Determination via Jessica Livingston

by Scott Edward Walker on September 22nd, 2010


I’ve been reading the book Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days written by Jessica Livingston, a co-founder of Y Combinator (a seed-stage venture firm) and a very smart and interesting individual.  The book is a collection of extensive interviews with founders of high-profile technology companies with respect to their earliest days, including Steve Wozniak (Apple), Craig Newmark (Craigslist), Mitch Kapor (Lotus), Caterina Fake (Flickr), Max Levchin (PayPal), and Sabeer Bhatia (Hotmail).  There are many important takeaways and lessons to be learned, but the one that really struck a chord with me (as a former minor-league tennis player and now a corporate lawyer for entrepreneurs) is the importance of determination.

The Single Most Important Quality

In January of this year, I wrote a guest post for VentureHacks in which I quoted my old tennis coach Harry Hopman (a tough, Vince Lombardi-type and the winningest coach in Davis Cup history): “It all comes down to one word — desire.  How badly do you want it?  How much are you willing to sacrifice?”

Jessica reached the same conclusion: “[D]etermination is the single most important quality in a startup founder.  If the founders I spoke with were superhuman in any way, it was in their perseverance.  That came up over and over again in interviews.” [Founders at Work, p. xiii]

There it is: desire, determination, perseverance.  Indeed, whether you’re launching a startup or trying to succeed as a professional athlete, without that burning hunger and incredible work ethic, it just ain’t going to happen.

As Gary Vaynerchuk (the founder of Wine Library TV and the so-called “Social Media Sommelier”) noted in a speech at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York: “Hustle is the most important word – ever. . . . I used to work in a liquor store from 7 in the morning until 10 at night for seven straight years, and the only days-off I took were to watch the New York Jets.” [starting @ the 3:16 mark]

Mark Cuban (billionaire entrepreneur and owner of the Dallas Mavericks) has a similar story, as he discusses in this video: “I went seven years – literally seven years – without a single vacation.  I didn’t take a day off – I didn’t go anywhere – I didn’t do squat.” [starting @ the 4:07 mark]

That’s determination, folks.

Paul Graham, the other co-founder of Y Combinator, wrote an outstanding essay entitled “The Anatomy of Determination,” in which he points out that:

We learned quickly that the most important predictor of success is determination. At first we thought it might be intelligence.  Everyone likes to believe that’s what makes startups succeed. It makes a better story that a company won because its founders were so smart.  The PR people and reporters who spread such stories probably believe them themselves. But while it certainly helps to be smart, it’s not the deciding factor.  There are plenty of people as smart as Bill Gates who achieve nothing.

In most domains, talent is overrated compared to determination—partly because it makes a better story, partly because it gives onlookers an excuse for being lazy, and partly because after a while determination starts to look like talent.


Let me conclude by directing you to another video: “How Badly Do You Want It?”  If you have five minutes, I strongly recommend it.  And I’ll end with my favorite quote from Jessica (the last sentence of her Introduction): “I hope a lot of people who read these stories will think, ‘Hey, these guys were once just like me.  Maybe I could do it too’.”  Cheers, Scott

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