Startup founder lessons from the Brownlee brothers

The picture of Alistair Brownlee giving up his own chance to win the Triathlon World series in Mexico, and helping his brother Jonny over the line, evoked strong emotions of two brothers in arms.

With the 1500m swim and 40km bike completed, Jonny and Alistair were out on the road on the run in front, battling for gold and silver. Then Jonny uttered one word to his brother – ‘relax’ – and Alistair, who interpreted it as a sign of weakness, attacked to retain his title. Jonny kicked on, and surged back into the lead.

One moment Jonny was striding to victory, the next his legs buckled beneath him as extraordinary effort took its toll. Just as Jonny stumbled like a drunk off the track, elder brother Alistair swooped to the rescue, hooking his arm around his shoulder and helping him to cross the line in second place. Jonny then slumps to the floor, spent from dehydration.

It was a natural human reaction to help his brother, but even so, the display of loyalty was incredible. It was a vital intervention. Jonny’s condition was serious enough for him to be taken to hospital, missing the podium presentation.

In their autobiography, Swim Bike Run, the Brownlee boys are humble on their fantastic achievements in the world of Triathlon. The Triathlon seems an exercise in torture to me. A 1500m swim, a 40km bike ride and a 10km run, all taken without a break. To achieve this at any level is a fearsome task.

Swimming and running in competition as early as nine with cycling vast distances a hobby, their competitive instincts and sibling rivalry were established. Despite this, they raced as a team versus the rest. The detailed account of their drive for success in Swim Bike Run, is extensive and meticulous, describing their development from schoolboys to standing on the Olympic podium. The sacrifices, hard work, intrusions on personal life are all here. It reminds me of the tenacity shown by startup founders.

The Brownlee brothers are incredibly driven, and very smart, particularly in terms of the emotional side of their relationship, and how to think positively in challenging situations. Working collaboratively despite competing with each other, they epitomise the old saying, ‘two heads are better than one’, pushing each other in training and racing.

This collaborative style holds true for those wanting to found a startup – a recent study showed that 80% of all successful startups have more than one founder. Even if you think you can reach your goals on your own, the truth is that you’ll have a much better chance of success with at least one co-founder to help build your business.

Research shows start-ups with co-founders are four times likely to be successful than those going solo – quite a strong case for forming a double act. From Larry Page and Sergey Brin (co-founders of Google, 1998), Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (Apple, 1976, and Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard who came together in 1939, these founding duos clicked because they had similar personality types with an insatiable curiosity, and strengths that complimented each other.

It is the shared mind-set and skill-set that captures the essence of what makes entrepreneurial duos work. For example, Francis Jehl was Thomas Edison’s lab assistant, starting work at the Menlo Park research facility as an eighteen year old straight from school. After the completion of Jehl’s first assignment, Edison noticed Jehl’s work ethic and was so impressed that he started to work collaboratively, so much so that Jehl worked on the electric light during the lab stage of development.

During the next two years, Edison regarded him as a partner, entrusting him to take his electric light innovation to Europe and exploit it commercially. Jehl kept a personal diary, detailing some of the exceptional things that he worked on with Edison, captured in his book, Reminiscences of Menlo Park, published fifty years afterwards.

Whilst Edison regarded Jehl as a co-founder, not all entrepreneurs need an ally, but as seen, many successful startups are built by multiple leaders with productive relationships. What made their combined skill-sets a successful collaboration? There is a common trend: the most well-rounded co-founders recognised their individual limitations and respect what the other brings to a partnership. Here are the traits of what makes these co-founder relationships tick.

Focus on what you’re good at Dividing workload based on complimentary yet different skills gives focus and productivity, a focus of effort based on mutual strengths means you’re able to progress the day-to-day work while continuing to evolve many aspects of the business. A co-founder can help complement your skills and fill in the skills gaps in a way you’ll never be able to do on your own.

Double your odds While having a business partner is second best to having a carbon copy of yourself running around, it doubles your odds of being in the right place at the right time. Having someone you can trust with the same level of integrity and passion as yourself is a huge advantage and enables a ‘I’ll work on whatever you’re not working on’ philosophy to getting two things done at once. It simply doubles the bandwidth.

