A panel of four Seattle angel investors gathered last week to discuss what characteristics they look for in startup founders — the special sauce that pushes some entrepreneurs to success.
The talk was part of a graduation event for 9Mile Labs, the Seattle startup accelerator, which was celebrating the graduation of its fifth cohort of entrepreneurs. The panelists included: Gary Rubens, angel investor and founder of StartIt Labs; Robert (Bob) Kelly, a corporate vice president at Microsoft; Heather Redman, angel investor and VP of business operations and general counsel at Indix; and Tom Casey, VP of platform and infrastructure at Apptio.
Here’s what they had to say when asked about the traits they look for:
Bob Kelly: “I look for bright eyes. I can tell the personality traits of the founders by just talking to them. You can see it, you can feel it, you can taste it. It’s a very visceral notion that that person will do what’s necessary to get the job done.”
He added: “An important thing for me is that the founders are invested because I see founders come to me and pitch, and they either don’t have any money invested or they haven’t quit their day jobs. If you’re not all in, why do you want me to be all in? If you want my hard-earned money, but you’re not willing to give your own — something’s wrong with that. There’s a certain amount of hunger and passion and survival when your house is on the the line. I personally want to see founders who are passionate enough to say, ‘This is it and I’m going to work my ass off to make it work.'”
Tom Casey: “I look for people who can learn. If you can’t, then I can’t help you. I don’t know every domain, but I want to buddy up with someone who can learn.”
Gary Rubens: “While good ideas are great, without good leadership and good systematic approach to how to build a business, they will fail. I invest in teams and people. That’s my standard. Good ideas with a bad team will fail every single time. A mediocre idea with a great team — that team will figure out how to turn that mediocre idea into something great.”
Heather Redman: “The team is definitely the core thing for me. When I talk with founders at the angel stage or the accelerator stage, I say, ‘You are the only thing in evidence. You are the only thing I can feel, assess, touch, whatever.’…[As an investor] you’ve got to really understand that founder or those co-founders and you really need to understand their relationship. A couple of things that I Iook for are: Have these guys known each other long enough? And are they willing to have those candid discussions?
Really seeing that that relationship has been tested and that they’ve been through some tough decisions and that there is commitment, that’s really, really crucial. And then, as we talked about before, it’s that big idea, that concept. I want to see something. It can be very niche to begin with…but it has to have a big world-changing idea.”