Do I trust these founders with this market?

Alfred Lin, once mentioned to me how important founder-market fit is to a start-up’s success. His point (if I’m remembering correctly) was that the depth of passion a founder feels for their market is a powerful predictor of whether they’ll make it through the hard times, and build something enduring.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot since and I’ve realised that the products that I get most invested in are the ones where on a deep, gut level, I trust the founders or leaders of the company to define the future of something that I care about – more so than anyone else out there. The trusted ‘guardians’ of a market’s long term destiny. I think it boils down to 3 things:

  • passion: a hackneyed word in start-up land but broadly some deep fascination and reverence for their market
  • integrity
  • ambition: for what their market could become (more so than for themselves)

I think the first time I got that feeling was with Google. Everything about their culture and product embodied a fascination and love for information and learning, and a wild ambition for what a company that focused on ‘organising the world’s’ information could achieve for humanity.  I’d read about their work to digitise every book and I’d be shocked by the ambition, and I’d feel it in every interface decision, that emphasized utility and access for everyone. I came to trust, that Google deserved to be and should be the company to organise the world’s information, and as a user, I wanted them to succeed.

The first indicator of such a founding team is some kind of ambition to make a market, a wild-eyed order of magnitude better. If the closest thing to an owner of the ‘information’ market in the past were libraries, Google felt like a transformative, expansive ambition. The founders that I have gotten to know well who embody this are people like Alex and Eric at Soundcloud, who believe that ‘audio’ as a digital experience, should be much broader and wider than just music. Or Yancey and Perry at Kickstarter, who believe that the world’s creative output could be so much greater than current structures allow. That level of ambition, faced with existing monopolies, incumbencies and inertia in the market, usually means that change takes time. Perry and Yancey were working on Kickstarter since 2005, and had a ton of knockbacks in the early years. That depth of passion for creators was necessary to get through that first phase. Alex and Eric are now backed by some of the best investors in the world, but early on, they too struggled to find supporters who could see how different things could be.

Often the first indicator of this depth of passion and vision is an unconventional background prior to founding their business. Alex was a sound engineer; Perry and Yancey had bounced around various roles in creative industries from Pitchfork to art galleries. A level of dissatisfaction, and searching prior to founding their companies seems part of the story. And part of the ambition and integrity that will bear no long-term compromise.

Once I come to feel this about a product and it’s founders, I start to believe in their vision, even if on a gut level it doesn’t yet make sense to me as a consumer. Personally for me, audio is largely the same as music, but I believe that Eric and Alex, can see into that market’s future further than I can. I feel the same trust for Anthony Volodkin with ‘cultural curators’, Drew and Arash with ‘my personal digital content’ and Chris Poole and ‘identity’.

It’s a lovely feeling when that happens.

The flipside of this is when you see a founding team or leader who is currently representing a market, and you don’t yet feel that sense of trust that they are the right guardians of its destiny. I think if a founding team does not possess passion, integrity and ambition for their market it can still lead to a ton of medium success, but not an enduring company.