Provide you with a sounding board and companion on the start-up journey Starting a business means a bumpy road may appear on the horizon at any point, and it can be a lot easier to handle those bumps with a co-founder. Advisors and mentors are valuable, but there is nothing like being able to talk to someone who is sharing the experience, facing the same risk, the same problems, and the same potential upside.

Serve as a backstop when you have an off day We all have days when we are just not at the races, having a co-founder provides a backstop for those times, even for the simplest of matters. Sharing both the physical and mental workload with someone you can trust, and is just as invested as you, makes the journey slightly less frantic.

Gain new insights Two heads are better than one, most likely your co-founder will have a different set of experiences and competencies from you. You should be open-minded to share and utilise these experiences for the benefit of the business. It is always advantageous to view your startup from the filter of another because we are often limited by our own perspectives.

Also, by having another perspective we are not blinded by our innate biases. In the kaleidoscopic melee of day-to-day, it’s easy to overlook potentially important details or tasks because our judgment has been clouded by our own worldview, fears or when we give in to complacency.

Spread the risk and improve contingencies Most ‘solopreneurs’ start out with the mindset that they can achieve their goals – until reality sets in and they find themselves stuck in a spiral of masses of work to be done. Having a co-founder allows for discussion of priorities, a change in direction or a new approach, feedback which opens up possibilities in times of turbulence and an extra set of skills to push the enterprise past its limitations of a single decision maker.

Make better decisions Whilst recognising the upsides of a co-founder, there won’t be consensus all the time. In fact, it’s better when you don’t. A certain level of discord and tension means that you’re both championing opposing views. This creates an opportunity to discuss the merits of each viewpoint and ultimately decide which direction is better.

Balance the extremes and point out the blindspots Entrepreneurs just want to get things done, often in a hurry and always moving forward, but it helps to have a balance to caution this enthusiasm at times. We all have blind spots, and having a co-founder that can point out these blind spots so you can improve, opening your eyes to things you might not see, is undoubtedly beneficial.

So having identified the benefits of working with a co-founder, what are the criteria for selecting a partner? There are some fundamental aspects that make this relationship work, and should be clearly shared openly as part of the dialogue when discussing a joining-up of minds.

Collision on vision You wouldn’t marry someone you’d just met, so you should date first to check in on fundamentals that will form the bedrock of the relationship and the business – What is our vision and purpose, what are our personal goals for the startup? 

Though these may change over time, its helpful to get a sense of what each co-founder seeks as success outset, where there is common ground and you are aligned and synchronised, and where there is difference. You need to connect at a values, ambition, trust and philosophy perspectives – chose a co-founder like you would a spouse.

Aligned motives If one founder wants to build a cool product that makes a difference, and the other one wants to make money and be famous as their motive, it won’t work. Pay close attention and unearth true motivations, which are unrevealed, not declared.

If you have one co-founder that wants to build a sustainable business that is spinning off cash and run it forever, and another one wants to shoot for high growth and an exit, it’s better to get that out in the open early and talk it through.

Play a couple rounds of monopoly together, just to see how you both react to opportunity and adversity – and if there is humour in the relationship. There are of course other such ways to gauge this but don’t co-habit without dancing together socially first, doing something outside of work with your potential future partner may be eye-opening.

Intelligence, energy, and integrity It’s not the smart kid you knew at school, it’s not the person you like the most, it’s not the hacker most willing to work for free. It’s someone of high intelligence, energy and integrity you want. You’ll need all three yourself to evaluate your co-founder.

If it doesn’t feel right, keep looking, don’t compromise, keep looking. The founders set a company’s DNA, and its culture is an extension of the founders’ personalities. Make sure there is a tight fit.

One builds, one sells The best builders can prototype and even deliver the entire product, end-to-end. The best sellers can sell to customers, partners, investors, and employees. Looking at the successful duos earlier in the blog, this seems to be the ideal co-founder mix.

