Six skills for startup success: What founders can do to improve their chances before they take the plunge

In this video, we talk about what skills a future founder can and should work on before they take the plunge into starting something. Let's get into it. 

Do you have the skills and do you have what it takes? First off, here's the list and it's pretty long. 

The more things out of this list you are actually familiar with, the more likely you will succeed. 

We all want to be a part of a rocket ship as it's taking off but we don't want to join anything that will fail without us. And as a result, we repel people when we need them the most. And in the same way, we attract them when we have other options. This is a key fact of life. 

The more of these skills you have, the more you will attract high quality people to come work with you, whether it's cofounders or employees. 

If you're early in your career, know that you should try and figure out which of those skills you can be particularly good at. What do you enjoy? 

At the same time, learn the other parts too. You might not enjoy working on some of these skills, but every single one of them will help you along on your journey. And because you're strong at those parts, you will be much more complimentary. 

Be deep in one or two of these areas but broad enough to be dangerous in the rest. You actually need this to be able to tell who's actually good in those positions and to be able to work with those best people in those expertise areas. 

Do you have to have it all figured out before you start?

I want to be super explicit here- you don't have to have all of these things figured out. Deciding to start is a very personal decision. There are people who have very few of these things and still succeed, and there are also people who have all of those skills listed and they fail. Starting a start-up isn't deterministic like that. You're taking risk and these skills make it a more calculated risk. 

All right, let's start. 


When it comes to engineering, we're talking about technical prowess. You have to have the basics down. You don't need a computer science degree but it sure does help. 

Technology remains the key leverage in this world. It's the ultimate moat. When you have a piece of code or an algorithm figured out that nobody else has, when you have something like PageRank, that's the ultimate moat for Google and it protects something that is worth billions and billions of dollars. Someone can't just walk in off the street and take that from them. They'd have to build PageRank first. 

If you don't have engineering as a core skill, here's what you can do.

I realize a lot of different kinds of people are watching this video. So I don't want to discourage you. 

If you have technical skills, great, that's table stakes. If you don't, then you do have to team up with someone who does. And if you don't know how to do that, then you should try to learn enough to get dangerous with it. 

Most people who try to find technical cofounders don't even make the simple effort of understanding the craft. But if you understand the craft and you can build a good but not perfect version of what you ultimately want to build, you can get the ball rolling. It'll immediately distinguish you against this sea of nontechnical people who are also trying to find a technical cofounder. 

Again, you don't have to be the best at this but it helps. All I'm saying is that if you don't know how to code or you don't have a technical background, you should keep an open mind and you should learn. 

How do you acquire this skill? 

Well, while top CS schools remain the gold standard. Increasingly, there are great ways to learn how to code online. Codecademy, for instance, is amazing at this, or for scientists who want to train up into the data science and data engineering roles, there are amazing fellowships out there like Insight Fellows. Link in the description if you want to watch my video on that. 

There's a YC startup named Career Karma that is also an amazing way for people to break into tech. They'll even help you find the right bootcamp or figure out if the bootcamp path is right for you. 


Next is product. Being able to do product, being able to run the product function is about knowing what to build and for whom. 

I really like Suhail Doshi's lesson about product and here's what he says

Product is about knowing what to build. It's basically being able to run the process on a machine to continually find and refine product market fit. This isn't a one time thing. This is a constant process. 

How do you acquire this skill? 

Unfortunately, there's not an obvious way to become a good product person, short of practicing it. So that's why working on projects in your spare time is probably my best recommendation to learn product. Build something and release it, release it to users and see if they stick with it. 

Talk to users and see why they did or didn't take to it. Did it solve their problem? What are their hangups? 


The next big thing to really focus on is design. And when we're talking about design, there are actually two parts to this: interaction design, also known as user experience, and visual design. UX and interaction design is about how it works and visual design is how it looks. 

Most people think about visual design when they hear the word design. It's a skill like drawing or painting. You can work on it, this skill can be cultivated and I think there are two practical aspects of visual design to really note. 

One is really being able to do it yourself. And the fact is, most founders would get a lot out of this skill but it's not required for them. It sure does help if you're particularly consumer though. Being able to do it yourself just means faster iteration time. 

