Silicon Valley veteran Susan Wu on what makes a successful founder and the biggest mistake early-stage startups can make

According to “hacker, entrepreneur and investor” Susan Wu, anyone can be a world-leading entrepreneur.

Wu, who has worked with tech giants like Twitter, Square and Reddit, and is the founder of Ohai, FreeAgent.com and the Above All Human conference, says that with the right training, anybody can gain the traits needed to succeed as an entrepreneur.

“I believe that through persistent effort of hacking one’s own biases, through patterns, habits and inclinations, it’s possible to affect genuine, deep change into someone’s personal characteristics,” Wu says in an AMA session run by Blackbird Ventures.

“So I believe anyone, anywhere can become a great entrepreneur.”

Wu says that there is a number of key characteristics that set successful entrepreneurs out from the pack.

“What I’ve found to be common of successful founders, regardless of how they came by these traits, is a deep inquisitiveness and resilience, a commitment to always be learning, always be a beginning and always be open-minded,” she says.

“The best founders are tall poppies. They have to be comfortable being different, seeing things that other people can’t see and not being afraid to stand alone in that field.”

Wu has worked with countless founders as both an investor and a founder, and says that the biggest mistake she says people make is not thinking with broad global ambition.

“The biggest common mistake I see among founders is when they can’t build a team, a product, a vision or a company bigger than themselves,” she says.

“Often times in order to take the leap from promising idea to scaling entity founders need to be able to build something that’s larger than themselves and their own personal capability – more adaptive, more resilient, more creative, more mature or more disciplined.”

To combat this, she says it’s crucial that founders are open to seeking outside advice and mentoring.

“The founders that are most dangerous to their businesses are those who can’t see their own blind spots or can’t even understand that they might have blind spots that they can’t see themselves,” Wu says.

“Those who can see their own blind spots can at least hire around them or remedy them in some way, if not directly. There’s a reason why all of the best Silicon Valley founders have executive coaches – they’ve realised that they themselves need to level up if their companies have any hope of levelling up.

“The trick is to make sure the coach isn’t just a mirror but actually facilitates deep insight and evolution.”

The question and answer session with the prominent Melbourne entrepreneur also included a number of other useful lessons and takeaways.

Going global from Australia

While it will inevitably be tough, Wu says there’s nothing stopping a company from going global from a base in Australia.

“There’s a lot to be optimistic about here,” she says.

“There are more and more people working at successful startups, getting invaluable training of what it takes to work at a globally scaling tech company and there’s more genuine risk capital available.

“Will you need to hustle harder and more cleverly for each dollar of equity valuation compared to your average Silicon Valley startup?

“Yes. But you can still succeed from here and that’s what’s important.”

How to build the Australian startup ecosystem

An improved knowledge of what success actually looks like and a further adoption of an entrepreneurial culture will help the Australian startup ecosystem grow and take on the world, she says.

“I think the biggest gap in Australia’s startup ecosystem today is not enough community knowledge of what ‘quality’ looks like across the board,” Wu says.

“If you’re building to win globally you’re not just competing to be the best X in Australia, you’re competing against the most focused competitors worldwide.

“More systematic learning and internalisation of what it really takes to succeed, to be the best in the world, is important.”

Australian society in general also needs to more fully embrace its already successful founders and entrepreneurs, Wu says.

“Entrepreneurs and VCs aren’t as celebrated in pop culture and in the media here as they are elsewhere,” she says.

“There isn’t as much social validation for becoming an entrepreneur and those who have self-selected to be founders today generally have unique characteristics that speak to their underlying commitment to the journey.

“Australia has unbelievable resources in engineering, hard sciences and research. The business, tech and product community need to do a better job of integrating with these communities to build new businesses.”

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