Call it the magic ingredient or the secret formula because most of those looking for the Holy Grail in the startup world—when it comes to startups never find it.
They point robotically to timing and/or team, to business models and/or competition—but really they, we, and me are only guessing. When it comes to the secret sauce of founder success most would agree the secret ingredients remain stubbornly secret. Even the best guesses gone wrong can cost investors millions of dollars.
So allow me to counter conventional wisdom with the most pedestrian suggestion. What if the best founders came from the real world—and by real I include the nitty-gritty of bars and restaurants, where proprietors deal with the challenge of customers, staff, marketing, advertising, brand, making payroll, and running a business from soup to nuts.
Let’s start with Ben Labra, the founder and chief executive officer of Gesture, a delivery and logistics service catching fire. (To see Ben on The Accelerator, my podcast, click here.) In conventional terms, Ben has the right stuff. He went to Columbia Business School and worked at Yelp and as a coder he clearly veers to systemic innovation. For my money Gesture is immensely impressive—and the first member of The Accelerator Hot List of promising companies.
But what really gets me excited about Ben Labra and Gesture is this: at the age of 18 Ben became the owner of a KFC franchise in Denver; by 20 he owned two KFCs and sold them for his first exit.
Can you imagine selling a fast food business at that age? I can’t—and I can’t even imagine the challenges he faced in every aspect of the business. To me the rest of Ben’s resume is the frosting on the cake: by 20 he was tough, resilient, resourceful; and he knew how to run a profitable business and negotiate a successful exit. Given his experience in the realest of real worlds, I would be shocked if Gesture did not continue on its upward trajectory under his leadership.
I was inspired to write about Ben Labra when I came across Daniel Rajnoch, the co-founder and CEO of InvestBay, a company based in Prague, Czech Republic, monetizing vacation real estate on the blockchain via a hybrid credit/debit card. Daniel ran a local pub for fifteen years before making his first exit; a move into tech led to YOUR PASS mobile wallet company and exit number two.
Those experiences led him to InvestBay, another Prague startup, albeit one in an entirely different space. He and his three co-founders have assembled a team with expertise in real estate and the vacation homes business, but my guess is the secret sauce is all the days, weeks, and years Daniel Rajnoch spent in his pub in Prague dealing with every possible crisis and calamity.
You can go to a great business school or have the perfect pedigree, but only a few founders have shown the right stuff in the real world. For a startup that’s money in the bank.