What Do the Founding Teams of Billion Dollar Companies Look Like?

Tod Francis and Nikhil Basu Trivedi of Shasta Ventures recently published a great analysis on what 25 B2C billion-dollar Unicorns and 7 likely soon-to-be Unicorns looked like at the time of their Series A. We were interested in unpacking more of the data around these companies, and specifically learning more about their founding teams — what did the founders look like and what can we learn from their backgrounds?

Caveats to note up front:

  • Our data are from publicly available sources like LinkedIn and CrunchBase, thus they’re neither 100% accurate nor comprehensive.
  • Data are current as of April 19, 2015.

The Companies

We looked at the same 32 companies that Nikhil and Tod looked at in their research (shown below). Via CrunchBase and LinkedIn, we identified 78 founders across these companies.

Image by Tod Francis and Nikhil Basu Trivedi of Shasta Ventures

We were initially curious to see which investors took early bets on these companies.

Seed investors

The following 12 investors had invested in 2 or more of these 32 companies in their seed/angel rounds.

Y Combinator
Ali Partovi
Amidzad Partners
Andrew Boszhardt, Jr.
Cyan Banister
First Round
Fritz Lanman
FundersClub
Hadi Partovi
Jason Calacanis
Scott Banister
Sequoia Capital

Series A investors

The following 18 investors had invested in 2 or more of these 32 companies in their Series A rounds.

SV Angel
First Round
Benchmark
Sequoia Capital
Accel Partners
Bessemer Venture Partners
Canaan Partners
Greg Yaitanes
Greylock Partners
Keith Rabois
Kevin Hartz
Lowercase Capital
Michael Birch
Shasta Ventures
Spark Capital
Union Square Ventures

Board Members

The following 14 people have 2 or more board seats across these 32 companies.

Roelof Botha, Sequoia Capital
Mary Meeker, KPCB
Alfred Lin, Sequoia Capital
Bijan Sabet, Spark Capital
Bill Gurley, Benchmark
Bryan Schreier, Sequoia Capital
Craig Sherman, Meritech
David Lawee, Google Capital
Gary Little, Morgenthaler
John Lilly, Greylock
Larry Summers, Harvard
Mark Bailey, DFJ
Matt Cohler, Benchmark
Randy Glein, DFJ

The Founders

We next took a look at the founders of these companies.

Number of Founders

Founding teams of 2 or 3 founders account for the vast majority.

Undergraduate Schools

Founders attended a broad spectrum of colleges & universities. Stanford stood out from the pack, with 6 founders. The remainder of the schools with multiple founders, listed below, are mainly representative of full founding teams that went to school together. For example, the 4 people from Wharton are the four founders of Warby Parker. Notably, New Roads High School in Santa Monica makes the list — two of the Lyft (then Zimride) co-founders were classmates there.

Fields of Study

The top 6 college majors, each represented by at least 2 or more founders, were Computer Science, Economics, Business, History, Electrical Engineering, and Product/Industrial Design. Of the undergraduate majors recorded, we found that the majority were in non-technical fields.

Degrees Received

Founders of these B2C unicorns did not typically pursue advanced degrees. Instead, it appears that they opted for work experience, which we look at next.

Age & Work Experience

We extrapolated each founder’s number of years of work experience and their age by looking at their work & education history on LinkedIn. This method was only applicable to those who had reported the years associated with their work & education history on their LinkedIn profiles, and is of course an imperfect proxy. Using this method, we could also extrapolate the founder’s age at the time of founding their company.

The mean number of years of work experience was 6 years, with a standard deviation of 6 years. The mean age at the time of founding was 29, with a standard deviation of 6 years.

The graph below shows the distribution of number of years of work experience. Note that these values are rounded to the nearest year, and a negative value reflects that the founder started their company while in school. Note also that outliers were not removed.

Our data highlight 4 founders who started their companies while in school (corresponding to -1 and 0 years of work experience, based on rounding, as seen on the graph below). This doesn’t necessarily suggest they dropped out though.

Prior Industry Experience

A large portion of founders historically worked at tech companies prior to founding their own companies, while other prominent industries were VC, management consulting, and finance. Below are the industries represented each by 2 or more founders.

Skills

Founders have keen product skills & instincts — with most frequent LinkedIn endorsements for user experience and product management — alongside skills in technology and business. Below are the top 15 skills, each represented by more than 12 founders.

First Names

For fun, we looked at the frequency of first names across the founders of these 32 Unicorns. Here are the first names shared by 2 or more founders.

Conclusion

Here are some of the things we learned about this group of founders:

  • 2 or 3 person founding teams are the norm
  • They attended a broad array of schools, with concentration among top US colleges & universities, and Stanford is most common
  • Non-technical degrees are more common than technical degrees, and most didn’t attend advanced degree programs
  • They have on average 6 years of prior work experience, most often in the Software & IT space
  • They most commonly demonstrate skills in user experience, product management, e-commerce, and strategic partnerships

Written by Isaac Madan and Shaurya Saluja. All charts were created with Visage.