In case you hadn’t noticed, 7.6 billion people, and counting are going to need more disruptive businesses and there is no shortage of problems for founders to find, address and produce.
What does it take?
Imagination, persistence and integrity are vital, but the best founders I know possess a unique DNA. Looking back to my first meeting with each of them, they were clearly different. I’ve tried to unpack the 10 defining elements. The je ne sais quoi of disruptive founders should not stay a mystery.
Perhaps this article should serve as a self-awareness checklist for a first-time founder. It may motivate you to get past what is blocking you or encourage you to join a team. If your passion is there and you weren’t born to be a Founder, you may find you can nail it one day.
I’m often asked by people, “what do think about this company, should I invest?”
Now that’s a sucker bet, as if I’m wrong, and say “go for it” and it crashes I’m bound to be called an idiot. If it dominates and I say, “perhaps not this one”, and it wins big, well that’s even worse. So why do I help people? More on that later.
Unfortunately, there is no Entrepreneur by numbers book, magic bullet or even a course you can take that will make you a disruptive founder.
What is true disruption? The impact must be felt by millions of people.
Disruption might be best described as either creating a brand-new market, or a vastly more efficient process, distribution or logistics methodology to reach millions. But a better product alone is not disruptive, it must change the way the industry works, in fact it is a bit of a win lose situation.
Is Tesla disrupting the car industry, or fossil fuels?
Is Google disrupting advertising, distribution of information or libraries?
Is Amazon disrupting books, the post man, retail or the entire workforce?
Perhaps it is more about the way business is done, than the product. The word itself infers it changes behaviour of consumers. However, it is more than that, it changes the financial model for the participants in the industry.
Radically impacting utility or enjoyment is not the threshold for being disruptive. It is not enough to be better, cheaper or faster it must be fundamental shift in behaviour and market position. Its the habits of the successful entrepreneurs that differentiates them from the rest.
Here are the 10 attributes I have found in successful founders.
1. Competitive Mongrel.
(as in fiercely competitive)
“Winning is addictive” my Mum told me when I was 10. The relentless comparisons between sport and business is a convenient way to remind us that if you want to be the best, be prepared to put in a herculean effort. Only then, can you create a market leading position. It’s not where you have come from, but what you are willing to do to get there.
Every successful founder I have worked with since 1999, has a unique blend of competitive mongrel, mixed with lashings of the other qualities, but for me, it starts with mongrel.
Matt Barrie, CEO of Freelancer Limited, states the fact that “an A Grade Team with a B grade idea will always beat a B grade team with an A Grade idea”. Emphasis on the word beat.
The first time I met Matt, in 2009, I was quizzing him on his game plan and he reminded me of a well drilled coach, who had prepared the game plan, and I knew he was going to win. Just quietly, he knew he would too.
If you want to change the world, you are going to get some knockers. Australia is famous for its “Tall Poppy” syndrome. When Matt won Entrepreneur of the Year, the very next day he came to see me, with a copy of the BRW magazine which had emblazoned his picture.
He wrote on it to me “I couldn’t have done it without you (yet)”. Nothing short of relentless effort will do. As competition heats up, the best double their efforts. Watch this space.
Being competitive does not need to be a selfish trait. Helping the community and giving back is a common trait Matt and all disruptive Founders share, but this characteristic is not unique to disruptive founders.
2. They are obsessed with knowledge
Perhaps obsession is not a strong enough word for disruptive founders in this category. Mitch Harper deeply understands the problem. Mitch has lived it, dreamt about it, and is obsessed with it. However, knowledge is not gained for consulting purposes but to execute his game plan.
With this supreme knowledge, that only a few have obsessed over, a disruptive founder will enlighten their team, attain viral growth and sustain that velocity.
They rarefy the group with their knowledge, whether on the art of hiring, managing cash like a well-oiled treasury and allocating resources to provide infinite optionality. Will they need to raise capital? No, they will be hunted down by VCs.
Mitch Harper, Co-Founder of BigCommerce, one of Australia’s world class tech companies, exhibits this quality. I am lucky enough to see Mitch in action, and this guy knows his stuff.
Mitch has gone on to launch a new company that implements the competitive advantage his obsession with knowledge has provided. In building yet another successful business, he has found a major problem and is now obsessed with this problem too.
This desire to attack problems and obsession with detail, or as Mitch calls it, “differentiation by design” is straight out of the Harper playbook. Watch this space for yet another world class company.
3. Ruthless honesty
Whilst I believe ethics are the new black, nice girls don’t have to finish last.
Founders who are caught making false promises, treating staff as expendable, or relying on gouging suppliers are destined to fail.
It is the perception of value, rather than the scientific cost benefit analysis, that engages customers exponentially.
Naomi Simson, founder of RedBalloon demonstrated ruthless honesty. The problem with offering experiences in a marketplace is the perception that customers must to be paying more if they buy via a middle man.
Naomi’s clever solution was a fully transparent promise that vendors of experiences will not supply an experience to anybody cheaper than on the RedBalloonwebsite. Naomi told me she turned small businesses into bigger businesses allowing people to focus on their passions, and leave the marketing, back end etc to us. Pretty cool.
