The Best Predictor of Startup Success

A 2014 article in Fortune magazine revealed that an astonishing nine out of ten startups fail. Which, of course, means that only one in ten succeeds. But what is it that makes the minority succeed?

According to the fantastically successful venture capitalist and essayist Paul Graham, there is one quality that serves as the best predictor of the success of a startup. In his illuminating 2009 essay entitled “The anatomy of determination”, he posits that determination is the quality will best predict whether a startup is doomed to fail or succeed. But hold your horses: it isn’t quite as simple as ’being  determined to succeed’, because determination comprises three complex elements:

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1. Willfulness

One reason the young sometimes succeed where the old fail is that they don’t realize how incompetent they are…”  Paul Graham

Graham says that willfulness is the purest, simplest form of determination.  It is an insistent, unstoppable, extreme desire to do something regardless of the consequences. He also notes that although circumstances can “break the spirit” of the strong willed, it is very difficult to turn a weak-willed individual into a stronger-willed one.

If you don’t possess this quality, the chances are that you don’t have the necessary passion for your product or service or, you fear the consequences of failure that discourages you to the point of giving up.

Willfulness is difficult to acquire. People who have this quality are often described as ‘intense.’ But they are the ones that are most likely to succeed.

2. Discipline

It was character that got us out of bed, commitment that moved us into action, and discipline that enabled us to follow through.” Zig Ziglar

Being wilful, on its own, is insufficient for success, according to Graham. A strong-willed person who lacks discipline is unlikely to be successful. Therefore, the next component of the determination required to grow a successful startup is discipline – to balance willfulness. Graham asserts that the more wilful you are, the more disciplined you will need to be, to rein in your excesses or your impulses. He adds that if you don’t have the rigour of discipline, you will end up giving in to your impulses.

It has been said that discipline is the bridge between your goals and your accomplishments. (And thankfully, discipline can be cultivated.) Discipline is the quality you’ll observe in people who never miss a workout; who stay focused on the task at hand. For entrepreneurs, discipline is the attitude readjustment that oils the wheels of success. Discipline is what will lead to financial restraint when it matters, enabling you to delay gratification in order to maximise your returns. Discipline is what will enable you to treat your finite but easily squandered resources – for example, your time – as precious commodities. The world’s most successful entrepreneurs are famously laser- focused  and tend to be extremely organized and highly intolerant of inefficiency.

Graham notes that the greater your willfulness component, the more dangerous it will be to be undisciplined, adding that, “there seem to be plenty of examples to confirm that.” He also observes that if you are determined enough to reach your goals, the number of temptations that surround you will also increase. Therefore, he says, it is important to remain “proportionally disciplined” so that your willfulness does not “get the upper hand”.

3. Ambition

“When you take people like this and put them together with other ambitious people, they bloom like dying plants given water.” Paul Graham

Ambition is the final major component of determination that Graham describes. It is, he says,” how you choose your destination”. Achievement feeds ambition and boosts confidence but, according to Graham, ambitious people are few and far between and so they will rarely get the encouragement they need to succeed.

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These three components - ’wilfulness’ balanced by ’discipline’ and a healthy dose of ’ambition’ - are the sum total of determination: the key ingredient for startup success according to Paul Graham.

Are you surprised by this? Do you agree, or disagree? Share your opinion in the comments box below!

Paul Graham