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Personality of founders could predict start-up success, finds new study


Personality of founders could predict start-up success, finds new study

Published on
17 Oct 2023
Written by
Fabian Braesemann and Fabian Stephany
New research shows start-up founders have distinct personality traits which are more important to the success of their companies than previously thought.

Personality of founders could predict start-up success, finds new study

New research from the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and the University of Melbourne shows start-up founders have distinct personality traits, and they’re more important to the success of their companies than previously thought.

While good fortune and circumstances can play a part, new research reveals that when it comes to start-up success, a founder’s personality – or the combined personalities of the founding team – is paramount.

The study, published in Nature Scientific Reports, shows founders of successful start-ups have personality traits that differ significantly from the rest of the population – and that these traits are more important for success than many other factors.

Paul X. McCarthy, first author of the study and adjunct professor at UNSW Sydney said: “We find that personality traits don’t simply matter for start-ups – they are critical to elevating the chances of success. A small number of astute venture capitalists have suspected this for some time, but now we have the data to demonstrate this is the case.”

Personality key to start-up success

The researchers found that the personality traits of successful start-up founders, in particular, the core ‘big five’ traits – which measure someone’s openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism – significantly differ from that of the population at large and are typically heightened in entrepreneurs compared to others.

Dr Fabian Braesemann, Departmental Research Lecturer, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford and corresponding author of the study, said: “Our study also shows there isn’t a single ‘founder-type’ personality.  Instead, we find that six different personality types appear in the founders of successful start-ups displaying common personality traits, which we identify as fighters, operators, accomplishers, leaders, engineers and developers.”

The other facets distinguishing successful entrepreneurs include a preference for variety, novelty and starting new things (openness to adventure), enjoying being the centre of attention (lower levels of modesty) and being exuberant (high activity levels).

Adds Braesemann, “Our findings also suggest that the more prevalent these particular traits are in the personalities of start-up founders, the higher the chances are of that organisation becoming a success”.

The researchers inferred the personality profiles of the founders of more than 21,000 founder-led companies from language and activity in their publicly available Twitter accounts using a machine learning algorithm. The algorithm could distinguish successful start-up entrepreneurs from employees with 82.5 per cent accuracy.

They then correlated the personality profiles to data from the largest directory on start-ups in the world, Crunchbase, to determine whether certain founder personalities and their combinations in cofounded teams relate to start-up success – that is, if the company had been acquired, if they acquired another company, or listed on a public stock exchange.

While personality is crucial, the researchers also cite other external factors as having an important role to play in the ultimate success of founder-led companies, including location, industry, and company age.

Large, personality-diverse founding teams make for greater success

The researchers undertook multifactor modelling to measure the relative significance of personality on the likelihood of success versus other firm-level variables. They discovered a founder’s personality was more predictive of success than the industry (5 times) and the age of the start-up (2 times).

Explains Dr Fabian Stephany, Departmental Research Lecturer, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford and co-author of the study: “Firms with three or more founders are more than twice as likely to succeed than solo-founded start-ups. Furthermore, those with diverse combinations of types of founders have eight to ten times more chance of success than single founder organisations.”

They also found start-ups with diverse and specific combinations of founder types – an adventurous’ leader’, an imaginative ‘engineer’, and an extroverted ‘developer’, for example – had significantly higher odds of success.

“While all start-ups are high risk, the risk becomes lower with more founders, particularly if they have distinct personality traits,” Prof. McCarthy says. “Largely, founding a start-up is a team sport and now we can see clearly that having complementary personalities in the foundation team has an outsized impact on the venture’s likelihood of success, which we’ve termed the Ensemble Theory of Success.”

The researchers say the findings have critical applications for entrepreneurs, investors, and policymakers and can inform the creation of more resilient start-ups capable of more significant innovation and impact.

“By understanding the impact of founder personalities on start-up success, we can make better decisions about which start-ups to support and help fledgling companies form foundation teams with the best chances of success,” concludes McCarthy.

The implications of the research also go beyond start-ups: it adds a new dimension to understanding the drivers of team performance and success in different settings, such as sports, research, policymaking, or entrepreneurship. It is the diversity of different personality combinations in a team that influences group dynamics and long-term success.


Notes for Editors

The research publication was supported by the Oxford Internet Institute research programme on AI and Work, funded by the Dieter Schwarz Foundation.  This research has gone through the University of Oxford’s ethical review process, the CUREC number associated with this is: SSH_OII_CIA_22_022.

About the OII

The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the Internet. Drawing from many different disciplines, the OII works to understand how individual and collective behaviour online shapes our social, economic and political world. Since its founding in 2001, research from the OII has had a significant impact on policy debate, formulation and implementation around the globe, as well as a secondary impact on people’s wellbeing, safety and understanding. Drawing on many different disciplines, the OII takes a combined approach to tackling society’s big questions, with the aim of positively shaping the development of the digital world for the public good.

About the University of Oxford

Oxford University has been placed number one in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the seventh year running, and ​number two in the QS World Rankings 2022. At the heart of this success are the twin-pillars of our ground-breaking research and innovation and our distinctive educational offer. Oxford is world-famous for research and teaching excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Our work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research alongside our personalised approach to teaching sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions.

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