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Does Passion Fuel Funding?

 

Earlier this month, the 2019-2020 Angel Investments class began attending investment meetings to hear pitches by entrepreneurs up and down the West Coast. Students this year are attending meetings in San Diego, Pasadena, Portland, and Seattle. As we have attended investment meetings, we’ve seen a wide variety of backgrounds of entrepreneurs. Many in the biotech world, for example, are scientists with PhDs in chemistry, physics, or biology. Others have experience in business with MBAs, experience creating or running other startups, or backgrounds in large corporations in the same industry. Not only do they vary in their experiences, they also vary in personality. Some entrepreneurs we’ve seen exude excitement, others work through their presentations logically. With such a range of backgrounds and personality, I wondered: just how much of a role does the personality of the entrepreneur play in receiving early start-up funding? It certainly plays some role—without a persuasive entrepreneur at a pitch meeting, investors might not be convinced the world needs the entrepreneur’s product. 

Unfortunately, some entrepreneurs have been able to convince investors without even having a product. Consider Elizabeth Holmes, founder of Theranos, who raised more than 700 million dollars from investors like the Waltons (heirs to Walmart), Betsy DeVos, and Rupert Murdoch before a whistleblower exposed the fraud. Holmes cited her uncle’s death from cancer as the reason she was so motivated to create blood tests and change the world and by all reports was an amazing storyteller. Reports have also stated she lowered her voice to be perceived as more powerful and wore a black turtleneck to mimic the look of Steve Jobs. She was charming and agreeable during meetings. She had no outward trouble speaking on television to news anchors and interviewers. 

Obviously, Theranos was fraudulent and the ethical implications of Holmes’ work is far-reaching. However, stepping aside these issues, I wondered if other entrepreneurs have a similar personality. In short: do certain traits predict an entrepreneur’s likelihood of successful outcomes? Did the fact that Holmes could tell stories well and was extroverted play a significant role in her ability to receive funding? 

The Research

In a review of literature published in 2017, faculty at the Harvard Business School aimed to gather the research and answer this question. Using firm growth as the measure of success, researchers looking at architectural woodwork firms in 2004 found that the creation of goals, self-efficacy, and communicated vision were crucial to venture growth. Other studies found correlation between a need for achievement, having a proactive personality, generalized self-efficacy, and stress tolerance as positively correlated with venture growth. Internal locus of control, or the degree to which people believe they have control over the outcomes in their life, was also a repeated correlation in many studies (Pekkala, 2017). 

Not consistent in research is the effect of extraversion, agreeableness, or openness to experience when growing a business. While some studies find extraversion, which might correlate to demonstrating passion or excitement in a meeting, is positively correlated with success, other studies show no such correlation or state it has a negative correlation on the success of the company (Pekkala, 2017). An entrepreneur’s success matters more on their personal belief in their vision and willing to do the work than other traits like warmth or enjoying being around people.  

Conclusion

Despite reports that Elizabeth Holmes was charming and extroverted during meetings, statistically these were likely not the reasons Theranos saw success in funding. More likely, her own proactive personality and what I like to refer to as “hustle” got her the money she needed to continue operations. Whether she faked her own physical traits and personality to come off as similar to successful entrepreneurs, I will leave that up to you to decide. 

Sources

Pekkala, Sari,  Kerr William R., and Kerr Tina Xu. (2017). Personality Traits of Entrepreneurs: A Review of Recent Literature. Retrieved from http://www.hbs.edu/faculty/publication%20files/18-047_b0074a64-5428-479b-8c83-16f2a0e97eb6.pdf 


Emily Anderson is a second-year MBA candidate at Willamette University studying accounting and finance. She is a 2017 graduate of Gonzaga University, where she received her B.A. in International Studies. Emily enjoys traveling to listen to pitches from entrepreneurs, debating new ventures with her colleagues, and analyzing potential deals.

 

 

 

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