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What we look for in a founder

What does it take to be successful as a legal tech founder?

"People with a 'Mind Set' thrive even when difficulties arise.'

- Drew

By Drew Amerson | @drew_amerson

We are currently interviewing companies to join LexLab’s accelerator program. If you think you have what it takes to launch a legal tech company, apply here!

Starting a company is hard. Things rarely go as planned. You have to learn to cope without a steady paycheck, or a steady sleep schedule. There won’t be enough hours in the day to finish everything you think should be done. You’ll make mistakes along the way. No matter how amazingly talented and brilliant you are, you’ll quickly learn that that you can’t do it all by yourself. And even after assembling an awesome and talented team, you’ll still face incredibly long odds

Considering all the challenges, taking an entrepreneurial leap of faith is not for the faint of heart. Deciding to strike out on your own requires an extreme confidence in your intuition, work ethic and abilities. It also takes a special personality. While there is no single formula for how an entrepreneur should think, look, act or feel, here are five of the most common characteristics we’ve observed in successful founders coming though the Startup Legal Garageat UC Hastings.

1. Grit

In many startup circles, having a company fail not only serves as a badge of honor, but is viewed as a positive line on your resume. This is not just some misguided Silicon Valley swagger; there is solid research supporting the value in failing. According to Dr. Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, failing isn’t a bad thing—as long you can recognize it as a temporary state of affairs. Dr. Duckworth defines grit as passion and perseverance for long term goals. A gritty person views setbacks as temporary challenges. Being gritty means being willing to work really hard to make your long term goals a reality.

As part of her research, she had thousands of Chicago public school students take grit questionnaires. It turned out that grittier kids were significantly more likely to graduate from high school. In fact, grit proved to be a better predictor of graduating than family income, how safe the students felt at school, or most interestingly, talent. A student’s grit is more important than her standardized test scores.

All the talent in the world can’t make you gritty. In fact, grit is unrelated, or even inversely related to measures of talent. There are many talented individuals who simply cannot follow through on their commitments. Are you one of them? 

Here’s a link to Dr. Duckworth’s grit survey to find out.

2. Flexibility

Typically, when talking about startup growth, you’re likely to think about things like customer acquisition and revenue targets. But you should also be thinking about how you can develop and maintain a “growth mindset.” The phrase, which was coined by Dr. Carol Dweck, refers to people who are flexible and able to adapt to a variety of challenges, regardless of how difficult they might first appear.

According to Dr. Carol Dweck, people fall on spectrum between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset struggle, believing that their intelligence and abilities are immutable. If they fail at a task, then they believe it’s not worth trying again. In other words, they lack grit. But people with a growth mindset thrive even when difficulties arise. They are flexible. Instead of giving up, they learn to approach the problem in different ways until they figure it out.They believe that personal development requires trying new things, even if that means failing again and again.

To learn where you fall on the spectrum between fixed and growth mindsets, you can take an interactive quiz.

3. Compassion

Compassion may not seem like a natural fit in the often cut-throat world of business. But when it comes to building a new product, it is essential. Compassion can be defined as having sympathetic pity for the misfortunes of others. The etymology of the word can be traced to the Middle English word compassioun, or “suffering with another.”

This idea of being able to suffer with another is the foundation to all design thinking. Before you can prototype, iterate and refine your product, you have to figure out what people really need. By putting yourself in the shoes of those folks, by truly experiencing their pain and frustration, you’ll be much more likely to creatively problem solve a solution. When you have compassion for your customer, and design from their perspective, you’ll come up with solutions that they are likely to embrace.

4. Commitment

Starting a company is a little bit like getting married. It requires a serious commitment. Maybe not quite a “til death do us part” level of commitment, but you can’t be the type of person who’ll be lured away as soon as the going gets tough. To succeed, you need to stay true not only to your work, but also your teammates.

Speaking of teammates, it’s important to choose people you’d like to be friends with. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with these people. Unlike working at a big corporation, you can’t just hole up and hide away from your startup colleagues. In a lean organization, everyone needs to pitch in and play well together. That’s not to say you should try to avoid conflict at all costs. In fact, conflict can be a good thing since it often indicates a level of passion and commitment to ideas that can drive a project forward. Both flexibility and grit come into play here. Flexible founders are open to changing their opinions, especially when faced with compelling reasons brought up by teammates. Similarly, the most successful founders are leaders who are willing to be the emotional backbones of their companies. Starting a company, like starting a relationship, requires compromise. Gritty founders can prioritize conflicts, swallow their pride and take the high road, for the sake of their company.

5. Pioneering

It’s trite to say that your business idea is disruptive. But there’s a reason so many startup founders lean hard on that trope. They are trying to distinguish themselves in a market already saturated with players. But that’s only half the battle. Even if you’ve built your better mousetrap, you’ve got to convince everyone else that it really is better.

Law is one of the few professions that hasn’t changed much over the past several centuries. Lawyers still talk about belonging to professional guilds. By their nature, attorneys are risk averse. And why shouldn’t they be? The current system is working out pretty well for their interests. To be willing to upset the natural balance of the legal profession takes a certain amount daring. You have to be a pioneer. You have to be able to prove to a conservative audience that the new trail you are blazing will make their life both easier and better. So it’s fine to fall back on the disruptive cliché; just be sure your product can live up to your hype.