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5 Keys to Gaining the Edge in the Startup Game

What makes an aspiring entrepreneur thrive in Silicon Valley? It's a question that those of us who have succeeded here are asked with great frequency.
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What makes an aspiring entrepreneur thrive in Silicon Valley? It's a question that those of us who have succeeded here are asked with great frequency. Theories on what makes an entrepreneur more likely to be successful abound. Is it luck? Is it skill? As Thoreau wrote, "luck is a residue of skill," so perhaps it's both. Or is it who you know that gets you a leg-up? Networking is certainly important here in the Valley. What is the secret to our success?

I believe that there are no secrets here. There is great information to be gleaned from a host of recent articles covering who's reached checkmate in the start-up world. For example, according to the New York Times, your chances of success appear pretty great if you're from the Stanford class of '94. In fact, you've probably already "made it." So, do you have to be among a select few from Stanford, or among an even more select few chosen by the related "PayPal Mafia," in order to get into the game? No, you don't. It may help, but it's not to only way "in." (After all, I'm a Cal alum!)

What does it take, then, to succeed? I believe that there are five keys to getting ahead in the Valley: skill, hard work, history, being different, and, yes, luck.

The number one key to success, skill, is related to the idea of "meritocracy" brought up in that Times piece. Perform well, and you will get into the game, and you also will get ahead that way -- period. Strong performance matters from the moment you get your idea for a company, to the moment you pitch your first VC for funding, to the moment you IPO. People and companies who don't perform consistently well don't last, whether at the bottom or at the top. A visionary founder may bring a company to a successful IPO and still not be able to remain at its helm because it's not enough just to arrive there.

A leader has to earn his or her keep constantly through the second key success factor: hard work. I am a multi-time start-up exec, and I continue to work hard -- late nights, weekends, incessant reading. I take nothing for granted, nor should anyone aspiring to start-up leadership. Point out any successful start-up exec, and you are pointing to someone who is there because she or he earned -- and continues to earn -- that spot.

Hard work isn't enough of a predictor, though. Many good ideas have gone belly-up. Who succeeds most consistently when trying to launch a new endeavor? This is where the third key to success in the Valley matters: history. Historically, tech leadership has been largely white and male. There's something to the idea of "mirror-tocracy" raised in a recent Times op-ed. It seems that you're more likely to win the start-up lottery if you look like the VCs who might be funding you (and who are also largely white males).

However, the tide is turning, and I believe different demographics will help to predict start-up success now more than ever. I shared ideas last month for how tech can attract, retain, and develop more women leaders. Fast Company's recent profile of Tristan Walker is inspiring as well. And in this piece in Forbes last year, VC David Teten shines a spotlight on his seeking of "non-traditional" entrepreneurs. Diversity in the workplace matters a lot, and it matters on the start-up playing field as well. We're all better off with more of it! This year, and ongoing, the tide will turn in favor of those whose ideas haven't been heard as often as many others. As multi-time founder Gina Bianchini offered in the Times, "Silicon Valley loves redemption." With the extremely disproportionate number of white males leading and funding start-ups in the Valley, it is time for redemption, indeed. Fresh, diverse faces, especially with regard to women and non-traditional minorities, leading new companies will refresh the picture of success in the Valley.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that many of us who have made it to executive roles in start-up leadership credit a bit of luck as the fifth and final key success factor. There's a great video of Doug Leone (General Partner, Sequoia Capital, and RingCentral board member) giving a Stanford GSB "View from the Top" talk in which he discusses luck as well as risk-taking. Watching that talk will be useful to anyone aspiring for an edge in the start-up game.

When it comes to predicting start-up success, relying on these known factors -- skill, hard work, history, difference, and luck -- is a good place to start. Especially if you have led a start-up to success, I wonder: what would you add to my list?