The path to building a successful startup begins with the founder's relentless focus on solving a real problem they care deeply about. It requires finding a trusted co-founder, zeroing in on the product above all else, and constantly striving to delight users. As an investor, Ron Conway looks for tireless, ambitious founders with this product-centric mindset. He cares more about their inspirational origin stories than complex business plans. By supporting founders this way, Conway has fueled the growth of hundreds of startups. His advice underscores that at its core, entrepreneurship is about people who create value through technology. With passion and perseverance, great companies can be built from simple insights and human connection.
- Ron Conway believes entrepreneurs are born, not made. They need innate traits like drive, ambition, aggression, and toughness.
- Other skills like recruiting and managing can be learned. Leading by example is effective.
- The best founders are obsessed with their product to the exclusion of everything else.
- Founders should pick co-founders who are as excited about the idea as they are.
- Investors should back people, not ideas. Back founders who focus on product and users.
- Admit when things aren't working and change course. Morale often improves after these tough conversations.
Questions and Answers:
Q: What are the key traits you look for when investing in startup founders?
A: I'm looking for innate drive, ambition, aggression and toughness. Starting a company is brutally hard, so founders need those raw traits to power through the challenges. I also want to see founders who are completely obsessed with their product - almost irrationally so. They should be focused on improving the product and getting users, not fame or money. If the founder cares deeply about solving a problem for people, success tends to follow.
Q: How do you know when a startup idea is bad versus just too early?
A: I don't even try to evaluate the idea, I just look at the founder. I've learned that great founders can make almost any idea work. What matters is their grit to see it through and get to product-market fit. If the founder is compelling, I'll trust them to figure out the idea over time. Often the most successful ideas sounded terrible at first - it took conviction and iteration to reveal their potential.
Q: What advice do you have for first-time startup founders?
A: My number one advice is to be honest with yourself. When something isn't working, face that reality quickly. Don't remain in denial - it just wastes time and money. The best founders constantly evaluate their progress and aren't afraid to change course. I've seen the most success when founders get their team together and have an open conversation about what's not working and how to fix it. It may feel tough, but it often leads to an explosion in morale and progress.
Q: What mistakes do first-time founders often make?
A: One common mistake I see is founders not focusing enough on recruiting the right team. Especially early on, you need people who are as passionate about the vision as you are. Take your time to find co-founders and first employees who get intrinsically excited by what you're building. Don't just hire warm bodies or random people from your network. Getting the right early team in place is so important.
Q: How can founders balance persistence with being flexible?
A: Tenacity matters tremendously, but it needs to be tempered with openness to feedback and new data. The most successful founders have strong convictions anchored around solving a real problem for users. But they're also ruthlessly pragmatic - if usage data shows something isn't working, they'll quickly adapt. They don't get too attached to their original ideas. It's a balance between sticking to your vision and being flexible on the details.
Q: What role can investors play in helping founders succeed?
A: The best investors act as true partners to founders. Rather than just provide money, they give constructive advice, connections, and moral support during the inevitable ups and downs. I aim to be a thought partner to founders - giving tough feedback when warranted but also encouragement to stay resilient. I'll roll up my sleeves and help them solve hard problems. Investors shouldn't meddle too much but need to be available as a resource.
Q: How do you maintain passion and avoid burnout over decades of investing?
A: I'm just as excited about helping founders now as I was 20 years ago. The key for me is focusing relentlessly on people, not financial returns. I get energy from meeting talented founders, not from making money. If you view investing as a way to partner with entrepreneurs versus chasing quick wins, it stays meaningful. I also make sure to constantly mix in young investors - their enthusiasm rubs off on me! Staying genuinely curious about founders keeps me engaged.
Q: What are signs that a founding team may not work well together long-term?
A: I watch closely how founders interact in early meetings. Healthy founding teams show mutual respect, listen to each other, and build on each other's ideas. They are collaborative versus combative. Warning signs are if one founder interrupts or talks over the other frequently. Or if they give very different answers to the same question. That likely indicates a power struggle or lack of alignment. Great founding teams compliment each other and make each other better.
Q: How important is product-market fit before raising significant funding?
A: In today's environment, it's crucial to have concrete signs of product-market fit before raising a large round. Investors want to see evidence that real users find your product valuable. Traction can come in many forms - revenue growth, active usage metrics, viral referral rates, etc. The data point depends on the product. But you need something objective vs just a vision. Shoot for at least 10% month-over-month growth as a good goalpost.
Q: What separates founders who scale gracefully versus those who don't?
A: The most successful founders are fanatical about building systems, not just hiring more people. They focus on process optimization, automation, and analytics from the start. They make complex things simple. Less successful founders take a reactive approach - they let problems grow then throw more bodies at it. That leads to complexity and waste. The best leaders architect their company to scale efficiently right from the beginning.
Q: How do you recommend founders manage work-life balance?
A: Work-life balance is a myth in early-stage startups! You need full commitment at the beginning. But founders can't sustain that pace forever. As the company matures, founders need to actively carve out time for themselves and their relationships. Build a strong executive team that you can delegate to. Take regular vacations, even if brief. And maintain perspective - know that your company will keep going fine without you there 24/7. Prioritize sleep, diet and exercise too.
The most successful startup founders exhibit inherent drive and resilience coupled with an intense focus on solving problems for users. They pick co-founders and teams who share their vision and work ethic. While persevering through challenges, they remain pragmatic and adaptable, changing course quickly when the data shows something isn't working. The best founders architect their companies for scale from the outset and work to maintain perspective, delegating to build strong teams around them. Investors should look first at the founder’s character and potential for growth, not just the idea. Backing tenacious yet flexible founders focused on delivering value to users tends to yield the greatest returns over time.
- The Launch Pad: Inside Y Combinator - Randall Stross
- Venture Deals: Be Smarter Than Your Lawyer and Venture Capitalist - Brad Feld & Jason Mendelson
- The Lean Startup - Eric Ries
- Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future - Peter Thiel
- How to Start a Startup - Sam Altman & Dustin Moskovitz, Y Combinator
- This Week in Startups - Jason Calacanis
- Masters of Scale - Reid Hoffman
- a16z Podcast - Andreessen Horowitz