It’s arguable that some tech startups become successful simply because the idea is so unbelievably good that it’s practically fated to become a smashing success. But more often, the idea is only part of the equation. Successful tech startups also require the right balance of funding and initial momentum. They need a team of dedicated, passionate people. And perhaps most important of all, they need a good leader.
Strong leaders are able to take good ideas and improve them. They can take mediocre ideas and make them passable. They can attract funding, establish momentum, and inspire an entire team of people. In other words, the right leader can affect all the other variables necessary for a startup to be successful—and the wrong leader can tank even the best idea.
But what exactly is it that makes for a “good” startup leader? Which qualities are most important to lead a business to success?
First, great leaders tend to have a sense of vision. When they have an idea, they’re able to visualize it, and when they don’t have an idea, they can think abstractly and conceptually to come up with one. Once they have a vision established, they can set it as a priority and build the rest of the business around it. For example, they can create a clear understanding of what the brand is and what it isn’t, and steer operational models and marketing strategies to adhere to those principles.
It should be no surprise that great startup leaders also have some kind of past leadership experience, but this doesn’t have to come from a startup. You can get leadership experience in any context where you’re in charge of other people. For example, you might have been a manager at a fast food restaurant, or the residing President of a club in college. Over time, you learn how to communicate with others, how to inspire them, and how to make better decisions. This experience is vital if you want to lead a successful business.
A good startup leader should also have at least some expertise in the startup’s industry and niche. For example, if you’re launching an app that helps people order groceries, you should have at least some expertise related to retail and/or online ordering. You can’t come into an industry as a total outsider and expect to be successful with strong leadership alone.
Reliance on Other Experts
That said, entrepreneurs can’t be experts in everything. No matter what, there will be many areas you don’t understand—and to be successful, you’ll need to lean on other experts to help you out. For example, you won’t be able to predict or solve your business’s legal issues, so you’ll need to research and find the right law firm to help you out. Great leaders are humble enough to admit the limits of their own knowledge and abilities, and are insightful enough to find true experts they can trust in these respective areas.
We tend to imagine strong leaders as profoundly confident, bordering on arrogant. But while confidence is important, it’s also important for leaders to be humble. Strong leaders who express and practice humility are open to the idea that they’re making mistakes, and that they haven’t learned everything; this makes them open to further learning, which makes them more capable of growth. Humility also attracts respect, which is vital if you want to lead a team effectively.
Some people don’t take accountability for their actions or decisions. When something goes wrong, they’re eager to point the finger at something (or someone) else as a way of escaping blame. But good leaders have no issue taking accountability for their own decisions. In fact, they see it as a learning opportunity. Even if there are circumstances beyond their control, they go out of their way to figure out the ways they could have done better.
Sometimes, making any decision is better than making no decision. When there’s an urgent problem to solve, sitting on your hands and doing nothing is the worst possible resolution. Accordingly, the best startup leaders tend to be decisive; they favor action over inaction, and are confident enough to make a decision and stick to it, even if it’s not perfect.
Few startups are successful from the very beginning. Most endure extended periods of hardship and challenges, with no guarantee of eventual success. But strong startup leaders are persistent, pushing through these barriers and continuing to press for their end goals. Even if the startup fails, a persistent leader will attempt to build something new. Because of this, no small challenge can stand in their way.
There are many different viable leadership philosophies. You may prefer a hands-on approach, guiding all your employees individually and collaborating with them as much as possible, or a hands-off approach, allowing them to function autonomously. There aren’t many “right” or “wrong” strategies here, but strong leaders almost always have a consistent set of values. With consistent practice and a reliable philosophy, leaders can cultivate a strong work culture—and ensure that employees always know what’s expected of them.
While it’s ignorant to assume that everything will work out fine, there’s a strong benefit for leaders to be optimistic. They see the positive side of even the toughest challenges, and always assume there’s a path forward. This positivity helps them solve tough problems, and even more importantly, it helps them foster positivity and optimism in their teammates, which can boost morale.
Persuasiveness is one of the most important skills for a startup leader to have, due to its sheer versatility. You can use persuasion to convince investors that your startup is worth funding. You can use it to negotiate with clients, and attract more customers to your brand. You can even use it to inspire and motivate your employees to do a better job—or believe that an aggressive deadline is actually possible.
Ability to Listen
Great ideas can come from anywhere, and good startup leaders know this. Accordingly, they’re willing to listen to just about anyone, on any topic. They listen to their employees actively, better understanding their perspectives and giving their ideas a chance. They listen to customers, allowing them to present a better solution to them when selling. They also listen to experts in a wide range of fields—including other startup entrepreneurs.
Listening is beneficial in a number of ways. Leaders who listen are able to learn more information and discover new insights, which they can use to improve the business. They’re better able to understand the emotions and dispositions of others, which they can harness to become better negotiators and conflict resolvers. And on top of that, people love good listeners—so improving your listening can help you attract more respect and admiration.
Arguably the most important characteristic of a startup leader is adaptability—the ability to change plans and update both ideas and practices to address new circumstances. In the startup world, things change almost every day; you’ll have to worry about changing consumer attitudes, new competitors, disintermediating technology and constantly emerging information. Remaining adaptable in the face of all these evolving variables is the only way to keep your business afloat.
Whether you’re still attracting initial funding or are trying to scale your business to become a global enterprise, your startup’s success will depend on your ability to lead it. There are competing schools of thought that debate whether great leaders are born or made, but the consensus seems to be that even if you’re not predisposed to be an amazing leader, you can develop your leadership abilities with experience and focused improvement. Use these leadership traits as inspiration to cultivate your own startup leadership style.