion bid to take control of the remaining 50 percent stake in the company.
Massenet seems to have not set out to “disrupt” the fashion industry, but simply acted on her realization of what she told WWD in 2013 was “an amazing disconnect between media and retailers” by making a shopping site that wanted to be “as exciting as a page in a magazine” and fully shoppable.
Preysman came at the industry from a different angle. He comes off as a classic tech guy who double majored in computer engineering and economics and his interest in branding and retail seems to have begun and ended with the notion that the industry was ripe for a fix. Everlane is based in part on what is termed “radical transparency.” The company takes pains to explain why a cotton T-shirt — Everlane’s first product in 2010 — or a pair of jeans — added last year — cost what they do based on where, how and by whom they were made.
“The easiest change agent is business and so we do [what we do] as a way to educate customers and as a way to change and do things better,” Preysman told WWD in October.
Beyond having what turned out to be a good and relatively meaningful idea in their respective fields of retail and brand operations, Massenet and Preysman also share that neither took a traditional route to business. No business school, no years of toiling, no early stops and starts. Both had an idea at a time when consumer culture was ready for it, launched and grew.
But this isn’t necessarily the case for all founders — far from it. Katrina Lake started Stitch Fix after Harvard Business School and worked in marketing and business consultancy; Julie Wainwright was an experienced and successful ceo before starting up The Real Real; Neil Blumenthal went to The Wharton School, where he met Dave Gilboa and founded Warby Parker, along with Andy Hunt and Jeff Raider.
Then there’s Emily Weiss, who had a run-in with reality TV as a Teen Vogue intern before moving on to the mother publication and starting a beauty blog that birthed the growing and budget-friendly beauty brand Glossier; Bayard Winthrop worked in finance in the Nineties before getting into retail and eventually starting American Giant; Gwyneth Paltrow was Gwyneth Paltrow before she decided to make her moneyed favorites list a wellness lifestyle-for-purchase in Goop; Jeff Bezos also worked in finance for years and launched Amazon as a bookseller after reading a report that web-based commerce was set to explode.
These founders all had very divergent professional paths on the way to starting and succeeding with their business ideas, and many have mentioned how difficult it was for them to secure financial backing in the early stages, but they all managed to pull it off while so many others did not. Why is that?
Common characteristics, some expected and pleasant and some not, may go some way to explaining it. According to Leslie Berlin, a project historian for the Silicon Valley Archives and the author of “Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age,” to keep pushing forward with an idea, especially in the face of inevitable naysayers and outright rejection, usually means one has some combination of audacity and persistence. (Bezos initially wanted to name his company Relentless.com and still owns the domain.) And she said these two traits are less common than they may seem.
“For some people it’s easy to have the big idea, but they can’t follow through, and then there are people who are great with the detail work and getting that stuff done, but they need someone else to tell them what idea to put in place,” Berlin said. “With successful entrepreneurs, a lot of the time they embody both of these things.”
But both audacity and persistence can take on a less palatable form, depending on the person.
“Audacity can easily verge into arrogance — actually, it’s so common around [Silicon Valley] that they have a name: Brilliant Jerks — and sometimes entrepreneurial people think audacity means disruption for disruption’s sake, and that’s not quite it. People who are really good at this stuff, they know it’s really a team effort and that tempers all of it,” she said.
This means humility is another personality trait, and one that can be cultivated through experience, failure chief among them, that tends to be vital to the success of a company, especially one driven by ideas about how to do things differently. While some founders recognize that they’re only as good as the team they bring on, others may hold on to a more siloed position at the top, while looking to connect to people outside of the company they’ve built.
“Some of the greatest of the great [tech founders] actively sought mentors from the generation before theirs and that’s interesting, because we have this notion that entrepreneurs go it alone,” Berlin said. “The really good ones say, ‘Why should I reinvent the wheel when someone’s already done so much?’ When I talked to Steve Jobs years ago, he said talking to older entrepreneurs was like watching a magic act more than once and learning the trick.”
Jobs’ mentor was Robert Noyce, an electrical engineer and cofounder of Intel Corp. who’s credited, along with another engineer, with the first iteration of the microchip that led to the advent of personal computers, and played a large role in some subsequent advancements. While Jobs is indeed known as the founder of Apple — along with Steve Wozniak, who alone in 1976 built the first Apple computer but left the company in 1985 amid disagreements over its direction — and a longtime leader who wanted the best possible team and inspired loyalty, he was not without flaws.
A veritable cottage industry exists around Jobs and the depiction of his personality, which generally ranges from intensely exacting and micromanaging to magnanimous and visionary. But having a vision, and sticking to it almost no matter the cost, seems to be another key to success.
“It all always gets back to the founder and their vision.…They have a deeply centered belief that what they’re creating has a real place in the world,” said Tony Florence, a partner with venture capital firm New Enterprise Associates. “They don’t know if it’s going to be a multibillion dollar company, but they have a vision.”