The seller doesn’t have to be a salesman, they can be technical, but able to influence. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs aren’t salesmen, but sellers of vision, passion and innovation.

Future skills matter more than present skills It’s impossible to judge the potential skills of a person on day one. So instead, while we don’t predict future skills, avoid giving too much importance to current skills. Startups demand different sets of competencies at various stages in their journey – being a CEO of a startup means being the Chief Everything Officer initially – co-founders need to be fast learners in order to acquire new in-demand skills.

Get personal The underlying question here is Can the founders work closely together for an extended period without killing each other? If one or more of the founders has some ‘tic’ the others don’t like or if there’s some odd feelings there, it might be overlooked in the rush to include people on the team who have a particular skill. Basically, can you spend 24/7 time together and have trust, tolerance, space and stretch when needed?

What it’s like to share the highs and lows, the successes and the failures, and the feeling of having someone alongside you, shoulder-to-shoulder all the while confident they think the same way? That’s what the Brownlee brothers have created with their special bond. Whilst startup founders aren’t racing against each other, they have to be supportive, just like Alastair and Jonny.

Alistair Brownlee’s heroic gesture of giving up the chance to win the World Series Triathlon event in Mexico to help younger brother Jonny over the line was a fantastic piece of teamwork in a very much solo sport. It captures the essence of camaraderie needed between startup founders.

By implicit mutual personal support and rapport, merging their disparate talents and idiosyncrasies, effective co-founders sync when it comes to the course they co-charted. That kind of strategic cohesion is the secret sauce behind many successful startups, so try to create that serendipity in your own startup enterprise with your co-founder.

Timing – the key factor in a startup’s success

Startups are literally an experiment, a journey into the unknown, always looking for opportunities to do something better by disruptive thinking and constantly questioning the status quo. They learn from their mistakes and fix them quickly as they continue their growth journey.

The startup organisation is one of the greatest forms to make the world a better place. If you take a group of people and organise them in a startup, you can unlock human potential in a way never before possible. You get them to achieve unbelievable things.

But if the startup organisation is so great, why do so many – up to 90% – fail? What actually matters most for startup success? Bill Gross recently looked at five factors potentially driving startup success: the initial idea, the team, the business model, the funding, and the timing. Here’s a link to his insightful TED talk:

The number one thing driving success was timing. Timing accounted for 42% of the difference between success and failure. Team and execution came in second, and the idea – the uniqueness of the idea – came in third. It surprised me that the idea wasn’t the most important thing. Sometimes it mattered more when it was actually timed.

So what makes great timing for startup success? Timing for me is about taking limitations and turning them into possibilities. You can’t wait for timing, you have to create it, give yourself the opportunity. You can’t wait to see what might have happened.

Entrepreneurial founders are fuelled by passion and an insight or a hunch into the problem they are going to solve, but intrinsically startups work on being a bet – and it’s the timing of this bet that seems to be a factor in success. Timing is about judgment, intuition and foresight.

A startup leader has to be comfortable with taking on ambiguity, uncertainty and multiple challenges. What kinds of people chose a life of exploration, challenge and discovery where timing is a decisive factor in the outcomes they achieve? What do you think are the most important leadership characteristics of these ‘explorers’, and how do they impact the ‘timing’ as identified by Gross?

Here are the thoughts about the importance of timing on a startup leader’s actions and behaviours.

Vision A well-defined vision is the compass by which every startup journey is navigated, giving the focus to the direction of travel. Vision, driven by an instinct and with foresight for timing, can be a formula for success.

Flexibility ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy.’ This variation on German Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke’s original quote could not be more true for startups. Leaders of start-ups need to be flexible to alter (or even throw out) plans as timing of product-market fit and market circumstances dictate.

Unwavering belief Every startup revolves around taking risks, but again it is the timing of knowing when to do so that is key. A combination of paranoia and utter confidence is needed, in order to hold your nerve so as to get to the carpe diem moment.

Speed It makes a difference when a startup is able to launch on time and able to move faster than competitors. Successful startups never delay the process of getting things done. The most productive startup leaders are the ones who make the most of their time. I believe that the faster you can make the mistakes, learn from them and improve your offering, the better.

