Frederik Van Lierde

What Makes Exceptional Founders? Perseverance, Ownership, and Pragmatism

While many people venture launching startups, only a few emerge as true leaders in their industries. Among those, a pattern becomes clear - truly outstanding founders possess perseverance, ownership, and pragmatism. These traits not only differentiate them from the crowd but also dictate their approach to challenges, driving them towards success. What Makes Exceptional Founders? Perseverance, Ownership, and Pragmatism

Table of Content

Perseverance in Action: The Story of Arianna Huffington

Every founder will face hurdles. The journey of building a business is fraught with uncertainties, obstacles, and setbacks. However, the measure of a founder isn't determined by the challenges they face but by their response to them. Exceptional founders demonstrate unparalleled perseverance.

It's a trait that compels them to push forward, even when the odds are stacked against them. It's the silent voice that says, "One more try," when everything seems to be falling apart. Perseverance isn't about blind optimism but a deep-rooted belief in one's vision and the determination to see it come to fruition.

When discussing perseverance in the entrepreneurial landscape, Arianna Huffington's journey stands out. Huffington, the co-founder of The Huffington Post, faced numerous rejections in her early career, which could have derailed many aspiring founders. After writing her second book, it was rejected by 36 publishers before finally being accepted. It wasn't smooth sailing from there; her endeavor to create The Huffington Post was met with skepticism and was dubbed by many as an "unattainable project." Despite the doubts from critics, she persevered, maintaining her belief in the digital media landscape’s potential.

This tenacity paid off spectacularly. The Huffington Post eventually became a media powerhouse, redefining news consumption in the digital age. Her unwavering perseverance transformed a string of rejections and a plethora of challenges into a renowned platform that would eventually be acquired by AOL for $315 million. Huffington's journey underscores the power of perseverance—it's not just the ability to keep going when times are good but the resolve to push through when they are not. It's a testament to the impact of steadfastness and belief in one's vision, serving as an inspiration to founders worldwide.

Ownership Embodied: The Resilience of Howard Schultz

The weight of responsibility that comes with founding a business can be overwhelming. Yet, remarkable founders take full ownership of their actions, decisions, and, ultimately, their company's fate. They don't shy away from accountability.

It's easy to blame external factors — the economy, competition, or even the weather. But adopting a victim mentality is counterproductive. Exceptional founders understand this. Instead of pointing fingers, they look inward, seeking ways to adapt, pivot, and overcome. This sense of ownership ensures that they stay in control, steering their ship even in the stormiest of seas.

Howard Schultz, the visionary behind Starbucks, provides a compelling example of ownership in the business world. After taking over a small chain of coffee shops, Schultz's ambition was to transform Starbucks into a global brand, an idea that was initially met with resistance and doubt. When Starbucks began to falter in the face of rapid expansion and the 2008 economic downturn, Schultz made a bold move. He returned as CEO after having stepped down, to navigate the company through its challenges. Rather than blaming the economic climate or market saturation, he took full responsibility for rejuvenating the brand.

Under Schultz's leadership, Starbucks undertook a transformation that involved closing hundreds of stores and restructuring the company’s operations. He acknowledged that the company’s setbacks were due to decisions made under his leadership and set out to correct them. This demonstration of ownership not only stabilized the company but also set it back on a path to growth and innovation. Schultz’s willingness to own up to his mistakes and take decisive action showcased the profound impact that a leader’s sense of responsibility can have on a company's destiny. It proved that when founders embody ownership, they can turn even the most daunting situations into opportunities for success.

Pragmatism in the Face of Uncertainty: Reed Hastings and Netflix

While dreamers visualize what the world could be, pragmatists understand what it is and how to navigate it. Exceptional founders possess a keen sense of pragmatism. They strike a balance between their vision and the realities of the market.

Pragmatism in leadership means making informed decisions, often requiring a founder to temper their enthusiasm with hard data. It's about understanding the limitations but working within them to create opportunities. A pragmatic leader is solution-oriented, always on the lookout for viable routes to reach their goals.

Mobilizing Solutions Over Indulging in Challenges
Challenges are inevitable in the world of startups. But while many get consumed by the problems, exceptional founders see them as stepping stones. They don't waste energy on victim mentalities or blame games. Instead, they mobilize solutions, understanding that progress is a series of solved challenges.

Reed Hastings, the co-founder of Netflix, is a typical example of pragmatism. In the late 1990s, Netflix began as a DVD rental service, competing with giants like Blockbuster. However, Hastings anticipated the shift towards streaming technology and digital content delivery early on. This vision led him to pivot Netflix from its original business model to an online streaming service. What marked this move as pragmatic was not just the foresight but the understanding of the timing and the gradual transition that catered to the market's readiness to adopt new technology.

Hastings' decision-making was rooted in realism. He focused on data-driven strategies that could support Netflix's transformation, such as the company's recommendation algorithm that would later become its cornerstone feature. By pragmatically assessing the company’s capabilities and market trends, Hastings guided Netflix to not only weather the storm of technological change but to capitalize on it, turning potential threats into the very innovations that would make Netflix a leader in entertainment.

The journey of Netflix from a mail-order service to a streaming behemoth and a producer of original content is a testament to pragmatic leadership. Hastings' approach in steering Netflix through various industry evolutions without falling prey to the sunk cost fallacy or resisting change due to emotional attachment to the original business model is a clear demonstration of pragmatic problem-solving. His ability to mobilize solutions amidst challenges underscores the essence of pragmatism in entrepreneurship—using existing challenges as catalysts for innovation and progress.


While many traits contribute to a founder's success, perseverance, ownership, and pragmatism stand out as the hallmarks of truly exceptional leaders. These attributes ensure that when the going gets tough, these founders don't look for exits; they look for solutions. They epitomize the spirit of entrepreneurship, demonstrating that with the right mindset, even the most formidable challenges can be transformed into avenues for growth and innovation. Exceptional founders don't merely endure; they evolve. They harness perseverance to keep their vision afloat, wield ownership to steer the course, and employ pragmatism to navigate through the storms

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