Americans have an obsession with business founders and what sets them apart. Is it vision, drive, or insight that helps them turn industries upside down and conjure billions of dollars? Is it how they run meetings or make decisions? Is it because they eat vegan, take cold showers, and meditate? Founders occupy a cultural space that combines celebrity, guru, futurist eccentric, and occasionally comic book villain.

And why not? Jeff Bezos changed both how we shop and how the internet operates. Elon Musk can cause a meme currency to skyrocket with a single tweet. Mark Zuckerberg can sway public discourse and elections. Bezos and Musk are in a literal space race! If you could figure out just what differentiates them from the rest of us, you could become—or at least invest in—the next superstar founder.

For exactly that reason, myths about founders are powerful. They act as a filter for who gets the capital to start companies and a model for those trying to replicate phenomenal success. But although many investors have honed the art of the judgment call, it turns out that popular notions of what a promising entrepreneur looks and acts like are often wrong. Those notions can have major consequences.

Five new books seek to understand the people behind successful start-ups and how much their imprint matters.

In Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire, the journalist Brad Stone follows up his book The Everything Store with an explanation of Amazon’s evolution from mere success to inescapable part of everyday life. Bezos is, of course, the founder against whom all contemporaries are measured. He has reached an unparalleled level of celebrity: He throws Hollywood parties, has his visage hung in the National Portrait Gallery, and publicly spars with former president Donald Trump. He also fits a particular archetype: white, male, Ivy League–educated, and a visionary, uncompromising industry outsider.

Bezos’s now-legendary 14 leadership principles (including “customer obsession,” “bias for action,” “disagree and commit”), which inform decision-making at Amazon, are cited as instrumental in the development of Alexa, Amazon Web Services, Prime, and Prime Video. One manager told Stone that she reflexively offered some “Amazon-style critical feedback” to her mother, who said, “Please stop using the leadership principles in our relationship.” Bezos’s blunt, sometimes explosive approach is mimicked by team leaders—whom coworkers have described as “totally cleaved from Jeff’s rib”; his obsession with efficiency inspired Amazon’s expansive distribution network and dictated the punishing climate of its fulfillment centers.

If Stone’s book details how the right person can turn an offering no one asked for into one of the top companies on the planet, then The Cult of We: WeWork, Adam Neumann, and the Great Startup Delusion, by the Wall Street Journal reporters Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell, is a lesson in how far a person can get by convincingly playing the part. Deeply reported and compellingly written, it shows that an aura of founder magic allowed a mundane venture—renting office space—to be pitched as world changing until the valuation tumbled and Neumann was ousted as CEO.

Neumann, the authors note, was lionized as “a business titan who could see around corners and would chart a revolutionary course,” just like Bezos. Meanwhile, “a whole system thirsting to believe in the….messianic and charismatic founder and the profits he could seemingly deliver” was ready to be suckered.

Of course, the Silicon Valley archetype isn’t the only one. In Tencent: The Extraordinary Story of a Chinese Internet Enterprise, the journalist Wu Xiaobo argues that Pony Ma, lead founder of the sprawling tech company, was part of a new generation of Chinese entrepreneurs who emerged from sweeping political, economic, and technological change. Famously media shy, Ma transformed Tencent from a company that connected the internet to pagers into one that spans gaming, mobile payments, e-commerce, the messaging service WeChat, and more. “Tencent acted like a cavalry unit, marching from the remote corner quietly to the center…expanding its territory,” writes Xiaobo.

Ma may have eschewed the role of celebrity techno-visionary, but his focus on strategic growth and iteration have made Tencent adept at exploiting emerging opportunities. The guiding principles that Xiaobo identifies (product minimalism, user-driven strategy, rapid testing) aren’t necessarily novel—Tencent just seems to execute them better than its rivals do.

Can we reliably predict who will be a Bezos or a Ma and who will be a Neumann? Maybe. That’s one of the animating questions of Ali Tamaseb’s new book, Super Founders: What Data Reveals About Billion-Dollar Startups. Recalling that his own ideas about start-ups came from movies, articles, and “popular mythology,” Tamaseb decided to crunch the numbers. Compiling data on the more than 200 companies launched from 2005 to 2018 that reached valuations of more than $1 billion, he tests the myths that start-ups founded by Ivy League dropouts, those with two founders, or those backed by a well-known accelerator represent a majority of the sample. He finds that some do and some don’t.

The median age of founders he studied was 34; as many went to top-10 universities as to schools ranked below 100; 70% had worked for another company, and a majority of those for a marquee brand like Amazon, Google, or McKinsey; 60% had previously founded a company. Still, Tamaseb reminds us not to confuse correlation with causation. It’s impossible to know whose billion-dollar idea didn’t get funding just because the person didn’t fit the part.

The New Builders: Face to Face with the True Future of Business, by the venture capitalist Seth Levine and the journalist Elizabeth MacBride, is perhaps meant as a corrective. The authors argue that while tech stars hog the spotlight, small-business entrepreneurs—especially Black, brown, female, and older founders—make up a significant portion of the U.S. economy and run companies that operate in and benefit their communities. And yet “our systems of finance and mentorship have failed to keep up,” so entrepreneurship and economic opportunity are declining.

There’s nothing wrong with obsessing over what leads to success. We can learn a lot from stories of how others achieved great things. The trick is not to take the wrong lesson. Myths may contain seeds of truth, but they’re often mostly fairy tales. Can you tell the difference?



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