Discipline Self-control and a strong self-imposed agenda in terms of getting-the-things-done-you-said-you-would-when-you-said-you-would, are important elements to timing. Self-discipline from the founder leads to a positive team work ethic to getting things done effectively and efficiently. When focusing on your first release, this focus is critical.

Time and ability for listening, reflection, curiosity and self -awareness Listening is a completely underrated trait. In a hyper-competitive economy, the person who speaks first – and loudest – is most often heard. But soliciting feedback and internalising what you hear will always make you a better startup leader. The best startup leaders have an acute sense of self-awareness; they know their strengths, and more importantly, their weaknesses. They are confident enough to be honest about areas for growth, take time to be curious about feedback, be reflective on lessons learned, and make timely changes to their business model or product as a result.

Time for the team Startup leaders who share good, bad, and ugly news to their folks with full transparency earn trust, and have a daily huddle with the team. Aside from this honesty, making time to share information ensures that all team members know what they’re working toward.

Stick-to-it-ness Seriously impressive entrepreneurs are willing to put in the graft to work through the hard times. They work through the different bits of a knot, rather than trying to rush through and cut it apart. They take their time to craft the product that is in their minds’ eye and don’t compromise.

Bide your time The untold stories of Pinterest and Twitter are that they were operating for two years before they became marginally relevant. It’s very seldom that a startup comes out that delivers overnight success. If you have already validated your problem and solution, then stick with it. Conserve energy and cash, because this is a marathon, not a sprint. Do not pivot too early thinking the solution is wrong. It could be that you are not getting to the right customers, you don’t have friendly onboarding features, some tweaking is needed, or one of many reasons. Timing here is all about patience.

Knowing the right time to fight rather than adapt Important traits for a startup founder are tenacity, passion and grit to keep fighting for what they believe is right. But that must be balanced with the humility and openness to listen to customers on feedback that improves the product, even if it goes against your vision. What determines success is knowing when to apply which one of the personality traits.

Most startups fail because of the lack of customers – maybe their products didn’t end up being what they thought it would. Some fail because they ran out of money because their revenues couldn’t grow fast enough.

But these causes of death don’t exactly illustrate what went wrong for the startup during the course of its life, much in the same way that listing a heart attack as a cause of death doesn’t directly indicate an unhealthy lifestyle that may have led to it. Like with human life, some startup deaths come out of nowhere and can’t be helped, and some are both predictable and preventable.

We all know that there are no shortcuts to success, and there’s no secret formula that can create the ‘perfect’ startup. However, as identified by Bill Gross, there’s one factor that rises above all others in importance: – timing – which represents the single most important make-or-break point in a startup’s development.

Fundamentally, timing is about judgment, intuition, foresight, gut instinct and an element of good fortune, to tip the scales and create the moment. Timing is about ensuring that your idea doesn’t come too early and consumers aren’t ready for it. Conversely, if your idea comes too late and there are already a number of different offerings in front of your target audience, you won’t be able to squeeze in.

Timing can’t be ignored, and it can’t be substituted just by paying more attention to the other elements of your business. Certainly, having a good idea, business model, team and available capital can all increase your chances of success, but without that critical timing factor, you’ll inevitably end up failing, or at least struggling. It’s up to the startup leader to ensure they gets their timing right.

So many hats, so little time; the habits and rhythms of successful startup founders.

Simple – ship weekly (or ship weakly), test, talk to users. The rest makes you mediocre, like wasting time on Twitter. As Elon said, work like hell.

You’ve probably heard someone say this before, or maybe this statement has even come from you too. Why is it that almost everyone claims to have the next big startup idea but only a small number of people have the courage and audacity to start something new and make it happen?

It’s another thing all together to go out and start something. To make a start exposes us. It is fundamentally this fear that stops us from being bold that stops us from taking action. We fear what others will think and say. We are afraid that our own self image will be tainted in the event of failure.

