Entrepreneurial Grit: Hidden Traits of Founder Success

Kevin Joseph Moore
5 min readMay 29, 2024

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Photo by Kayvan Mazhar on Unsplash

Two groups of adventurers set out on a race to the South Pole in 1911. One expedition was led by Britain’s Robert Falcon Scott, and the other by Norwegian Roald Amundsen. How these leaders drove their teams forward would mean the difference between life and death on Antarctic ice.

Amundsen vowed to have his team travel every single day, no matter how inclement the weather. They did just that, plowing ahead and making progress, however small, even on the worst of days. Amundsen and his team eventually made it to the pole, and had enough supplies to make it home safely.

Scott took a different approach. His team rested on bad weather days, preparing themselves to make extra headway when the weather broke and the going was easier. They too made it to the pole, but 33 days after Amundsen. And some of the team never made it home. Scott himself perished on the expedition.

These two teams were headed for the same destination and faced similar obstacles, but only one expedition returned unscathed. The group led by Amundsen developed a practice of advancing forward, no matter the challenges standing in their way. They made it a habit, an ethos. And it saved their lives.

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Harvard Business Review draws leadership lessons from this race to the South Pole in a 2011 article. Jim Collins also writes about this story in “Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck–Why Some Thrive Despite Them All”. For me, this cold journey across the Antarctic is a good analogy for the entrepreneurial journey that all founders face.

Starting something new is tough. It’s full of potential pitfalls, and it’s often lonely. Founders see things that others don’t understand, and they must have the courage to run towards the unknown, even when the odds are stacked against them.

Call it what you will — strength, endurance, consistency. Perhaps lunacy. These are the hidden qualities of the best founders that keep them moving forward no matter what lies ahead. They are needed to create a business or to succeed in any deep endeavor.

At Serac Ventures, we want to invest in the people that move towards their goals every single day, despite the hardships. Take Raphael Akinsipe, CEO and Co-Founder of SocialCrowd, an employee incentive platform: Raphael is an entrepreneur who exemplifies this march forward in the face of adversity.

“You create your own luck and force something into existence,” says Raphael, “no matter how many times you hear ‘No’.”

Raphael’s parents immigrated from Nigeria, and he wouldn’t be where he is without them. “Having that background, from an early age, you have a strong sense of ambition and the work ethic to make things happen,” says Raphael. As he put it, he stopped believing in Santa Claus early.

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As part of our investment process at Serac, we seek to understand not only why a new business model may be successful, but also why a founder or a founding team are the right people to make that business a reality.

What drives them? Do they have what it takes? What unique skills and qualities give them an unfair advantage? What experiences in their past have paved the way for their new venture?

In other words, what is their why?

We look at a myriad of factors in their background to better understand where they have come from, what they have faced, and why they are starting a business. We find ourselves studying different variables than other funds, many of which we have had to define for ourselves.

For instance, we look at if a founder has started something in the past. You could call this the “Lemonade Stand Metric”. Ask a founder “What was your lemonade stand?” and you will learn valuable things about them.

Take Travis Holoway, CEO and Co-Founder at SoLo Funds, a fintech startup that is redefining community banking. Growing up in Cleveland with parents working at General Motors, Travis saw how things have changed over time in rust belt towns like Cleveland and Detroit. This is partially what drove him to create SoLo Funds to provide new access to capital for everyday people.

“I’ve seen what it looks like for an economy to evaporate right before your eyes,” says Travis. “Growing up in that area gives you a level of grit and resilience. Those that make it out tend to go on to do very well.”

He also knew that he needed to work to make things happen for himself; he was the 10-year-old with a newspaper route. “The reality is, I think the best entrepreneurs are driven by wanting more, which is a combination of wanting better for the world and doing better for yourself.”

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At Serac, we look at the factors that have shaped their experience. Has a founder traveled? Have they moved? Are they immigrants or part of an immigrant family? We believe that founders that have been able to adjust to different surroundings and circumstances will be flexible enough to pivot in business when necessary.

To move past being an outsider and learn to assimilate — living in two worlds, holding onto your culture while embracing a new one — you must have an open mind. And you take nothing for granted.

We also look at how connected a founder may be to traditional VC networks. Often, it’s the founders from outside these networks that bring new ideas and that will surprise us.

In fact, after exploring these questions with many founders, we have found that many of the things that people think matter — such as education and credentials — aren’t the most important predictors of success. We believe that how far a founder has come from wherever they started matters more than where they began.

We believe that how far a founder has come from matters more than where they began.

Overcoming challenges gives founders the determination, attitude, and resilience to keep moving forward when things get tough, which they will during their entrepreneurial journey.

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One of the reasons that we believe this is because we have experienced it ourselves. The team at Serac does not come from traditional backgrounds. While we have the qualities needed to succeed in Venture, we didn’t start with all of the standard credentials coming out of the gate.

Personally, I faced hardship early in life. I grew up in a low income household and faced both financial and food insecurity. At one point in my life, we didn’t have a home address. Growing up like this will teach you to be strong. You must learn to believe in yourself, as you may not have anyone else on which to rely.

One of my goals with Serac is to give founders from non-traditional backgrounds their first start on the path to entrepreneurial success. Just like my own mentors gave to me.

As we build out the Serac portfolio, we’ve met founders who are just as determined and hungry as we are. It’s a fantastic match between us, and I believe more strongly than ever that what matters most are the inner, often hidden, qualities that drive founders forward. It is our bet at Serac that grit, hustle and varied life experience are key factors to success.

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At Serac, we haven’t reached the top of our own mountain yet, nor trekked to the South Pole. But like the founders we partner with, we know it is important to keep moving forward.

We’re excited to be on this journey together with them.

Cheers,

Kevin Moore

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Kevin Joseph Moore

I'm a VC at Serac Ventures and write about things I find interesting. I also have a blog at www.thejcurve.net.