The second aspect is probably more important and that is having taste. So being able to know when a design does or doesn't work. Does it fit the aesthetic? Does it fit the mood? Does it speak to your customer? Does it convey the right level of quality? Taste is something that is very important, particularly for consumer, but these days, for all businesses. 

Now, interaction design is probably the meat of design when I think about it. Interaction design is most directly related to product. And it's about taking the ideas of who's it for and what problem are we solving and it brings it to the level of how. 

  • Where do you put the buttons and what do you say on those buttons? 
  • What do you say around those pages to get people through something really complicated? 
  • How do you break up a complex multi-step process into something manageable? 
  • And how do you make sure the user knows where they are and where they want to go? 

One of my favorite books on how to learn the basics is Don't Make Me Think by Steve Krug. I actually did a two hour talk on Y Combinator Startup School on YouTube that you can watch right now. It's also a link in the description. 

Sales and Marketing

Next is sales and marketing. As Ryan Peterson of Flexport says, "Sales is the most underrated profession." 

My cofounder Alexis Ohanian talks about how everybody is a brand and a brand's ability to capture attention has never mattered more. 

Brand is super important because every business today is a meme. It's never been easier for a startup to access exactly the people who have that problem. Sales, marketing, being able to sell, being able to get in front of people, it's super key. 


Finance is another key skill to work on. 

This isn't super important at the outset. Engineering, product, sales, marketing, they're really the key to getting product market fit but financial literacy is absolutely essential once you go from zero to one. 

Matt MacInnis from Rippling says:

Finance is a fundamental too in helping you figure out how to repeatedly grow and how well you're actually doing on that front. Every business in the world is either growing or dying and you can't really tell which one you're doing if you don't have the metrics to measure it. 

Finance and budgeting allows you to make sense of the decisions you have to make in a business. 

  • Should you hire that executive and let them build a team? 
  • Should you invest in that new office? 
  • When do you get paid back for those things and do they make economic sense? 

Management and Leadership

One of the most important skills is actually leadership and people management. How do you lead and how to do you get people to do things, sometimes without authority? Well, by example, for one. 

Most people think being a leader is about being stern or having some sort of authority. Harvard professor Barbara Kellerman says, "Followers are more important to leaders "than leaders are to followers." 

This is why leading from empathy is more powerful. It creates a more connected team that can weather more storms and make better decisions together. 

There's more to being a leader than being empathetic though, of course. The next stage is to hold people accountable. And in practice this is very hard because you have to have very crucial conversations, hard discussions about when things didn't go right, ideally as constructively as possible, while also having the impact you need to have. This bad thing, it can't continue. 

How do you acquire this skill? 

Well, if you're still in school, one of the best ways to do it is find leadership positions that let you run programs and coordinate people. That might be an after school sport, that might be a club, things right there in your school. 

At work, there are even more very direct ways to exercise this. Take on projects that require coordination, ideally with many people, and try to actually drive to some sort of numerical outcome. 

  • Can you actually increase sales by X percent? 
  • Did you and your team create X amount of value for that company? 

The best book I can think of that a lot of people haven't read because it has a very cheesy title is actually How to Win Friends and Influence People. It's one of the most obvious ways to put to work a bunch of skills that you need to be successful across the whole gamut of skills really. Read that book and you'll be a better leader but you'll also get better at all the other skills too. 

Master these skills to build a world-class team— that's how you build the best startup

So that was a lot of things and the reality is it takes a lifetime, or maybe two, to even get good at one or maybe two of these things, let alone getting to passable in the others. 

How do you put lifetimes of experience together in a room (well it could be a Zoom room) in order to make something great? Well, you just described the process of putting together a startup, a startup team. 

People talk about founders a whole lot but founders are often the speck of dust that forms the crystalline structure that actually solves a real problem. And this is why teams are so crucial. 

Any given single human being could probably only get truly great at one or two of these skills but you need a team of people who are great at all of these in order to build a startup or business that really matters. 

Finally, remember you don't have to have all of these things figured out. Deep expertise in one or two of these things and then a broader view on the other skills is all you really have time to do in a lifetime. 

And having all of the right skills is still no guarantee you'll find the right idea or build the right team. 

But that's why you're reading this. If you want to hear more about ideas and teams please subscribe below. It all helps me a ton so that I can try and help you all.