What Habits Do Successful Founders Share?

By BrainStation February 5, 2020

When you’re looking to improve yourself on a professional or personal level, it’s always a wise idea to emulate the best. And when it comes to developing good habits that encourage productivity, creativity, and general success, you’d be hard-pressed to find better role models than the founders of the world’s top startups.

From Airbnb’s Brian Chesky to Stitch Fix’s Katrina Lake to Spotify’s Daniel Ek – or even the super-famous likes of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or Mark Zuckerberg – when it comes to founders and CEOs, there are ties that seem to bind even the most seemingly dissimilar personalities. And in many cases, the connective tissue is in the small things – founders tend to have the discipline to set and stick to certain best practices in their day-to-day routines.

With that in mind, we looked at the habits that most successful founders seem to share.

They Make the Most of Every Minute

Simply put, founders don’t have time to waste. And when it comes to maximizing every minute of their day, some have gotten pretty creative.

Elon Musk –  the CEO of Tesla and the mind behind SpaceX – said in 2016 that he was working 85 to 100 hours per week as he juggled both companies. How did he manage? One tactic was to break his day into five-minute slots. He’s even got into the habit of wolfing down his lunch in just five minutes – usually during a meeting. 

“That’s the single best piece of advice: Constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself,” he has said.

He’s not alone in finding creative ways to make the absolute most of his day. Capify CEO and founder David Goldin schedules some of his most important calls during his morning commute. Anne Wojcicki of 23andme even stopped paying for parking largely because she doesn’t like wasting her time.

“I get parking tickets all the time. We’ve worked out the stats and it’s 50-50 odds of getting a ticket and the cost versus time saved means I can accept it,” she said

They Cherish Their Calendars

With schedules regimented down to the last detail, founders seem to have few things they covet like their calendars.

Front co-founder and CEO Mathilde Collin makes her calendar a central focus of her day – and that of her team since she makes it public for all her direct reports to see how she spends her time. She’s not only meticulous about logging her appointments, but also reviewing her calendar to make sure she’s spending time on the right things.

“I am really crazy when it comes to my calendar. I’m hypervigilant about making sure that I spend time on the right things,” said Collin, whose shared inbox startup kicked off 2020 with the announcement of a $59 million Series C funding round.

“If I don’t always know what I’m doing, then I get sucked into checking my emails or answering questions instead of focusing on what I said was most important at the beginning of the week.”

She doesn’t just log the big events in her calendar. She blocks off larger chunks of time for a “time for culture” session in which she spends time considering her employees and whether they seem happy. She also books 15-minute blocks to write emails to her employees or read over recent research. She even has a 15-minute chunk of time blocked off specifically for reviewing her calendar.

Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey employed a unique time-management strategy while he was working eight hours per day at both the social-media company and pre-IPO Square. He created a theme for each day; Monday was for management, Tuesday was about product, Wednesday was devoted to marketing, communications, and growth, and so on. Not every day was devoted to work, of course – he took Saturdays off to hike and Sundays to reflect and strategize.

Many leaders also emphasize the importance of actually booking unscheduled time into their calendars.

“This enables me to get things done on the same day instead of allowing the guilt pile to build up,” said Dr. Walter S. Scott, founder of satellite imagery company DigitalGlobe.

“I am significantly more productive when I am not forced to multitask,” he added. “By creating pockets of time in which I can work alone, I am able to accomplish tasks on the same day and leave time for collaboration.”

Carving out alone time during the workday is a priority for Spotify’s Daniel Ek as well.

He also has another piece of advice for the bold: don’t be afraid to cancel a meeting.

“I just don’t have as many meetings as you think,” Ek said. “Instead I have a lot of me time where I’m just thinking; I’m at a whiteboard drawing by myself. If I have a call or another meeting, I’ll just block it out if I’m in the zone,” he added. “That’s unorthodox because it means that you’re breaking social contracts, you’re disappointing someone because you didn’t show up. But if you’re really, really focused, those are the times when the breakthroughs come. I might go for three days and not sleep because I’m focused in that moment.”

They Establish Rules Around Work-Life Balance

Although different leaders have different thoughts on what work-life balance actually looks like, something founders seem to have in common is that they find an equilibrium that works for them – and then they establish clear rules around it.

They’re certainly motivated by creating a happy home life, but also by ensuring that they’re bringing their best self to the office each day.

“Failure of your company is not failure in life. Failure in your relationships is,” said Ev Williams, CEO of Medium and co-founder of Twitter. “When you don’t sleep, eat crap, don’t exercise, and are living off adrenaline for too long, your performance suffers. Your decisions suffer. Your company suffers.”

