Character, is personality that has been stress-tested. Founders start with a personality, but find their character only during the journey in which they will be tested by hard decisions. This is also true for most other pursuits in life.
The classical big five personality dimensions of introversion/extraversion, openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness and neuroticism are cliches that aren’t really very accurate, but so useful that we can’t get rid of. Developed in 1980s – an era that now seems distantly alien – these are five big buckets we use to throw most words humans use to describe behaviour.
I started my journey as a founder in 2016, after I decided to quit my full time job in the top employer brand and biggest telecommunications company of Istanbul. I knew that in time, this path I embarked on would change me in subtle ways. What those changes would be, that was more hard to predict. This is also true for you, if you have – or plan to – change gears.
My most certain reference point was the change I experienced after working in corporate white-collar jobs versus my character after graduating from university. 7 years, working full-time, had changed me. I was more judgemental, more cunning, more defensive against people with opaque intentions and overall less honest. My mind worked more on how we would find the culprit when things go wrong, than on fixing them. It was difficult to be honest, in how you felt and what you thought in such an environment because the reward – punishment systems built-in continuously nudged you towards being more political. Giving and taking feedback was like a page out of Sun Tzu. This 7 year period was a giant-sized learning loop (Ray Dalio’s Learning Loops) for me.
The outcome or the “gem” was this: “Put yourself in a situation which will create the character that you will love.“
Our relationship with our future selves is an indirect one. I can not directly dictate a character to my future self, but as I am the one who makes the decisions today, I can choose to play a game that will build the skills and qualities I would prefer to have.
So while I still have (or think I have) a mostly similar personality to 5 and 12 years ago, the manifestation of my character is different. Specifically, this reflects to how I think around a problem, how I choose to spend my time, my anxiety and optimism level, the type of stress I experience, how I view people I work with, how I think about markets and opportunities, the way I receive and give feedback, things I respect, things or behaviours I find harder to tolerate and have bigger patience for. Being a founder caused a change in me in all these areas, and I am so grateful for it.
But, it is not for everyone. Your personality dimensions will predict how you approach and feel around different situations, but your actual decisions will shape your work ethic and style as a founder.
How will you make hiring decisions? How openly will you share negative feedback with your team? How tolerant will you be of missed goals? Will you micro-manage? How much will you delegate? How generously will you reward and share? Will you be driven by meaning, profit, both or neither?
As you find yourself making these decisions day by day, they will become habits. Those habits will be your mental paths of least resistance and create your character. Because you will be faced with different – and mostly more complex and difficult – decisions, how you pull through will shape how your character manifests as a founder.
Is there a pattern to these changes? Yes, I think there is. Below is my personal list of character qualities that manifest most often when people turn founders. These are not only built on my experiences but also countless interviews in the Startups of London Podcasts with other founders, many meetings, featuring many startups.
Here are some ways being a founder changes a person’s character.
- You learn how little you know.
- You learn marketing, sales, tech, recruitment, finance, fundraising, customer experience, design, anything that runs a business.
- You acquire knowledge about almost all of the different domains of a business but your depth is limited so you learn to hire, trust and work with people who know more than you.
- You learn to commit to decisions. You also learn indecision is worse than a bad decision.
- You learn about complexity and how to survive in an environment where there are no perfect correct answers.
- You learn to listen to the markets and demand.
- You learn building a good business is not a 12 month endeavour but takes time.
- You learn there are no shortcuts to hard work.
- You learn you can’t ignore your health and relationships if you want to keep working. Burnout is real.
- You learn the value of partners, and managing difficult conversations.
- You learn about cashflow and start to see money differently. Money is not a way to luxury spending but a resource for business.
- You learn that capital is not just money and there are many types of capital: Your network, your language skills, your education, your mental energy levels, your time, your experiences…
- You learn you don’t need to win all arguments. Lose the fight if you have to, but win the war.
- You learn to listen to younger generations because in most matters they are the “last patch” who have a more natural understanding of the digital evolution.
- You learn to appreciate the value of creative work, even if it doesn’t always lead to profit.
- Finally, you learn that your experience gave you a different perspective and you are very likely to be best problem solver in any room you are in.