The 5 key characteristics of a successful start-up leader

The success of a project also depends on the excellent skills of the co-founder. Here are the 5 key characteristics to look for in a start-up leader.

Whether for a start-up or a structured multinational, the search strategy has many similarities. In both cases, it is very important to understand beforehand the DNA of the business and what you want to communicate to the market. On this basis, the search for the most suitable Founder to lead the company can be tailored.

In the case of a search for a CEO for a mature multinational company, normally one moves in a confidential and considered manner, respecting a structured selection process and with time frames laid down by internal policy. In the case of Founder searches for start-ups, the process is much more agile and with a focus on project engagement. 

For us headhunters, proposing a role for a multinational requires branding, the use of presentations and explanatory material, and previous references. The start-up, on the other hand, has no story to present and we have to be good at selling a ‘dream’ and a project in the making.

Another not insignificant factor is the remuneration package that we can present to candidates. In the case of a structured company, there are parameters that allow us to attract people from the competition or the market. In the case of a start-up, the money factor is not the primary lever as there is no certainty that the project will succeed, and this involves finding people who accept the challenge and jump on board without too much certainty. 


But what exactly are the characteristics that the founder of a start-up should have?

The technical aspect is basic and, normally, most start-up leaders start with an in-depth knowledge of the core business product or service. It is indeed crucial to know the strengths so that you can communicate them to the market knowing the growth potential. 


Communicator and networker

Technical skills are of little value if the startupper does not have a strong entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to network with various stakeholders. Within a start-up, for instance, one of the most complex activities is raising funds to fuel the company’s growth. The founders therefore have to be excellent networkers, mobilise their network of contacts and create a market network with people who believe in their idea.

Selling one’s idea to this network requires great communication skills. You have to express yourself in such a way that you make people dream, show them your goal while also emphasising the economic part. You have to speak to numerous people, but how do you do it? What to say? You have to be able to sell an idea even if there is not much to show and nothing to touch yet.

I always advise founders to be agile in their strategies, and always have a plan B. Let me give a real, practical example: you have a product that allows you to make digital medical prescriptions for your pet. Plan A is definitely to propose it to the veterinary network. But what if this category is not technical enough to adopt this process innovation? They won’t understand and won’t be interested in your product, but that doesn’t mean that your idea is not the right one for the future. 

Your plan B could be to contact the multinational animal feed companies. But who will you approach in this business? It therefore becomes crucial to understand who your interlocutor is and not wait to analyse the market and possible referrers when plan A has failed. Moving on two tracks and having Plan B ready in case Plan A fails helps to speed things up, not to waste too much energy and, above all, not to demoralise yourself at the risk of giving up.

Besides presenting your idea, it is important to work together with others. When you start a company, you have to be good at technology, sales, marketing and finance. Pretty hard to do it all alone, right? So you have to be open to others, have confidence and be a good team player.


A high level of resilience

Lack of resilience of the founders is fatal for a start-up. It is unlikely the first person you meet will fall in love with the idea and give you the funds. A lot of doors will shut, so you have to be a strong and resilient person, and sometimes you have to sit down and rethink the positioning of the idea.


Think first: ‘is it really in my DNA’?

If a person wants to get an idea off the ground or join a start-up, certain qualities must be ingrained in his or her personality. You have to be courageous, have the will to see how far you can go and to push yourself to achieve a goal. 


It is a bit the same as when you ask a mountaineer why he wants to climb the Everest. You can be a very good mountaineer even if you only do it on Sundays, but if you want to reach the summit and accomplish such a big challenge, you have to be aware of the risk, but you will still throw yourself headlong into pursuing what you believe you can achieve. You have the courage to push and see how far you are able to go. Not everyone has the courage to think too much about all the risks involved, so you really have to ask yourself beforehand if this is in your DNA.


Passion and willpower with a positive mindset

Last, but not least, is to have passion and willpower. If you have a passion, it means that you dedicate your time to it, and this time does not weigh you down. It is very fortunate if you find your passion and manage to earn from it, because not everyone has the opportunity to do so. Passion allows you to give the best of yourself, because you always want to experiment, and that satisfies you.

In the same way, it would have been impossible for me to start Kilpatrick Executive Search if I had not had a strong interest in people. If I hadn’t had an interest in getting to know the person in front of me and if I hadn’t had the drive to understand how I could push this person further, it would have been particularly complicated to put all the dedication I have put into this company over the years. Yet willpower and interest in the idea can also enable a person to go further.

It is essential to have this kind of passion and willpower, considering that there will always be moments of discouragement, moments when you feel that others do not understand you, that others do not share your passion for the idea. 

In addition to this, a skill that is accessible to everyone and, in my opinion, can bring great benefits to those working in a start-up, is to always see the glass half full. This approach allows you to transmit this positivity to others and, most likely, you will be able to get much more out of them.


Alone or in company?

You can of course decide for yourself if you have the passion, are a good communicator and have the technical skills. In this case you can create your business on your own. Sometimes, and this has also happened in Startup Bakery, someone has an idea but knows they are not the right person to develop or lead it, so they look for someone else to take this idea to the market.

However, while your own passion is palpable, it is much more difficult to assess whether the person you hire has the same passion and the right skills. One possibility to focus the search towards a successful solution may be to look for someone who, for example, has already had the opportunity to create start-ups. In this case, the skills described above are most likely to be present. The alternative is to look for an expert with good seniority, the technical skills we are interested in, and who – in the last years of his or her professional career – is willing to devote himself or herself to a challenging project and lead a start-up.

To conclude, there is no perfect recipe for a good founder just as there is no perfect recipe for successful start-ups. There are, however, characteristics that can make a difference to the success of a project and, from experience, I can say that the ones just listed are. 

Can we support you in your search for an executive with the right characteristics? Click here to get in touch with us.