Your Job As a Founder Is to Create Believers

Before we launched HelloSign, I remember showing HelloFax to a family member. This person was normally supportive, but he took a glance and walked away. He wasn't the only one. A lot of people wouldn't even look.

I was the only believer.

Belief is the most important component for a startup. Most companies are born and die with one believer. Maybe they had zero believers, since even the founders didn't truly believe.

Great companies have many believers. Dropbox has over 100 million believers. Google has 1 billion believers.

When you start a company, you only have one believer: you.  

Your job as a founder is to create believers.

You have to believe.

When a friend pitches me a startup idea, I recently started asking, “do you really want to work on this?” I learned that it doesn't make sense to dissect the idea first. It's belief that will keep the company alive and create other believers.

The Airbnb founders maxed out their credit cards, then sold cereal to stay afloat. For 999 days they didn't see traction. But, they believed.

You need customers that believe.

Customers invest time and money — their most precious resource — into your product. They need to believe that you'll add value to their lives.

Evernote ran out of money. They had a customer that believed so much, he invested and saved the company from bankruptcy. He believed.

The press has to believe.

What separates the companies that get press and the ones that don't? The press believe in the former more than the latter. It's that simple.

The press loved Twitter. They believed in it before I did, before most people did. The press believed and made me believe.

Investors have to believe.

To compensate for losses, the potential return on each investment has to be high. You need to have the potential to become a billion dollar company.

YC often talks about how Dropbox wasn’t the top pick for a lot of investors, but they found a few that believed.

The team has to believe.

The people you want to work with can work anywhere they want. Great developers, marketers, salespeople and other talent look for something worth building.

Pandora ran out of money in 2001. Their 50+ person team deferred $1.5 million in salaries. For two years. They believed.

Your partners have to believe.

Business development can grow your company to a massive scale. You need to show that you can add value to their users, that you'll be around for a year. They need need assurances before sending thousands or millions of customers your way.

Bill Gates licensed software to IBM before he owned it. This became a company making partnership. IBM believed that Microsoft would add value to their users.

This all goes back to the beginning, when you are the only believer. You don't have any customers, the press won't write about you, investors won't talk to you, employees don't apply and partners don't know you exist.

Your job as a founder is to create believers.

56 responses
Belief is also a core component in a sale. Do you honestly believe that the customer will be better off with your product. If you don't believe it shows.
Belief is undoubtedly unimportant, but surely there is also a need to consider more negative feedback as well? No man is an island and all that. If you're the only one to believe, you may be wrong. If you cannot convince people, you might (although not definitely) be on a hiding to nowhere.
Remember when I told you not to do HelloFax? :)
You are pretty wrong in your belief that all these great companies were built on "belief". No, airbnb founders did not believe. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg did not believe either. Nor did Larry page. They got there by learning from user, questioning their "belief" and iterating. Nate: '... so I at this point decided to move to Boston. Had other priorities in my life. And pace suddenly slowed down .... Have you told Michael that I am working on other things?'. Mark: '.. well, it does not have to be anything more than a college friend website. That is a great product.' Larry page: ... tried multiple times to license their technology and later sell the company for a few millions and later for a few billions. The gap in their asking price and market offer kept them going.
An awesome insight. Thank you. I fully agree with the post. You need to be a true believer if you have to go through all the lows that come as part of the journey. I started up a company once with a friend and we tried to sell inverters, then biomass energy but never really made it. The problem was that, after just a few months into the business, we would realize that we were wrong in our belief that the business had potential. And Govind's comment above actually gives even more proof that belief is important (contrary to what Govind tried to prove). If Nate Blecharczyk had not believed in Airbnb's concept, he would have probably forgotten about it after he moved to Boston. If Larry Page did not believe in his product, he would have settled for the lower price at which people were asking.
Scott, I do :) Ashwin, completely agree. Starting and continuing to run a company is hard. It’s belief that makes it’s worth continuing. Govind, what do you think all those great companies were built on? Tom, agreed. It’s a fine line between believing in something no one else does and being right - and believing in something no one else does and being completely wrong. That’s the hardest part. A lot of it depends on timing as well. Elon Musk’s idea to create a space company was likely a ‘wrong’ idea for a long time, until he proved that it was right.
Joseph, I answered your question already in my earlier comment. "They got there by learning from user, questioning their "belief" and iterating."
Sorry for missing that. I completely agree that belief comes from listening to users, questioning your belief and iterating. I think of Stripe as a great example of what belief can do for you. They came out and said they wanted to build the payment infrastructure of the internet. With that goal in mind, they talked to customers, iterated, questioned themselves and had others question them. Through that process, they’ve built a great company. But, it was their belief that attracted amazingly talented people, investors, customers (we were very early customers of theirs) and others.
Really good and inspirational article!
Thanks Antonio!
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