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5 Things Successful Founder Operators Do Differently

February 16, 2023

I am fortunate in my current job to spend a lot of time talking to other founders and CEOs. I mentor and coach them, my company and I help counsel them on executive and board searches, and I spend time with them at conferences and seminars. Even when I am giving them advice, I always take time to learn what they’re doing, what works, and what doesn’t work. I’ve noticed a consistent set of behaviors and practices common among the successful founder operators—the ones who go on to lead their companies through multiple chapters of growth and sometimes never hire the “seasoned operator” to come in and take over.

#1 - They are students of the game. It’s easy to get mired in the day to day details of building a business from scratch. The best founders are the ones who take time to watch, read, and learn. They want to see what other entrepreneurs do and they ask probing questions about what works and doesn’t work. They read blog posts, articles, and books. They listen to podcasts and constantly try to apply learnings to their company. They seek out coaches and mentors.

#2 - They have positive and regular (and sometimes extreme) personal habits. It’s easy to get sucked into working all the time when you’re building a business from scratch and counting every penny and every minute. However, observing how successful CEOs manage their time shows that either very early mornings or very late nights are pretty common, and not in the way you might think. A 4:30 or 5am alarm for regular exercise, or drawing a hard line around “no work after 6” means the leader is committed to personal time to stay fresh, and connect with friends and family. Abraham Lincoln is quoted as having said “Give me 6 hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

#3 - They know how to leverage themselves. It’s easy as a founder to think you’re the only person who can get something done. Delegation is hard, and it often involves investing more time to train someone else how to do something than doing it yourself. The best founders figure out how to squeeze every minute out of the day by remembering that building a startup is a team sport and that building up the team around them is the key to their own productivity.

#4 - They have great work hygiene. It’s easy to not respond to emails or texts or Slack messages because they’re not the most important thing you have going on. It’s easy to not send a thank you note after a meeting or take time to connect with a colleague on a human level. The best founders are the ones who know the power of their own words, the power of their own presence, and who find the time to inject that power into others’ lives.

#5 - They have a recurring belief in creative destruction. It’s easy to create a new company because there’s a need in the market to disrupt incumbents. Creative destruction is central to the story of entrepreneurs everywhere. It’s very hard to apply that same creative destruction mentality to your own work. The best founder operators are the ones who are not just capable of tearing down an industry…but are equally capable and enthusiastic about tearing down their own product, their own team, and their own business processes in order to build them back up. MVPs are often too “M” and need to be replaced and upgraded consistently over time.

None of these practices is the path of least resistance—they require extra effort. I’m not sure what the cause and effect is here. A weak founder with bad product market fit and an untrusting attitude towards employees can’t just start waking up early and reading a lot and magically become successful. But on the margin, enough correlation leads me to believe that there’s something in the combination of these practices that leads to the competitive edge, the informed intuition, the vision, and the ability to motivate the people around them that are common in successful founder operators.

- Matt Blumberg, February 16, 2023

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