Americans have an obsession with business founders and what sets them apart. Is it vision, drive, or insight that help them turn industries upside down and conjure billions of dollars? Is it how they run meetings or make decisions? Is it because they eat vegan food, take cold showers, and meditate?
Founders occupy a cultural space that combines celebrity, guru, futurist eccentric, and occasionally comic book villain.
Jeff Bezos changed both how we shop and how the internet operates. Elon musk can cause meme currency to skyrocket with a single tweet. Mark Zucker can sway public discourse and elections. Bezos and Musk are in a literal space race. If you could figure out just what differentiates them from the rest of us, you could become – or at least invest in – the next superstar founder.
For exactly that reason, myths about founders are powerful. They act as a filter for who gets the capital to start companies and a model for those trying to replicate phenomenal success. But although many investors have honed the art of the judgment call, it turns out that popular notions of what a promising entrepreneur looks and acts like are often wrong. Those notions can have major consequences.
Take Jeff Bezos as an example.Bezos is, of course, the founder against whom all contemporaries are measured. He has reached an unparalleled level of celebrity: He throws Hollywood parties, has his visage hung in the National Portrait Gallery, and publicly spars with former president Donald Trump. He also fits a particular archetype: white, male, Ivy League-educated, and a visionary, uncompromising industry outsider.
Bezos’s now-legendary 14 leadership principles (including “customer obsession,” “bias for action,” “disagree and commit”), which inform decision-making at Amazon, are cited as instrumental in the development of Alexa, Amazon Web Services, Prime, and Prime Video.Bezos’s blunt, sometimes explosive approach is mimicked by team leaders – who coworkers have described as “totally cleaved from Jeff’s rib”; his obsession with efficiency inspired Amazon’s expansive distribution network and dictated the punishing climate of its fulfillment centers.
Another well-known founder is Neumann from WeWork. Neumann was lionized as “a business titan who could see around corners and would chart a revolutionary course,” just like Bezos.
The Silicon Valley archetype isn’t the only one. Pony Ma, the founder of Tencent, was part of a new generation of Chinese entrepreneurs who emerged from sweeping political, economic, and technological change. Famourly media shy, Ma transformed Tencent from a company that connected the internet to pagers into one that spans gaming, mobile payments, e-commerce, the messaging service WeChat, and more. Tencent acted like a cavalry unit, marching from the remote corner quietly to the center.
Ma many have eschewed the role of celebrity techno-visionary, but his focus on strategic growth and interaction have made Tencent adept at exploiting emerging opportunities. The guiding principles, including product minimalism, user-driven strategy, rapid testing, aren’t necessarily novel – Tencent just seems to execute them better than its rivals do.
Can we reliably predict who will be a Bezos or a Ma and who will be a Neumann? Maybe. Based on Ali Tamaseb’s new book, Super Founders: What Data Reveals About Billion-DOllar Startups, the median age of successful founders in US is 34; as many went to top-10 universities as to schools ranked below 100; 70% had worked for another company, and a majority of those for a marquee brank like Amazon, Google, or McKinsey; 60% had previously founded a company.
There’s nothing wrong with obsessing over what leads to success. We can learn a lot from stories of how others achieved great things. The stick is not to take the wrong lesson. Myths may contain seeds of truth, but they’re often mostly fairy tales.