3 Types of Startup Founders – a Cooking Metaphor

What do chefs and entrepreneurs have in common?  Both try to use great ingredients, and apply their energy and experience to create masterpieces.

I love to cook, and I love to watch cooking shows.  Maybe it’s because I worked in my Dad’s restaurants as a young kid.  Anyway, I have found that there are 3 basic types of chefs:  1.  Scientist, 2. Magician, and 3. Artist.

To make a meal, the Scientist is the left-brained chef who meticulously measures and weighs ingredients, and follows religiously a 50-step recipe.  The Magician has no recipe and, in fact, has no preconceived idea what kind of meal she’s going to cook. Instead, she goes to the market and sees what’s fresh and in season, then she goes back into the kitchen and conjures up a creation on the spot.  The Artist is a combination of the first two. He has a general sense of what he wants to make, and how he wants to make it, and works within these guidelines to create his meal.  He dosen’t work off an exact recipe, but instead relies on instinct and creativity to work within his themes.

Having observed, invested in, and worked with dozens of startups over the years, I theorize that Startup Founders also fall into 3 categories, each one similar to those in the cooking metaphor above.

For example, the Startup Scientist may have a super detailed business plan and 30 pages of financial projections including a dozen pages of assumptions (ok maybe I’m exaggerating, but you get the drift).  Some years back, a good friend of mine sold his company for a tidy sum and used the 12 month noncompete period to develop a detailed business plan for a consumer-oriented startup.  He raised $10 million in venture capital. His business plan was amazing, and every possible contingency and possibility was covered, this even before his company earned Dollar One.  What happened?  Within 2 years, he burned through all of his cash and folded the venture.  Why?  I think the Scientist and his team were enamored by his plan, they hired too many executives too soon, and failed to be flexible and responsive to clients needs.  I really think his “awesome” business plan worked against him, and he stuck with it even though he should have pivoted and iterated. The bottom line is that startups are not a “science,” and this approach works better for large companies than startups.

The Startup Magician has NO PLAN.  He has a business idea, and gets to work, whether it’s developing a killer app, or acquiring customers and adopters.  He is open to change and creativity, and pivots and pivots until he finds something that works.  This kind of startup has no real business model per se.  Can this kind of company succeed? Remember Google? They had no business model until a year or so before they went public.  What was Facebook’s business model 2 years ago?  Does Twitter have a business model today?  Most would say it is undefined, but it has to be considered a very successful startup.  These are exceptions.  My personal feeling is that it’s very difficult to build a hypergrowth enterprise in this manner.  Some Startup Magicians create successful businesses, some create nice lifestyle businesses, but most either stagnate, or fail, usually because of a lack of direction.

What about the Startup Artist?  This entrepreneur has rough guidelines for what she wants to achieve in her business.  She knows her product or service, her company culture, the kinds of people she wants to hire, and the markets in which she will compete.  She has a general mission and vision for the startup, and a set of core values which serve as guiding principles.  Maybe she doesn’t have an awesome business plan, or a 10-scenario DCF analysis, but those things are not only NOT NEEDED in a startup, they will in fact inhibit growth and innovation. Ideally, she and her team work off a one-page plan with a couple of key areas of focus, and then they concentrate on EXECUTION.  I believe this type of startup has the best chance of winning because it allows for flexibility and adaptation to changing market and business conditions.  The company also has a general sense of its direction, culture, and style, which will keep it from meandering aimlessly.

The lesson here, I think, is that it’s best for a startup NOT to be to be too exact, nor too free form.  Planning is great, but the plan itself should not be Gospel. The benefit of preparing a business plan is in the planning process itself, where you and your team think carefully about your capabilities and differentiators, your customers, your competitors, financial assumptions, and markets.  But, it’s imperative to keep in mind that the one true thing about any startup’s business plan is that things will NEVER turn out as planned.

To build a hypergrowth company, you must be ready to pivot, to develop new solutions, to move into markets you didn’t originally foresee, and to take on other opportunities without being beholden to some preset plan which was made in theory to begin with.

Thanks for reading, and please leave a Comment below.  What style of Startup Founder do you think has the best chance of succeeding?  Am I being too critical of the Scientist?

And please sign up for my Blog too!  (See the Signup box on the sidebar of my Home Page)

Note:  This Post is dedicated to my good friend Derek Coburn (@cadredc), Founder of CADRE, the UN-networking organization of remarkable advocates.  Thanks D, for suggesting I write a Post about this topic!