The simplicity of treating customers as intelligent consumers worked wonders. I later celebrated with Naomi and some friends over a well-earned single malt, when she went on to share her knowledge on Shark Tank.
4. Curiosity…better again, they just work it out.
The most common question I am by first time founders as a mentor is “what should I focus on?”
“Should I read blogs, books, go do a course, hang out at meet ups?” My answer is “you have to work it out!” “What’s the one thing that would make the biggest difference to your business or knowledge, in 90 days and just obsess about that and get it done.”
Most disruptive founders, know this already. He or she has already worked this out. If you don’t already know this — you are probably feeling the anxiety of the process. Go with what you feel. Go! Be Nike — just do it…
Katherine Pace and Aimee Atkins from ELANATION ask questions of smarter people, and listen intently. The ladies spent months walking around talking to kids asking them impressions of their prototype. “Kids are super honest.” The feedback and research they obtained was worthy of a thesis on child psychology and behavioral sciences.
If a kid stopped playing the game or approached it a different way, they learned to iterate by seeing it through their eyes. They worked it from every aspect of the industry including psychology, the best operators, parent forums, school interactions and policies with gaming.
But they didn’t stop there. They scrutinized global trends, pricing, and the type of investor who might like what their team was doing. Nothing was left to chance. “I was lucky enough to mentor them and see them become amazing (by any standard) at pitching, launch their product and now scale — Their products are now sold in 101 stores across Australia and growing.
Matt Dickinson, is a king of arbitrage. He recognises patterns, and has a black belt in research. He is expert at overlaying systems and data, has courage to burn and executes with precision.
Matt is widely regarded as an amazing Growth Hacker. Matt has always been considered one of the best mentors in Startmate, and in fact helped get me started with my obsession with scaling companies upon joining Startmate too.
5. They back themselves
Hardly surprisingly, when hiring, bootstrapping, raising or scaling, disruptive founders have an innate belief that they can nail the job at hand. A backward step is not an option, at least in any exchange.
This should not be confused for arrogance, but in any situation, from asking someone on a date, to merging in peak hour traffic or anything tough, if you believe, people will fall in. I’m not describing a pathological optimist here because the founder will also possess many or even all of the 10 characteristics to back up the confidence.
In one meeting I organised for a new founder, Manuri Gunawardena of HealthMatch exhibited true grit. On that day, seven highly credentialed industry experts, including Private Equity Investors heard her pitch.
Unfortunately, one of the attendees proceeded to tell the founder her silly little start-up had no chance, nor did she. He spent the next ten minutes cutting her down, explaining how she didn’t understand the industry, the process, the costs involved and how she was simply wasting her time and everyone in the rooms too.
Just as I said “that’s quite enough mate,” he told me he was finished anyway. Having glanced at the founder to see if she was ok, she gave me a slight nod and added. “I accept your points, but don’t agree it can’t be done.”
Then, in the same order of the 10 criticisms, she articulately recounted how she would deal with each of his insurmountable hurdles. In my view, she sat him on his backside.
Needless to say, if I wasn’t already an investor, that sealed the deal. Sure, this wasn’t going to be easy, but a disruptive CEO won over some experts in the health sector that day.
6. They have gravitas and build culture
Culture is often defined as what the business does, but it’s hard to create and maintain a great culture and many people simply give it lip service.
“Create a movement, not a job” says Dean McEvoy, Founder of Spreets and now CEO of Tech Sydney. The culture he established in Spreets created a buzz in the office.
Camaraderie and equity allocation was spot on. Next stop, hyper-growth and the rest was history. Doing something that will be change the world, disrupt an industry and create excitement in the business is a super power of disruptive founders.
Overnight success is a myth. It is by establishing routines, recognising patterns (in multiple contexts), perpetual iteration and audacious tenacity that disruptive founders rise to the top.
Not surprisingly, the members of the team Dean assembled have gone on to so many other successful companies. Dean’s next challenge; reinvent how buildings are valued, produce a guaranteed income for a new restaurant.
Enter Icon Park, the highest grossing crowd sourced restaurant and building in a new type of partnership. Enthusiasm is infectious and so is Dean. The challenge of the unknown, pushing yourself and having fun while you are doing it is winning formula.
I love the mantra Ray Dalio mentions in his book Principles, “I’m motivated by doing meaningful work and creating meaningful relationships.” Perhaps this best encapsulates the concept of culture, or at the least is a great blueprint for you to build your own.
7. They imagine a better world — aka Vision
The great John Lennon and Dr. Martin Luther King imagined or dreamt the world into a frenzy. Matt Barrie of Freelancer also nailed this category!
“Why should a person in San Francisco or Bucharest, Romania with identical skills, have a 10x difference in living standards?” Matt asked me. “why are they not able to feed their family, or commence a start up without a prohibitive financial hurdle, breach geographical access to markets?” Matt demanded.
