Team vs. Timing as a Predictor of Startup Success

I don’t love the title of this post.

Because, it’s not either/or, as vs. implies. It’s both and more.

However, on just about every panel I sit on, invariably, the question comes up, “What is the most important thing you look for when evaluating a company?”  

Overwhelmingly panelists answer team.

Team is essential for sure. We all look for founder/market fit. We like deep domain experts. We value execution chops, so we try to determine if team members were makers of history at their previous companies, or just witnesses  – although I like witnesses too.

But what about timing?

What about the success and traction that comes from tailwind vs. no-wind, or worse, headwind? Is market timing a more critical attribute of start-up success?

Bill Gross, (not the bond-fund manager) the founder of Idealab in Pasadena, CA, the first incubator/accelerator, before YCombinator and Techstars wanted to find out.

So, he did a survey.

He wanted to determine which of these five elements played the most significant role in start-up success: idea, team, business model, funding, and timing.

He looked at 100 companies that went through the Idealab program, and to eliminate bias, 100 companies from outside the IdeaLab ecosystem.

Guess what he learned? Timing was the most significant predictor of success, yes, followed by team.

Watch his TED Talk here.

Marc Andreessen says the same thing, although in a slightly different way. He says team is critical, but timing, or “markets,” trump both team and product.

Is it a great market? Is it ready? Mostly, have you timed it right?

It’s the difference between Friendster & Facebook, Webvan & Instacart and, Beenz & Cryptocurrency.

It’s the difference between pushing a boulder up a hill and an east-bound airliner jet-streamed to its destination hours ahead of schedule, using less fuel. I’ve always bristled at the term “rising tides lift all boats” because it feels lazy. However, rising tides do lift all boats.  

I tell this story whenever I panel, and the subject comes up. Now that I wrote this, I’m going to have to pontificate about something else.