There are several different archetypes of tech entrepreneurs. I’ve noticed some of these traits in myself and many other people who have built companies. I have opinions about which archetypes have a higher likelihood of achieving success, but all of them seem to work. There are also a lot of entrepreneurs who have characteristics of multiple of these archetypes and live at their various intersections. I’ve attempted to group them into five categories (but I’m sure there are plenty more): the serial inventor, the opportunist, the problem obsessor, the industry expert, and the academic.
The Serial Inventor is clinically addicted to building things. For some ADD can be a hindrance. For the serial inventor it’s a superpower. This entrepreneur believes that everything they encounter in the world can be done better. This drives them absolutely insane to the point where they need to constantly be hacking away at these problems. There is no off button for their capacity to generate ideas and actualize them. This person is usually inspiring to be around. You may use the word Genius to describe them, and their ability to go broad is remarkable.
The Opportunist is someone who sees a hole in a market and goes for it. I’ve seen a lot of Associates at VC firms fit into this category. This is a person who evaluates and maps markets, knows all about TAM, studies industry trends, and when the timing is right and they develop the guts, they pounce. The Samwer Brothers from Rocket Internet are a quintessential example of this, studying companies that work in the US and bringing them to Europe. Non-industry specific venture studios also can be grouped into the archetype. I don’t use the word “Opportunist” pejoratively – entrepreneurship is all about seeing opportunity and chasing it.
The Problem Obsessor is the entrepreneur that is absolutely obsessed with a singular problem. Sometimes it’s hyper-specific like “why can’t we do reply all over SMS?” and other times it might be super broad like “too many people die of heart disease.” A lot of times this person is a generalist. They experience a problem firsthand and then they become fervently passionate about solving it. Sometimes they only want to solve it for themselves but their solution catches fire. I love this approach because it scratches a very personal itch.
The Industry Expert is the entrepreneur who has a very unique insight into how something should work in a relatively niche environment, but believes that insight/solution may be more broadly applicable with big-business viability. These are the people who may have been working in a corner of information security or specialized databases for many years and believe they can invent something novel and important in that space. We see this a lot in enterprise, but it can be applicable anywhere. They’re steeped in an industry, have a competitive advantage in the knowledge and network they’ve accumulated, and they’re ready to leave their mark.
The Academic is the entrepreneur who finally decides that their research, scientific knowledge or invention is ready for commercialization and they’re the one to do it. Sometimes it happens by accident. Sometimes a business person (maybe an Opportunist?) gives them the nudge. Sometimes they’re just ready to rock. They’re super technical and have world-class depth in an area, and translate that knowledge into something groundbreaking.
I’ve been a couple of these. GroupMe was a very personal problem. We wanted to build reply-all SMS for our friends so we could stay in touch before, during and after music festivals. Then we realized we were building a close-ties network and just built features that made our experiences with our groups more fun. If I am being honest with myself Fundera was more of an Opportunist approach. I was inspired by companies like Lending Club and Funding Circle in 2013 and innovations in lending, and believed there was a unique moment-in-time opportunity to create a dominant platform in the US for SMB lending. I tried to convince myself that it was all about “empowering entrepreneurs.” A piece of it definitely was. But truthfully I mainly just wanted to build a great business. It’s taken me a while to admit this to myself and be totally comfortable with it.
One of the things I’ve been grappling with is an entrepreneur’s “interest longevity.” Regardless of archetype, interest in a product / business / idea / industry likely doesn’t last forever. I don’t think I could have done GroupMe for a decade and still been as passionate about the problem, and my enthusiasm for the world of SMB lending meaningfully waned towards the end of my Fundera journey. If you talk to any Problem Obsessor, Opportunist or Generalist who has built a company, they will almost always declaratively say they’ll never build another company in that industry again. I do wonder if one archetype is inherently more obsessive for longer durations, and I have immense respect for and bewilderment of entrepreneurs who remain passionate about their singular company or space for decades. It’s a superpower that I’m glad I don’t have. Mixing it up is fun for me.
Another observation is that it’s really neat when entrepreneurs from different archetypes partner with one another to start companies, and when executives who resemble these archetypes join companies. The differences in respective characteristics and motivations feed off each other for the better and ultimately create a winning environment for success. Different archetypes bring different energy and raison d’etre to the table, and that makes everything more fun.