Much has been written about the skills a startup founder should possess: intelligence, drive, charisma, integrity and so on. Even luck. But I am surprised that no one ever mentions one of the most important skills: knowing what is barely possible.
A good startup, almost by definition, goes after what is barely possible.
The realm of what is possible is constantly expanding over time, driven by progress (which is more than just technology). The most important skill for a founder is the ability to deeply understand what new possibilities are being created every day.
If the founder aims too high, they go after an impossible mission. Concretely, this usually means “the market wasn’t ready”, or something along those lines. If the founder aims too low, they are late to the party. Today, this could mean someone starting yet another groupon clone. The founder needs to aim just right.
As a VC, the best way to convince me of the potential of a company was always to explain to me why this particular idea or business would not have been possible 6 months or 12 months ago, and why it is finally possible today. There’s nothing like that feeling you get when you believe that you understand where the frontier of what is possible lies today, and in which direction it is expanding.
This applies to execution as well, not just to the idea. Until the company really matures (no longer a startup), knowing what is barely possible remains a crucial skill for the founder. It means that you understand what you should aim for when looking for co-founders, early hires, customers, investors, partners, press coverage, etc.
Again, aim too high and you may not raise any money because you underestimated what proof points you needed. Aim too low and you may settle for a team that is not the best fit for you, or let your competitors beat you to the punch with your customers.
As a startup founder these days, I make dozens of decisions per day, and every time, I am guided by my sense of what is barely possible. That is how I know where to aim. Only time will tell whether the decisions were right… I never said I had that skill!
But I do believe this skill has been neglected by the blogosphere and it is worth making it part of the conversation.
As for how to deal with the fact that everyone else around you thinks it’s actually IMpossible? That’s a subject for another day…