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How to identify unicorn founders when they’re still early-stage

The easiest traits to recognize as an investor is the founder’s ability to ace the fundraising process, crucial to which is the ability to think strategically and influence, inspire and persuade.
Johan Brenner Contributor Johan Brenner, general partner at Creandum, early backer of iZettle, Klarna, Trade Republic, Vivino, Neo4J and many more.

As an early-stage VC, you spend time with hundreds of fantastic startups, trying to identify potential winners by thinking about market size, business model and competition. Nevertheless, deep down you know that in the long run, it all comes down to the team and the founder(s).

When we look at the most successful companies in our portfolio, their amazing performance is in large part thanks to the founders. However, even after 20 years in the industry, I have to admit that analyzing the team is still the most challenging part of the job. How do you evaluate a young first-time entrepreneur of an early-stage company with little traction?

The best founders are humble and well aware of their weaknesses and limitations as well as the potential challenges for their startup.

At Creandum, in the past 18 years, we have been fortunate to work with some of Europe’s most successful startup founders such as Daniel Ek from Spotify, Sebastian Siemiatkowski from Klarna, Johannes Schildt from Kry, Jacob de Geer and Magnus Nilsson from iZettle, Emil Eifrem from Neo4J, Christian Hecker from Trade Republic and many more.

After a while, we realized that these incredible entrepreneurs all share some fundamental characteristics. They all have lots of energy, work hard, show patience, perseverance and resilience. But on top of that, all these unicorn founders share five key traits that, as an investor, you should look for when you back them at an early stage.

They know what they don’t know

Many people expect a typical startup founder to be very confident and have a strong sales mentality. While they should definitely live up to those expectations, the best founders are also humble and well aware of their weaknesses and limitations as well as the potential challenges for their startup.

They keep wanting to learn, improve and grow the business beyond what average people have the energy and drive to manage.

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