Five tech start-up accelerators reveal what they look for in candidates--and what they try to avoid. Hint: Being a jerk isn't always a bad thing.
Launch festival founder Jason Calacanis (left) quizzes the founders of five top start-up accelerators on what they look for in applicants. From left: David Cohen of TechStars, Thomas Korte of AngelPad, Halle Tecco of Rock Health, Jeff Eddings of Media Camp, and Adeo Rossi of The Founder Institute.
In case you haven't been paying attention, accelerator programs like Y Combinator and TechStars have become a crucial part of the tech start-up community. Y Combinator alone has a reported net worth north of $7 billion, and has launched more than 500 start-up companies in the past seven years.
In other words, these programs have become the ultimate launch pad for many big ideas and promising entrepreneurs. But getting in isn't easy. There's the competitive application process and sometimes steep application fees. And then there's the issue of personality.
At the 2013 Launch festival in San Francisco Tuesday, emcee Jason Calacanis asked a panel of partners from five start-up accelerators about the personality part: Do you think people have to be narcissistic and ruthless to be a good entrepreneurs?
If you aspire to get accepted to an accelerator, pay attention.
There are certainly personality traits common to entrepreneurs, says Adeo Rossi. His start-up incubator, The Founder Institute, puts together in-depth psychological profiles of all their applicants. For example, curiosity and openness are good indicators of entrepreneurial success, he explains.
“You have to be product-obsessed,” offered AngelPad partner Thomas Korte, who believes that successful entrepreneurs are relentless, if not ruthless. “If you can be talked out of being an entrepreneur, you probably shouldn’t be doing it,” he adds.
So, curiosity and drive pay off... but back to the question: Do you have to be a jerk to get ahead?
Rossi explained that he’s seen some spectacular growth from companies led by people with the personality traits described above. But those companies also follow an oft-repeated script, he says. First, the company grows like gangbusters. Then, suddenly, everything falls apart.
“It’s like the ship has crashed and there are no survivors,” Rossi says. He explains that non-sustainable business practices and flimsy founder relationships are often at the root of these failures.
Korte agrees. He cites founder break-ups and dysfunctional teams as the leading reasons for failure among accelerator-funded companies.
Think about it, he says. Starting a company with someone that you met at an accelerator event is like proposing to a romantic partner after knowing her for only a few weeks.
“At AngelPad, we look for founders who have demonstrated commitment to each other,” says Korte.
It Pays to Play Well With Others...
Halle Tecco of Rock Health, a healthcare-vertical accelerator program, adds that she also looks critically at entrepreneurs who don’t play well with others.
“We filter for personality,” she says. “We work with these people in the pit for months. We are creating a sustainable community, looking for people who are going to give back.”
Accelerators, Tecco says, want to create a network of talent that can tackle difficult problems--they're not as interested in maverick companies that grow fast but burn bridges. “Even if this business doesn’t work out, we invested in [each entrepreneur] as a person,” she says. “We are opening their networks to include other entrepreneurs and maybe go beyond their current business.”
...But Jerks Have Value Too
Of course, excluding the talented jerks might be hazardous, too. Especially to an accelerator’s bottom line.
“So let’s say you don’t accept the Zuckerbergs,” Calacanis asked the panel, referencing Facebook’s notoriously difficult-to-work-with founder. “Are you worried about missing them?” After all, he points out: Facebook is kind of a big deal.
When it comes to investing, says TechStars partner David Cohen, talking about personality is great. But sometimes a bad team player comes up with a great idea and “you have to take that risk.” He says that those outlier personalities are often the most powerful visionaries.
Of course, talent doesn't means you can get away with anything. Not unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs, apparently--and even that may be changing.
Tecco believes that the start-up world will thrive without the presence of talented jerk personalities. “I think there are enough good people [who are entrepreneurs] out there that we don’t need the assholes,” she says.
FRANCESCA FENZI reports on entrepreneurship, technology and small business news from San Francisco. Her work has previously appeared in TIME, USA Today, Pop City and The Northside Chronicle. @FrancescaFenzi