At the pre-seed/ seed stage, I have generally observed 2 founder personas – the ‘Storyteller’ and the ‘Scrapper’:
A. The Storyteller
Extremely articulate at painting the vision and market opportunity. This persona typically comes from pedigreed educational institutions (hence, great communication skills). Often, they have been execs at large corporates, Big Tech companies, and/ or brand-name, growth-stage startups.
Courtesy of this top-tier background, this persona has a naturally strategic, top-down view of the market they are going after, including the “why now?”, secular growth trends, market gaps, competition etc.
This persona is also great at spotting and riding waves, and therefore, is often building at the edge of hot trends (eg. Web3 a few years back, AI now).
This persona has a thoughtful view of how the ‘company’ will scale in the coming years. Everything from hiring and global expansion to marketing and M&A. In general, this persona will talk more about the opportunity, market, growth and scaling, and less about getting the 1st customer, writing early code, design and other aspects of building.
It’s easy to visualize this persona as the Founder and CEO of a multi-billion $ company. Therefore, Investors love this person. Period.
B. The Scrapper
Natural tinkerer in a very specific space. Typically, this interest germinated during teenage or through college. In many cases, this interest was considered obtuse or nerdy by mainstream observers, and hence, this persona is relatively less understood, perhaps viewed as quirky and therefore, underestimated.
Their creative energy manifests in hacking software, teaming up with friends on specific projects, building products as a hobby, or doing side hustles on the weekend.
This persona typically doesn’t have much capital, nor are investors lining up outside their door. So either by choice or fate, there is no option but to build in scarcity.
In fact, this persona is less likely to view their work as a ‘company’. They have a deep and unending curiosity about something and just want to put it out in the world, hoping that maybe a handful of us will ‘get’ it.
This persona thrives in a bottoms-up view of their space – their eyes light up when discussing technology, code, features, users, and anything related to building. They suck at top-down, so-called strategic discussions of possible markets their work could serve.
It’s hard to visualize this person as the Founder and CEO of a multi-billion $ company. Therefore, Investors largely pass over this person.
C. The Scrappy Storyteller
The dream is to spot a founder who blends the attributes of the Storyteller and the Scrapper. Someone who can both build with their own hands, as well as explain with utmost simplicity and clarity, why what they are building matters to the world.
As I was drawing this Venn diagram, the one founder who immediately came to my mind was Peyush Bansal of Lenskart. I still vividly remember him pitching to our entire investment team for Series A in 2011 – it was a poetic combination of Storytelling backed by Scrappy execution. Peyush stays as a gold standard founder persona in my head to this day.
So, how does one spot the Scrappy Storyteller? Anecdotally, I have seen a few contexts where this persona lives:
- Fresh grads of good universities, with a builder DNA.
- Repeat founder with sub-scale outcomes in previous startups and/ or ‘a point to prove’.
- ‘Hacker’ personality with good communication skills and a high-potential side project.
- Deep domain/ research expertise with commercial DNA, often building in university labs.
- Solid professionals who are under-estimated or ignored as per mainstream social criteria.
- First-time founder who is executing on fumes, clawing and scrapping to early customers.
Of course, these are just some examples from my lived experiences as a venture investor. The whole point that makes venture capital extremely challenging and exciting as a vocation is that there is zero predictability in where the best founders can be scouted. It’s like going on tiger safaris in India – you might spot one in the wild during the first trip itself, or it might take multiple trips over several years.
D. Can one persona gradually grow into the other?
While all investors are on a perpetual quest to repeatedly find the dream Scrappy Storyteller persona, the reality is most founders would be more indexed on one side, to begin with.
However, the beauty of entrepreneurship is that it’s an extremely long game of survival. Therefore, irrespective of the starting point, founders with a growth mindset can gradually evolve into incorporating the strengths of the other persona, becoming an ideal blend of the two over the journey.
So the key question then becomes – how does one spot which Storyteller can eventually transform into a Scrapper? Or which Scrapper can grow into a Storyteller?
Here are some heuristics I have been experimenting with:
1/ Storyteller ➡ Scrapper
It’s very hard to convert someone into a builder. It’s like what they say in cricket – you can’t teach a fast bowler to bowl fast. Either one has it or doesn’t.
If one hasn’t developed Scrappiness as a muscle through life experience, then the only way to develop it is to go through the fire during the startup journey and not give up while at it.
Surviving for long requires grit. And grit is an outcome of an underlying emotion, which is “How badly do you want to win?”. Whenever I meet a Storyteller, I try to spot signals that help me get conviction around this single question.
2/ Scrapper ➡ Storyteller
I believe that while Scrapping is a muscle that is built over many years via braving adversity and hardships, Storytelling is a learned skill that can be honed with expert coaching and practice.
In my own venture career both institutionally as well as individually, I have seen numerous examples of Scrappy founders gradually becoming awesome Storytellers. More global exposure, as well as tools and guidance provided by VCs, really helps in this.
However, while the odds of a Scrapper becoming a Storyteller are generally positive, one still needs to evaluate how quickly and to what quality can a particular founder evolve?
In this regard, I have come to look for the following signals:
- Basic communication skills – like command over the language, elementary articulation, clarity of thinking, logical thinking, creating arguments, and basic persuasion skills. It’s like scouting for fast bowlers in Pakistan – if the kid is bowling fast bare feet, with a tennis ball on an uneven dusty playground, the raw material is there for a premier fast bowler.
- Coachability – self-awareness to recognize personal gaps, humility to seek solutions from experts, listening skills to assimilate feedback, and courage to work on it and become better.
E. The key message
As individuals, we all have our strengths and weaknesses. Ideally, we should choose to play games in life where our natural strengths give us an ‘edge’. Entrepreneurship is the toughest of such games. If you do choose to play it, I believe it’s important to have the self-awareness to map your gaps, and the growth mindset to work on them. If one can follow this approach and survive long enough in the game, success is almost inevitable.
PS: this post is a result of a recent brainstorming session over WhatsApp with my friend and deep tech VC Arjun Rao of Speciale Invest. Thanks so much for your thought partnership in framing this 🙏🏽
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