In disruptive style, Freelancer listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, not NASDAQ. Reinvigorating Australia as a tech hub, attracting talent and slowing the exodus across the Pacific was also extremely out there.
Freelancer Limited continues to empower a world without borders and safely settles transactions, managing cyber security risks with their business Escrow Inc.
8. They recognize their blind spots
Access to information, fast, has never been better. Whether for the sake of excellence or a better use of the Founders’ time, this element is a must. Not believing your own B.S. is critical.
Self-awareness of your blind spots takes courage and builds trust with your team. It’s ok to not know everything. A mentor can often help here, but it starts with the truth. Obviously, recognizing the blind spots is the first step to a cure.
I won’t point to a founder here, but frankly no one is perfect. This category overlaps many of the others mentioned and is compensated abundantly by the ability to execute.
I will mention myself in this category, and what I do. It’s about strategy, or as I call it CEO as a Service or CaaS. I am typically talking to six founders a day and you get good at asking questions that unlock value.
These blind spots can then be fixed. Common discussions include problems with a raise, the sizzle in a pitch deck, staff concerns (hiring, firing) or pricing.
Other things that need to be addressed are the business model, signing up corporate partners, negotiation with VC and almost always plugging in my network. It’s simply what I love to do. Living it, learning and sharing in equal doses with fellow mentors — yep, I’m obsessed.
9. They are a bit crazy, yep they are whacko.
I’ve heard Niki Scevak, Co -Founder of BlackBird Ventures, and co-Founder of Startmate, say dozens of times, “I look for a founder that’s a bit out there or crazy.”
No rational person wants attention for so many dysfunctional reasons. The suffering a founder endures is huge.
Whilst in my experience, it’s almost become “cool” to be a Founder and a Start-up is the old “I have a shell” in public company parlance, it’s not for everyone. If you really want to change the world, take on the big corporates, expose your weaknesses, do more with less, surrender yourself to relentless days, weeks, months, hell — years of torture and suffering you just might have what it takes.
10. They are system and process thinking devotees but they “just get it” too.
Dr Matthew Cullen, Founding CEO of Tonic Health Media is a system or process thinker. The right task, done at the right time by the right person sounds simple in theory. “At the outset of a new business, I have to do everything myself,” says Cullen.
Only once a task is done, the process can be mapped. If it critical to be part of the machine going forward, it can then be delegated.
“In the early phase of a business I hire assuming the person has the right skills and is a culture fit for an 18-month stint, if they can evolve, and they stay longer, that’s a bonus.” A common problem in early phase businesses is that founders fall in love with their product, they don’t recognize that their role and indeed that of the CEO requires a different approach, personnel, mindset at a 1, 10, 100 and 1000 employee companies.
Cullen says “it’s the same innovative and disruptive thinking but wrapped into a clear process and approach to implement the right activities and strategies at various stages or life cycle of the business. The way I work in the early days is very different as the business progresses from early to mid and late phase. A key dimension in all of this is working out where you add the most value and delegate progressively those areas where you add the least value.”
Dr Cullen was also Founder and CEO of McKesson Asia Pacific which was sold to Medibank Private in 2010 for $140 million. He built the company to a turnover of $75 million with 700 staff across Australia and New Zealand. It is often said that some people can start a company, but different skills are required to scale one.
Process thinking with 18 month sprints. Quite simply, it’s something disruptive founders do better than anyone else. Meanwhile, I have observed Dr. Cullen treating his team with respect and all stakeholders with humility he executes double digit growth Year on year at Tonic Health Media.
The Big Picture
Whilst I don’t know if entrepreneurs have different neural pathways, they don’t always come from adversity. It isn’t obvious, or easy to spot one at first. Perhaps the above 10 elements can be used as a ready reckoner/checklist or at least a starting point to seeing yourself as a disruptive founder.
Is this you? Well get on with it.
So, who am I?
“Create the future,” is not coincidentally the name of my new blog. It is what excites me. My own disruptive journey of starting in an age-old business, accounting, was by accident, when I couldn’t decide what to do after school. My stepfather (at the time) said, “Chartered accountants will inherit the earth.”
I had no idea what this meant at 18, but know as a coach to entrepreneurs, I have found my calling. On day one, or perhaps a week into my career, I had decided pure accounting was not for me. I couldn’t see myself adding up numbers and focusing on the minutia.
Perhaps otherwise I would have never discovered the world of growing companies, CEOs, negotiating partnerships, developing talent and doing deals. Working with some of the smartest people who have inspired, taught and befriended me has been a blessing.
If I haven’t mentioned you specifically, trust me, I have appreciated what you have taught me.
So, whether you are a new founder, scaling or about to IPO, your growth as a person is the vanguard of the prosperity of your company and everyone in your life. The freedom this brings will fulfil you, give you more time for the things you love. You too can build a disruptive business.
The world you envisage won’t just happen, you have to create the future.
If you would like some help, check out setup a time and we can have a chat. Ask us how our Virtual CFO services have helped many entrepreneurs learn how to set up a business goal and maximise growth.