Tren Griffin’s 7 Signs of a Strong Business Leader

Written by Jordan Rosenfeld, contributor for Lean Startup Co.

Editor’s note: From now through the end of the year, we’re offering excerpts of talks from select Lean Startup Week 2016 speakers. These pieces are a combination of tips from their presentations and interviews that took place at the conference in San Francisco.

Great businesses aren’t built around revenue alone. They begin when the founder has a mission: to solve a problem, to do something impactful, to embark on a path that hasn’t been followed hundreds of times before. Tren Griffin, senior director at Microsoft and author of the blog, laid out the reasons why entrepreneurs should aim to be missionaries, not mercenaries, terms he borrows from venture capitalist John Doerr.

“Do you want to change the world? Do you want to make people’s lives better? Do you want to make a difference?” Griffin asks. Then you’re probably a missionary — and in good company with the likes of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos.

Mercenaries, on the other hand, think opportunistically, are often only in it for the money, and quit when the going gets tough.

What else separates the missionary from the mercenary? Griffin outlined the following seven qualities below.

1. Missionaries are Devoted to Causes

Missions often stem from what Griffin calls “personal pain.” He gives the example of Netflix originating from the founder’s fatigue in paying late fees for movie rentals.

2. Missionaries Have Grit

“Missionaries say ‘I’m on a mission here.’ They build the biggest and most lasting companies,” says Griffin. This is a quality known as grit — defined as the passion and resilience to pursue a goal and keep at it. “When things get hard, they find a way. They’re focused on building teams,” he adds. Compared to mercenaries, Griffin says “way more missionaries succeed, and when they do, they succeed bigger.”

3. Missionaries Learn from Their Mistakes

Griffin tells the story of one of his early startups from the early ’90s, a company called Teledesic, that aimed to launch a global, broadband, non-geostationary satellite system. Griffin describes the company as “The most un-Lean startup in the history of the world.” With primary shareholders such as Bill Gates, Teledesic started out with $20 million in venture capital, but everywhere the founders turned, they faced risk: “Technical risk, market risk, business risk, political risk, and regulatory risk,” he says. The company would not be able to earn a single penny or receive market feedback until it spent $9 billion. Ultimately it “just wasn’t doable” and Teledesic distributed hundreds of millions back to shareholders. The experience taught Griffin that a good business idea doesn’t necessarily need a lot of capital upfront. “It’s so cheap to start a business today,” he says.

He laments that too often, tech companies in particular “disappear” without a post-mortem, which he says is a big mistake. Founders whose startups fail can take what they learned on to their next ventures.

4. Missionaries Start Lean

Griffin believes it’s better to start a company on a tight budget. “Too much money early is a bad thing in terms of innovation,” he says. “A little struggle is a good thing. When you don’t have resources you’re forced to think, be creative and clever.” Fewer resources can also mean fewer distractions, so you avoid working on multiple products and “spreading yourself like peanut butter because you’re no longer able to concentrate and find the ‘a-ha’ moment for the customer.” This concept extends to keeping the number of employees involved in a startup lean. “The more people you involve in things, particularly in the early stages, the more path loss you can have between team members.”

5. Missionaries Lead with Bold New Ideas

Missionaries are often those with the “crazy” ideas, says Griffin. Odd concepts find public acceptance in the right company’s hands, though. “Airbnb sounded crazy. You’re going to have people staying in your house? What if there’s an axe murderer?” says Griffin. eBay sounded nuts, too. “You’re going to be trading Pez dispensers,” he says with a chuckle. Yet strange ideas often go on to become “monster hits.”

6. Missionaries Know Less is More

Every entrepreneur will learn as they go — which means at certain stages of the game, you may find yourself groping in the dark. This can be a good thing “because you’re not hidebound in the old ways,” says Griffin. With an open mind, you can run your company in a new way.

7. Missionaries are Humble but Committed

Missionaries exhibit humility — the ability to recognize when they’re wrong in business as well as in personal life. A humble attitude allows you to leap beyond confirmation bias and your own POV to see another way, a key component in innovation strategy. Admitting you were wrong can give way to the ability to going after a new, often better goal. “If I don’t change my mind on a couple of important things every year, then it’s a wasted year because I haven’t really spent time thinking hard about the assumptions that I have,” Griffin says.


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