Postcards

How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

The Steve Jobs route to building a startup

October 12, 2011: 12:57 PM ET

I met Steve Jobs only once--back in 2007 when he came to Fortune to demo the iPhone. What a thrill when he walked into the conference room and took the empty chair next to mine. Over the next 90 minutes, the Apple (AAPL) founder and chief mesmerized Fortune's editors by previewing his game-changing product and his insanely creative mind at work.

That day, I saw proof, up close and personal, that Silicon Valley doesn't necessarily belong to the geeks. Steve Jobs didn't have an engineering degree, and he was no programming wizard. He let his innovative brain flow freely--so freely, as filmmaker George Lucas told me last week, that he invented things most people thought wouldn't work--and today, we cannot imagine living without.

Before I wrote "Will the next Facebook be founded by a woman?" for Fortune's current Most Powerful Women issue, I checked in with Gina Bianchini, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur whose last startup was Ning and whose latest venture is another social platform, Mightybell. Bianchini is so passionate about the topic of women entrepreneurs that she came back at me, within hours of my request to talk, with a  long email--Subject line: "Ok, you are going to think I'm a dork, but this was bugging me..." Her email was anything but dorky. And with a little editing, it is now this Guest Post. While none of us can be quite like Steve Jobs, someone following his creative footsteps, as Bianchini notes, has as good a shot at making it big as the brainiac kid, currently coding in some college dorm room, who aspires to be the next Mark Zuckerberg.

Credit: Andy Freeberg

By Gina Bianchini, CEO, Mightybell

Where is the female Mark Zuckerberg? I've heard this question a lot. Typically, a fair amount of hand-wringing comes with trying to answer it. There's a reason that the question is hard to answer. It's the wrong question.

As it turns out, there are very few male Mark Zuckerbergs. Starting consumer Internet companies is hard. Really hard. And if you look beyond the co-founder and CEO of Facebook, you'll notice a pattern in entrepreneurial success stories that is different from what you see in the movies.

Many industry observers and venture capitalists talk about investing only in technical founders. I've heard people I respect say, essentially, "Don't try to be a consumer Internet entrepreneur unless you can code." Despite being a three-time founder who has helped build products used, collectively, by close to 100 million people around the world, I've occasionally wondered if I, because of my educational background, chose an impossible path. I have a BA in political science from Stanford, plus an MBA.

I went to the data, and then I realized that perception is not reality. I looked at the entrepreneurs I know beyond Zuckerberg at Facebook and Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google (GOOG). What is the background of social and consumer technology founders, my peer group? Are they more technical than I am? And by the way, did they get it right on their first try, or did they fail first and try again?

If you disregard gender, they actually look a lot more like me than like Mark Zuckerberg, who was a computer science major at Harvard when he started Facebook (and still codes to this day). Other iconic entrepreneurs have backgrounds that could well have led them anywhere except the Internet. Zynga's Mark Pincus was an economics major at the University of Pennsylvania. Foursquare co-founder and CEO Dennis Crowley has a BA in advertising from Syracuse University. Andrew Mason, the founder of Groupon, majored in music at Northwestern, for heaven's sake. Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, who co-founded online retailer Gilt Groupe, majored in romance languages at Harvard before earning her MBA there. Gilt co-founders Kevin Ryan and Alexis Maybank also traveled the non-tech route.

If Zuckerberg, the Google guys, and Bill Gates are the pattern creators, Steve Jobs may be the best counter-evidence to the creation myth. He didn't study computer science during his brief time at Reed College. He didn't need to be an ace at coding. Instead, he relentlessly and passionately focused on products. He marketed. He sold. He inspired. He challenged. He succeeded. He failed. He kept going. Then, he succeeded again. These are the true characteristics of a successful entrepreneur in the consumer Internet space. And there is nothing stopping women from performing just as well as men.

While it's true that women don't sit in the upper echelons of the corporate universe -- and I'll let others speculate on why that is -- I know this about succeeding as a consumer Internet entrepreneur: The key is to focus on the data and bury the stereotypes that signal to women that the game is not for us.

Gina Bianchini recently launched Mightybell, a social platform that lets users create and organize content in a step-by-step format. She is the co-founder and former CEO of Ning.

For more on breakout female founders, see Fortune's 10 Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs. For updates on Fortune Most Powerful Women, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.

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