Its much safer to say things than it is to go out and try things. It’s also much easier to give ourselves the satisfaction of believing that if we went out and took action that we would succeed than it actually is to just give it a try. We don’t know and nether does anyone else. The only true indicator of startup success is reality. The unpredictability of the startup experiment frightens us and keeps us locked in a prism of self-made excuses.

Those who are able to ignore their own fears are the ones that start things. They are bold and give themselves permission to start and thus the opportunity to succeed. Everybody else, just self-sabotages their own success. Fear in the form of resistance is created by our need for certainty, safety and comfort.

How do you make the shift from talking about a startup to acting on your ideas? The struggle is not in the idea it is in the process of overcoming the fear to start, then beating your own resistance to complete it and finally dealing with the fear of failure in order to get it out there.

With so many internal battles it’s no wonder that we find it easier to talk about them than to start take action towards achieve those visions. Breaking this cycle of fear is something we must learn if we wish to produce results.

Start it. Ship it. Repeat. Seth Godin talks in detail about the mindset of people to start things and ship things. His book, Poke the Box, discusses the innovation mindset from a new point of view:

The challenge, it turns out, isn’t in perfecting your ability to know when to start and when to stand by. The challenge is getting into the habit of starting.

You’ll need to learn to identify these key fears…

  • Fear of success: the fear that we are not worthy of success. You must believe in yourself in order to take action.
  • Rationalisation: beware of the excuses you make in your mind of why things happen a certain way.
  • Self medication: beware of when you feel the desire to heal yourself or taking a break. This can often come from a place of fear rather than truth.
  • Victimhood: do not identify with your failures.
  • Self-doubt: beware of self-sabotage, when you unconsciously act in particular ways to reduce your ability to succeed.

In Steven Pressfield’s book, The War of Art, he discusses the resistance we all face when launching something new, specifically though he lists a number of ways to make the shift from self-doubting mindset to work to having a more determined mindset:

  • Show up everyday, show up no matter what
  • Stay on the job all day
  • Commit over the long haul
  • The stakes are high and real: this means that we must have sense of urgency with our work.
  • We are focused on results
  • We do not over identify with our work: we must be willing to change our work based on feedback of relevant sources
  • We master the technique of our work
  • We have a sense of humour about our work
  • We receive praise or blame in the real world: we expose ourselves to external feedback.

As Elon Musk says, When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favour.

As I learn more about startups and the community, the more intrigued I have become with startup founders. I have supported a number of founders from tech startups, and I am constantly inspired by how they execute at speed within such uncertain circumstances. I’ve observed a pattern amongst many of these folk, regardless of their product, service or industry, these founders all had the following characteristics in common:

Vision and Purpose What are you trying to achieve? There will be highs and lows throughout the entrepreneurial journey of building a business. Remembering why you started in the first place and being able to see the end goal gives you the conviction to move forward through the toughest obstacles.

Persevere with an ability to get stuff done The founders I’ve worked with all carry a positive attitude and possess a winning mentality. They have fallen, but always return with a sense of resilience. They see the positive in the negative. They understand that to grow, they must raise the bar, as there is always the next stage, a higher challenge to meet.

They are guided by unwavering passion for what they do Passion (their why?) brings the sunshine on a rainy day. They started their business out of passion over profit, motivated by their interest in good impact. You want to make sure what you’re doing is what you love, because you will ultimately feel less of a slave to your business if you’re following your heart and not the money.

They run experiments like crazy The market opportunity is constantly changing and with that, there will always be new gaps, trends and demands. Good founders are like scientists and adventurers, they are always testing and experimenting. They recognise in order to stay relevant, market validation is a constant process.

Simplicity Whenever I look at a successful startup, it’s easy to admire how the moving parts, features and services, work in harmony, and do so with simplicity as the unifying theme. So when designed the V1 of anything there are four things we should remember:

1. It should be a solution to a singular problem, not a related multitude.
2. It should be easy to build & test against that problem.
3. It should be easy to explain.
4. It should be easy to adopt and use.