Florence heads NEA’s technology investing practice, which includes consumer focused ventures like Goop, Moda Operandi and, previously, Jet.com, before it was acquired by Walmart. He makes it a point to get to know founders and the drive that’s behind the companies he’s interested in taking a stake in. He pointed to Paltrow and Moda cofounder Lauren Santo Domingo as two founders who started with and have maintained “a strong point of view on the company and what it should be doing.”
Such vision generally takes root early, too, when founders start to crystallize what they have to offer, which tends to go hand in hand with another common trait among successful founders: the ability to recognize opportunity.
“Usually there’s a problem [they come across] and they see a very clear opportunity to fill what consumers are missing,” Florence said. “There’s a savviness, especially among the successful ones, that’s beyond just smarts. They kind of instinctively know things even before the data supports it and that’s pretty evident — you see it when you meet these people that they have a good sense of what’s coming.”
Paltrow, according to Florence, saw the wellness trend that is now a large part of Goop’s output and focus “well before everyone else did”; Santo Domingo, who worked in fashion and at Vogue, looked around and saw the runway as a staunchly analogue experience when fashion was starting to shift toward digital, and Marc Lore saw buyers of mass market goods, starting with mothers of young children, as underserved online and on price.
But vision amounts to little if the visionary is easily sidelined by opinions and notions of outsiders. Florence, similar to Berlin, singled out tenacity as “the most important thing” a founder can have.
“Everyone in the beginning tells them it’s not going to work,” Florence said. “And, I hate to say it, but the press always criticize them because they can’t see it happening, but they have a tenacity that’s really inspiring.”
Things like audacity and tenacity and even ideas come from somewhere, and it’s not always a positive place.
Steven Berglas, a clinical psychologist who’s focused for decades on the entrepreneurial personality and is the author of the upcoming book “Stay Hungry” about how to avoid professional burnout, said anger tends to be what inspires a lot of entrepreneurs to come up with an idea, usually by questioning the status quo, and then push forward with it.
“They have at least one thing they’re very angry about, something or someone,” Berglas said. “But, in contrast to most people, they take it out constructively.”
There are many tales of inspirational anger among founders. One of the most famous is Mark Zuckerberg coding and launching Facebook predecessor “FaceMash” while on a blog tirade about an ex-girlfriend while still at Harvard. Paltrow said recently when asked about frequent criticism of her company that she’s learning to “energetically cultivate ‘f–k you.’” Even Adidas and Puma were founded by brothers Adolf and Rudolf Dassler, who — after starting a shoe brand together in the early Twenties — had a vicious falling out during World War II (despite both being documented members of Germany’s Nazi party) and subsequently rushed to launch competing brands that remain rivals almost a century later.
Obviously, righteous anger can come in many forms, and Berglas mentioned some research he did years ago on Ralph Lauren, finding out that the designer’s given name was Lifshitz and that as a child, he was bullied and got into fights over his heritage. “Jewish teens, including me, we often get teased,” Berglas said.
“People like Lauren, like maybe even all great designers and entrepreneurs, may have instances of bullying and abuse, etc., and elected through unconscious mechanisms to channel their anger into ‘I’ll show you,’” Berglas said. “The drive to show someone ‘I’ll be better than you’ is often a commonality and it goes far afield of the fashion industry, all the way back to Ben Franklin, who was beaten up as a kid and had his ideas stolen, and even farther.”
Surprisingly, Berglas has found that among the most revered and successful founders and entrepreneurs, money most often tends to not be a driving force, at least in the early stages.
“They tend to go above, it’s not ‘I’m going to be richer,’ it’s not ‘I’ll accrue more,’” Berglas said. “And the companies that tend to do the best are also the ones that push to be the most idealistically constructed.…Every time you have someone who wants to be the richest as opposed to the classiest or the most out of the box, it’s not going to work.”
But even if someone with an entrepreneurial spirit has a good idea, a unique vision, audacity, tenacity, an excellent team and a feasible business plan to boot, it’s certainly no guarantee that one idea will work out. Cynthia Franklin, director of entrepreneurship and an adjunct professor at New York University Stern School of Business, said some stereotypes of disruptive founders may be doing more harm than good.
“As someone who spends her days nurturing aspiring entrepreneurs of all ages, I know firsthand the damage caused by the pervasive myth of the charismatic, lone wolf entrepreneur who never gives up, doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer and is fearless,” Franklin said. “It’s a more apt description of a psychopath than an entrepreneur. It’s not reality.”
To Franklin, the reality of entrepreneurship is that there are as many differences among founders as there are business ideas, methods of execution and routes to success.
“It’s important to understand that all kinds of people have gone down the startup path,” she said. “It’s also important to understand how much work it takes. When success is ascribed to talent or traits, it’s easy to let ourselves off the hook. But when it’s linked to hard work and diligence, well, then it becomes in everyone’s grasp.”
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