Of all of the variables to evaluate in handicapping the likelihood of success of a business, by far the most important is its "human DNA" - that killer combination of people smarts, vision, creativity, integrity and work ethic present in all great companies.
Here are 7 qualities to look for in a management team worth backing:
#7. They Are, In Fact, A Team. Great companies are not simply the byproduct of a visionary and/or charismatic founder and chief executive, but rather of a multi-disciplinary, multi-faceted, and well-meshed leadership team.
Great companies have cultures of achievement.
The tone of this culture might be, and usually is, set by a charismatic founder. But its enduring success is dependent on how it can replicate and maintain that culture as the company grows, and as its founder's role becomes less pronounced.
#6. It Is Clear Who Is In Charge. This may seem contradictory to the above, but all well led companies have clear and final points of decision making. There are many effective styles of leadership, from greatly autocratic to fundamentally consensual, but all of them share the fact that in them there is one person at whose desk the "buck" truly stops.
#5. They Have Small Business Discipline. To paraphrase Guy Kawasaki -- the worst folks to run a start-up or an emerging company are a group of ex-Microsoft executives. Entrepreneurial companies are first and foremost small businesses. As such, their management must a) fervently guard cash flow and manage it with a cult-like intensity and b) always make decisions with the mindset that they only have so many "arrows in the quiver" in terms of time and capital to pursue initiatives.
#4. They Are Risk-Takers. The proper goal of an entrepreneur with outside investors is not to run a small business in the common sense of the term. With the fear of sounding harsh, the best managers are minimally concerned with protecting their own "middle-class" lifestyles. Rather, they understand that to achieve greatly requires daring greatly.
For investors, a flame-out failure is not the only bad outcome. As damaging is "a muddling along" driven by too conservative decision making influenced by the desire to "protect hides."
Companies that run this way, in fact usually require MORE money, and counter-intuitively can often be riskier than their harder-charging brethren.
#3. They Are "Goldilocks-ish." While there are certainly outliers in this regard, the significant majority of the best entrepreneurial managers are not "too hot" nor "too cold." Again, not a hard and fast rule, but look for leaders where the key people are between the ages of 30 and 50 have had a few past successes and maybe a failure or two.
They are now in that sweet spot between youthful hunger and middle age wisdom. They know what they know, yet they still have the intellectual and emotional flexibility and curiosity to change and grow.
#2. They Are Technologists. All successful 21st businesses are, at their essence, technology businesses. This does not mean that they all would be considered classic "emerging technology" companies (though the majority of them, in fact, are).
Rather, well-run modern companies leverage technology -- from CRM and ERP to SEO and SEM to scenario-planning and simulation to "best practice" their business models. Their managers understand that information technology is not just the domain of a geeky guy to call when computers can't boot up, but is rather the drumbeat of their business.
#1. Their Work Ethic is Off The Charts. More than anything else, successful entrepreneurs work hard. As in very, very, very, very hard. They work nights. They work weekends. They take short vacations, if any. They work when they're sick. They work when they're tired. They work and work and work and then to paraphrase the great (and famously hard-working) golfer Gary Player, "The harder they work, the luckier they get."
Look for this quality above all else. It is almost always the best predictor of success.