With so much demand on their time from inside and outside their companies, founders typically find it helpful to set clear boundaries. Tumblr’s David Karp won’t allow laptops in the bedroom. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos wakes up naturally, without an alarm clock, and doesn’t schedule morning meetings so he can spend time with his family. Boll & Branch founders Scott and Missy Tannen make sure they’re home every day early enough to have a family dinner.

“We may be co-founders, but we are also mom and dad to three daughters. No matter how hectic running a fast-growing startup is, we make sure to shut off the cell phones and have a family dinner with our girls,” they said. “While many CEOs are still going strong at six p.m., we’re passing the green beans and focusing on what matters most to us — our family.

“What’s most amazing is how many of our business and marketing ideas have come from our twin eight-year-olds and our 11-year-old right at the dinner table.”

Indeed, oftentimes it’s having kids that prompt these leaders to finally surrender to a more sane schedule.

“One of the things that has been an adjustment being a new mom is that the morning is some of the most valuable time I have with my son,” said Stitch Fix’s Katrina Lake. “It used to be that I would check email and Instagram first thing in bed, and now as soon as he’s up, I’m up. I’ve really appreciated the clarity and being able to start the day in a more organic way with my son.

“It’s really important for me to feel present when I’m at work, that I’m totally listening and paying attention and not worrying about what my son is doing. On the flip side, I try to bring that same level of being present at home. I want to feel totally present in everything I do.”

They Take Care of Their Bodies

Even with impenetrably tight schedules, the world’s top founders seem to share a commitment to health and fitness – and some even have some quirky workout habits.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin is a daredevil whose athletic interests span gymnastics, high-flying trapeze, springboard diving, ultimate Frisbee and hockey. Mint.com founder Aaron Patzer lifts weights and runs, but he also loves climbing trees – a habit he picked up when he was 3. Other Founders find creative ways to weave wellness into their days; 23andMe’s Anne Wojcicki is an admitted “fitness freak” who biked five miles to work every day while eight months pregnant. Apple’s Tim Cook wakes up around 4:30 a.m. daily to ensure several trips to the gym per week. 

All this exercise isn’t just about looking good. Most draw a connection between their physical health and their job performance.

“Staying in shape is very important,” said Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. “Doing anything well requires energy and you just have a lot more energy when you’re fit.

“I make sure I work out at least three times a week – usually first thing when I wake up. I also try to take my dog running whenever I can, which has the added bonus of being hilarious because that’s basically like seeing a mop run.”

They Set Goals

Founders juggle so many disparate concerns that it can be easy to lose sight of the big picture. So it’s not surprising that many are fastidious about setting clear goals and reviewing them often.

In fact, as part of his daily routine, Spotify’s Ek writes out his goals for the day, week, and month, and every evening he checks to see how he’s doing.

“And then I just allocate my time (to match the goals),” he said. “People think that creativity is this free spirit that has no boundaries. No, actually the most creative people in the world schedule their creativity.”

Front’s Collin makes an effort not just to set goals, but to communicate them to the rest of her team. At 10 a.m. sharp every Monday morning, she sends a note to her direct reports outlining her goals for the week.

“It’s not about telling your reports every single thing you’re going to do. Rather, it’s a chance to share what’s top-of-mind for you, which of course should be top-of-mind for them,” she said.

Broadcasting her goals to her team also has the added benefit of keeping Collin focused, she said.

“If I start to slip or if my weeks don’t ladder up to those big goals we’re focusing on, that sends the wrong message.”

Those goals should realistic, but also ambitious. In fact, Box co-founder Aaron Levie considered it one of his main roles with the cloud enterprise storage company to keep the company’s collective sights set high.

“Probably the biggest value that I add to this company is reminding people to push on the scale of the opportunity – to realize that they can do something 10 times bigger, 10 times better, 10 times faster,” he said

They Keep Informed

In the swift-moving startup world, staying on top means staying on top of what’s happening – and what the competition is up to.

So it’s easy to understand why many founders start their day with a deep dive through the news.

“The first thing I do once out of bed is read 15 to 30 minutes religiously,” said Ahmed Albaiti, Founder and CEO of digital health innovation company Medullan. “I jot down anything interesting for rumination vis-à-vis healthcare, (such as) Netflix’s god mode or Jaguar’s brainwave tracker. It’s amazing how many dots you can connect by just reading.”

AdGreetz founder and CEO Eric Frankel says he reads “voraciously,” a habit he picked up much earlier in his career.

“My first job at Warner Bros. was preparing a daily press packet without internet,” Frankel said. “I had to read everything physically, clip pertinent articles, copy and distribute them to execs. This job taught me the power one garners by knowing everything that’s going on in business and the world — who’s doing well and might be a candidate for a sale of a popular Warner Bros. TV series or movie and who is in trouble and might need a hit TV series or movie.

“One needs to be able to converse with other executives intelligently about their business.”