29 thoughts on “3 Types of Startup Founders – a Cooking Metaphor

  1. You mentioned a couple of key elements to success- being flexible and listening to clients needs. That is the secret that many founders fail to discover until it is too late. A founder may know better (in his/her own mind) what the prospect needs, but unless the prospect agrees and pays for it, it is just another cool idea that goes nowhere.
    That is why many companies stagnate unless they bring in professional business (sales) people who have a better understanding of how to grow revenue. A lot of technical guru founders scoff at that, but it is a rare occasion when the guru also possesses the people skills necessary for revenue growth. It is not a criticism, just a fact.


  2. I like the metaphor.
    ” it’s best for a startup NOT to be to be too exact, nor too free form”. It makes sense. And the reason why “Scientist” type founder is less like to succeed is because future is unknown and extremely difficult to predict, hence, guidance by assumptions won’t work.


  3. I agree with Dave. Given all the basics, flexibility is the key. Stubborness, though, is also needed. I am advising (or, better, trying to!) some young people just out of college and i see that it is the stubborn ones who keep coming back to their idea, even though 99 times they will hear that it will never work.


  4. Being flexible is the right way to go! Start with a 3 page plan that identifies your startup capital requirments, talent requirements, and the initial target market. Twitter had no idea its product would be where it is today, 3 years ago. The trick is to develop a business model with reach and depth that has a minimal marginal cost to accommodate new users.


  5. Admittedly, I’m more of the Magician. However, I know that’s not the best approach, so I force myself to write out my ideas and expound on them from there (to include competition, SWOTT analysis, ect.). That said, I haven’t go over a few pages deep on the few plans I’ve written. There are too many variables to predict and until your in the “dirt” you don’t know if you’ve hit ledge and may need dynamite! 🙂


  6. TIen,

    Nice post. The great thing about a plan is that it allows you to have a common direction. More importantly, it allows the entrepreneur and their team to know, even on day 2, when they are consciously deviating or modifying the plan. The scientist might stick too much to the original plan, instead of adapting to changing circumstances. The magician might obtain early success, but can have a tough time scaling up without a repeatable process. The artist has the focus and structure of a plan, but can be responsive to change. Regardless of the cooking style, the recipe needs passion, spice, and a spark to light the fire. Just be sure that you have people “hungry” for what you are cooking – No sense cooking something that nobody would want to eat.


  7. Great article Tien. I do believe a balanced approach as an artist is the best way to go for an entreprenuer. It also makes sense from a chef’s prespective or someone with foodservice industry experience. I would love to get your opinion on a foodie startup that helps restaurants streamline their food ordering process and at the same time offers them competitive prices on their food orders from food distrubutors.


  8. It was very useful for you to make the distinctions between the 3 types of startup founders. Your article is helpful as a response and reference article when there is an expectation that all startup founders act like “scientists” with tons of financial details. I agree that it actually gets in the way….I agree that it is much more important to be flexible and adaptable. You are so articulate! Thanks again for sharing your valuable insights! — Diane


    • Thanks Diane. You’re right about the Scientist approach to a startup. And it’s not just financial details. A lawyer friend of mine started a business a few years ago and, before doing anything, he spent $50,000 doing a PPM for investors. He should have spent that money on marketing, sales, etc., ANYTHING BUT a PPM. His priorities were skewed and his focus was to much on the process, not the basics (revenue, customers, etc.). Unfortunately the story didn’t end well for him, but I am just reiterating your point about the Scientist sometimes getting in his own way and causing failure…


  9. Mr. Tien Wong,
    Thank you so much for sharing your insights and wisdom! I appreciate your brilliant comments! Congratulations on your fascinating blog! Thanks for calling it to our attention!
    With appreciation,


  10. Tien, I think you are right on the money! I used the artist principles 6 years ago and grew a business unit in a startup from 0-just under 70 million. Now I am planning to do the same again and hopefully better in a brand new startup. I believe those principles work, and while employing them … tenacity, focus, optimism, courage and a plain old hard head with untiring drive doesn’t hurt 🙂 The focus part is absolutely key. As for me in my current venture, I am focusing on two primary customers and market segments.._


    • Wow, that’s impressive Mike! I think the Artist principles are pretty much timeless, and can apply to virtually any startup endeavor in any field. Keep up the great work. Wish you the best!


  11. Great post. In the kitchen, I’m definitely an artist. In my new IT venture, I hope to be. thanks for a great post Tien!


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