What makes a genius founder?

Laura Thivolet
Feb 25, 2020 · 5 min read

Part of the thrill of working at C4 Ventures, aside from having a robot at the office, is that you get to meet every day with founders who create revolutionary products, introduce new standards, disrupt industries and processes, change the world through science and tech… You have to read a lot to stay on top of these developments.

That’s how I started to read Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli and I came across one comment that really struck me. Rovelli is explaining Einstein’s paper on quantum theory, the one which completely changed our understanding of how the universe works, and suddenly pauses to comment on the rhetoric :

"It seems to me that the observations associated with blackbody radiation, flourescence, the production of cathode rays by ultraviolet light, and other related phenomena connected with the emission or transformation of light are more readily understood if one assumes that the energy of light is discontinuously distributed in space."

These simple and clear lines are the real birth certificate of quantum theory. Note the wonderful initial "It seems to me…," which recalls the "I think…" with which Darwin introduces in his notebooks the great idea that species evolve, or the "hesitation" spoken of by Faraday when introducing for the first time the revolutionary idea of the magnetic fields. Genius hesitates.

“Genius hesitates”, he says. In other words, even the greatest minds hesitate when introducing new concepts and theories. Even when you think you’re on to something big, something revolutionary or disruptive, most of the time it feels like grasping in the dark. The road ahead is unclear. You can never be sure that you are following the right track, and until the very last mile, it’s easy to be seized by doubt and start to question everything. If you’re an entrepreneur, you probably know the feeling.

That’s when I started to draw a parallel with the venture world. At C4 Ventures, we have a simple way of screening all investment opportunities:

👯‍♂️ We invest in great teams,
🚀 With whom we share a big vision,
💻 Who have created defensible tech in one of our core three sectors,
📈 Whose recent development makes us confident they’ll reach their vision.

If at least one of these four criteria is met, we decide to spend time on it. But the team is by far the most important one. We can decide not to make an investment when we don’t believe in the team, even if all the other criteria are met, and we can decide to make an exception when we think the founders are absolutely incredible, based on our personal experience with them, their track record, or both.

So what makes a genius founder? Some signals like academic background, technical background, expertise, experience get most of the attention. But years of experience won’t guarantee success. Take for example this WSJ article by Francis Greene, debunking the myth that successful entrepreneurs succeeded because they first failed. Entrepreneurs can learn from their mistakes, but a lot of them don’t and even those who do are far from being likely to succeed even then. “Even if you’ve run a business successfully before, you are just as likely to see your new business fail as a first-time entrepreneur”. That’s because “learning is difficult in startups contexts,” where you are “playing with constantly evolving rules and opponents”.

Then there are personality traits like “passion”, “vision”, “resilience” and skills like “effective day-to-day”, “results-driven”, “fast-learner”… But I believe genius founders have something more that lies in the hesitation that Rovelli described. Genius founders hesitate.

Don’t get me wrong: if combined with any of “overthinking”, “indecisive”, “lack of confidence”, hesitation will most likely lead you to struggle as a company. But if well applied, hesitation can lead you to identify your boundaries and the solutions to overcome them more quickly. It makes you dive deep into the business; look for help and advice; make informed decisions and eventually it pushes you in the right direction. Without it, there’s no growth mindset and you stay put where you are.

Hesitation is part of the thrill, even for us as VCs. When we decide to invest, we can never be 100% sure that this is the right decision. That’s why we chose to do VC differently:

First, everyone in the team has previous operational experience or deep knowledge across the three sectors we invest in. It brings different perspectives and enables us to make informed decisions but also to provide more and better support to our portfolio companies.

The team is complemented by a great roaster of Operating Partners who are either immersed in particular sectors or who provide expertise in critical business functions. Operating Partners can contribute to the analysis of new investment opportunities, challenging ideas and views in due diligence. They can co-invest alongside us or represent us at board meetings when it makes sense. They can provide support in specific situations faced by portfolio companies such as a strategic repositioning, a large acquisition, a product launch in new markets… or simply be used as a sounding board for those who hesitate 😉

For example, companies in our portfolio will have the chance to review the tech with André Auberton, deep dive into building or expanding their logistics capabilities with Luc Ducaroir, optimize growth with Philippe Bouissou, implement Media & PR programs with Caroline Winter, identify hiring needs and recruit talents with Michel Coucke… And these are just a few examples!

C4 Ventures’ Operating Partners

Last but not least, at C4 Ventures we’re known to undertake due diligence with military precision, asking difficult questions, pouring through every intimate detail of your business… And that’s how hesitation helps us become relevant board members and deliver on our promise to help startups scale up across Europe!

Bonus: Darwin’s notebook that Rovelli mentions. See how he scribbled “I THINK” at the top of the page… Thanks Clive Thompson for retrieving it in your article!!

C4 Ventures

Funding early to late stage startups #Hardware, #Commerce…

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