How exceptional founders are wired differently

What sets the likes of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk apart from other entrepreneurs?

Some may say good fortune, but for me, the answer is that they are wired differently. Let me explain how.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

There are two types of entrepreneurs. The first are what I call “low-risk founders,” those who are typically cautious and prefer measured risks over high-stakes ventures.

Such founders are common in Southeast Asia and typically come from a banking or consultancy background. They take a proven idea from the West, China, or India and execute it locally.

The second group is made up of “exceptional founders,” serial entrepreneurs who are always in startup mode. They have the drive to execute their ideas and are frustrated with the status quo. Simply put, they’re wired differently.

Of course, there are two sides to every coin, and while exceptional founders have perseverance and a high tolerance for risk, they are also more likely to face burnout. That said, these entrepreneurs are who most VCs want to invest in, so how do you spot one?

Solving the right problem

Entrepreneurship starts with identifying a problem that needs solving. As simple as that sounds, there are several dimensions.

An entrepreneur could have experienced the problem themselves, know it inside out, and have the right skills to tackle it. This type of founder has a passion for fixing the problem, and this passion drives them on.

Then there are the founders who take a more analytical approach. They look at platforms like Crunchbase, find companies that are solving problems, and see how much funding these firms have attracted in the last few years. They also think about how these solutions could work in their region.

This is a newer trend, but there’s nothing wrong with this way of doing things. However, the passionate types are more likely to be exceptional founders.

Differences in profiles and traits

In Southeast Asia, entrepreneur profiles and traits vary from one country to another.

In Indonesia, a lot of recent founders are younger people who want to build something of their own after having worked at leading Indonesian startups. Gojek is one such example, and at Antler alone, we have three founders who were among the first 50 Gojek employees.

In Vietnam, I’ve observed that founders want to dominate the local market but sometimes lack the desire to go beyond their home country, as they are focused on solving problems within Vietnam.

A sidewalk in Hanoi, Vietnam / Photo credit: Holger Kleine / Shutterstock

In Singapore, entrepreneurs are sometimes not as hungry as their counterparts because they usually come from a more comfortable background. For instance, Singapore scores poorly on “entrepreneurial intentions” on Enpact’s Startup Friendliness Index and has the maximum risk avoidance score of 100. But founders from the city-state do often have the ambition to grow beyond their region.

The good news is that these are all solvable issues.

Think different

In the West, if you take the top 20 most valuable private companies, you will see that the founders of almost all of these firms are wired differently. For instance, Mark Zuckerberg by all accounts thinks very differently indeed.

For my part, I aim to back founders that are atypical. For example, Rastouil Fabien from Reebelo, a marketplace for sustainable tech and lifestyle products, and Ahmet Bahadır of eSIM store Airalo.

Both Fabien and Bahadır are wired differently. They have a high tolerance for risk, lots of ambition, and are ruthless when it comes to execution.

Early-stage investors like me want to back exceptional founders. These people are bold visionaries who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo and disrupt industries.

While there’s a place for all kinds of founders in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, exceptional founders that stand out are those who can prove that they think differently.


Jussi Salovaara

As co-founder and Managing Partner Asia of Antler, Jussi works with a global team dedicated to developing the next generation of world-changing companies.

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