So, if these are the core features, attributes and outcomes arising from the study of successful startups, what are the individual habits of startup founders to make it happen? Here are my twelve thoughts:

Habit 1: Always look forward Being an innovator is all about being a disruptive thinking, to go beyond an existing market, seeing an unfilled gap in the market – or create a new market itself. You need to be a pioneer, keeping your eyes open for new opportunities to create your own market space. This means taking chances, but if anything is a critical part of a good habit set of a startup founder it’s a willingness to do just that.

Habit 2: Be customer centric A startup is an experiment, and progress requires an unwavering commitment to the customer, rather than your product. You need to develop an obsessive habit and mind-set of living in your customer’s world. Understanding customers provides you with a greater opportunity to earn their attention. Spend time on what touches a customer, and don’t do anything to yoru product that doesn’t generate revenue. Focus on making valuable things. Everything else is noise.

Habit 3: Make decisions You have to be action led. From daily operations to strategic direction choices, waffling with indecision just will not work. The ability to make decisions is directly related to your sense of confidence, so if you find yourself not knowing which choice to make, remind yourself that you have more insight into what you’re doing than anyone else, and trust your instincts. Don’t create obstacles. When others create obstacles, move on and keep building.

Habit 4: Avoid the crowds Conventional wisdom yields conventional results. Joining the crowd – no matter how trendy or ‘hot’ the moment, is a recipe for mediocrity or ‘me2’ at best. Remarkably successful startup founders by definition habitually do what other people won’t do. They go where others don’t because there’s less competition and a much greater chance for success. Make your business about one simple problem, and solve it.

Habit 5: Always look for the upside Problems are a regular part of startup life, it can often seem like everything is jam side down. To achieve success, look at both sides of the coin – every problem has an opportunity. Being opportunity focused makes you more positive about seeing potential in every situation. The habit of a positive mind-set is key. It’s easy to be critical. Especially in private. Don’t be.

Habit 6: Get out of the building The startup founders we’ve worked with consistently name the one habit they felt contributed the most to their success. Each said the habit and ability to ‘think customer’ and get out of the building is key. Having conversations with potential customers is a key habit to building value in your product and building relationships. You don’t need to sell, you just need to be in conversations.

Habit 7: Start at the end Average success is often based on setting average goals. Decide what you really want: to be the best, the fastest, the most innovative, whatever. Aim for the ultimate. Decide where you want to end up. That is your goal. Then you can work backwards and lay out every step along the way. Never start small where goals are concerned. The habit of thinking big, looking to the horizon and working backwards is vital to growth.

Habit 8: Be organised Sometimes having a head full of big ideas can lead to thinking being a bit scattered. The difference between an ideas person who remains ineffective in implementation, and someone who achieves success, falls on having an ability and habits to be organised enough to follow through with them. Prefer action to thinking, spend time planning and a lot more time doing, but know why and where you’re heading.

Habit 9: Make small bets and make them quickly There is no guarantee anyone will buy your great idea. Your resources are limited and you don’t want to risk everything on one roll of the dice. Get out in the market fast and let potential customers tell you if you are onto something. Respond to feedback, change course and act. The habit of being flexible allows us to respond to changes without being paralyzed with fear and uncertainty

Habit 10: …and they don’t stop there Achieving a goal, no matter how huge, isn’t the finish line for most startup founders, rather it just creates a launch pad for achieving another goal. Startup founders are restless, and don’t try to win just one race, they expect to win a number of subsequent races.

Habit 11: Don’t be afraid or embarrassed by failure James Dyson, creator of the famous Dyson vacuum, is no stranger to failure. In fact, he embraces it. He made 5,127 prototypes of his vacuum before he got it right. There were 5,126 failures. But I learned from each one. That’s how I came up with a solution he says. Dyson’s point is that if you want to discover something new, you’re bound to fail a few times and that’s okay. The habit of being resilient and not taking no for an answer stood him in good stead

Habit 12: Be true to yourself Steve Jobs succeeded by following his own ‘inner voice, heart and intuition’. He said, Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition. If you must, put your name to it and articulate your analysis objectively. Say it to their face.

How many of these habits do you recognise in yourself? What else do you do that adds to the list? Let me know!