The 6+ Key Ingredients for Startup Success

For an interview profile of our new startup accelerator in Oklahoma where I have volunteered to be a mentor, I was asked this question for a profile post:

“What is the most important part of a company’s application when applying to an accelerator?”

Some quick background on the question: The concept of startup accelerators has really grown in the tech industry with Y Combinator and TechStars leading (and Venture Spur is modeled after these).It’s about ideas you might see that have the best chance to success and startup liftoff.

But I love those kinds of questions (and the others on the profile). It gets me thinking and reflecting on our own experiences as a startup.

I went through several iterations and tried to boil down what I would look for personally. And although I’m not an investor or venture capitalist (but bootstrapped iThemes with under $100K), this is what I personally would look for in new startup team and their ideas that would help me best guess their success:

Passionate, competent, quality people … insanely committed to building and shipping something that people want or need.

There are so many variables in startup success. I honestly cannot say I have THE definitive answer that would work even 50% of the time if I was a venture capitalist. (I’ve heard if 1 in 10 startups hit success, then it’s a win in certain VC circles. But that’s WAY lower than my best guess at the guess!)

At the end of the day, to me, it would be more of an educated gamble.

But I do know … investing in good, quality people increases the odds significantly. I’ve rarely been let down by investing in quality people who are passionate and competent (or willing to learn).

People make the difference in a startup. I’ll mention this again below.

So let me unpack my answer a little further about what ingredients give a startup the best chance for success …

  • Contagious Passion — You gotta have enthusiasm and energy for what you’re doing.
  • Rock Solid Competence — If you don’t have the skills, or can’t learn them quickly enough, you’re sunk. You and your team have got to be able to do the work.
  • Grade A Quality — This can be viewed as an intangible, but I would bet on “good people” every time. I’m talking about the founder(s) and the first core people on the startup team. We’ve done that inside of our business and quality people typically find a way to win the right way. You can count on quality people. You can build on quality people. And customers and others want to work with quality people. Quality counts.
  • Insane Commitment — You need focus and determination to get a startup off the ground. It’s not easy. It takes a ton of work. Those who aren’t supremely committed to the task(s) at hand are going to fall behind. It means if they don’t get it right on the first try, they are going to keep pushing and pushing and pushing until something sticks. Committed people will keep trying to find the right product or service to deliver. (Which is why I don’t mention product as a standalone ingredient.)
  • Execution — It’s that simple and no more fluff is needed. You’ve got to be able to deliver on the ideas, concept and promise. If all your startup does is think and talk about the idea and never actually builds and ships it, you need to go into academia because pure theory without action isn’t part of the startup gig. It’s actually more action than talk.
  • Hungry Customers — Obvious, right? But you have to build and ship something that enough people want or need who will pay you enough every month to support the business. You have to deliver something that solves a critical problem for people, or makes their lives easier, better, richer, more affordable. If you can’t fill that gap … and if that solution doesn’t have enough people who value it enough, you aren’t going to get off the runway.
In my rough draft of answers, I also wrote this:

Someone blissfully ignorant and passionate enough to keep going no matter what the insurmountable odds might be … but humble enough to accept when it’s time to change or pivot … in the solemn charge of delivering something of immense value that another would gladly pay for.

But then again … what do I know! Many have made it with far less than is on that list … and for others (like me) it took a lot more. After all, we didn’t even talk about time, or money in the above equation.

What do you think? What are the attributes of startup success? 

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