Scott Kurnit, a bonafide “startup guy,” on what it takes to succeed

Flight Templates are templated flights, or sets of questions, written by some of the world’s preeminent business leaders. With Flight Templates, Balloon users get unparalleled access to seasoned perspectives and proven business strategies across all areas of business, including leadership, product, marketing & sales, innovation, employee experience, culture, and more. This feature is part of a series on The Insight that profiles Balloon’s Flight Template authors.

Sitting at his kitchen table, looking over Manhattan from his apartment on the 27th floor, Scott Kurnit turned to the two men beside him, who would soon become team members number two and three at About Inc., and said, “Guys, we're going to jump, and we don't know how we're going to land. We don't know if we're going to have wings of wax or a parachute, but we'll figure it out along the way.”

24 years later, the founder thought back to that moment in 1996 and concluded that, among many other things, About was able to be as successful as it was because of that readiness to leap into the unknown.

“If you think you have the answers when you get into it, you can't do a startup,” Kurnit said. “And I don't even think it's humility. I think it's a little blindness. It’s a belief that you can accomplish what other people haven’t seen or tried or might have failed at.”

Kurnit has been what he calls a “true startup guy” since the ‘80s, when startups looked quite a bit different than the sleek Silicon Valley lineups of today. As a young executive in his 20s and 30s, Kurnit oversaw several innovative programs born within corporations—like Warner Media (formerly Warner Communications) and American Express’s experimental two-way cable television system QUBE, and, later, a pay-per-view program run through Warner Media and Showtime—and quickly began collecting lessons and skills that would eventually serve him when he left his Division CEO role at the telecommunications company MCI Inc. to step out on his own and launch About. 

“At the beginning, I was a startup guy in the safety of large corporations. I was at the dawn of public television. I was at the dawn of the cable TV industry. I was at the dawn of the Internet,” said Kurnit, who, while he was at MCI, even managed Vint Cerf, one of the “fathers of the Internet.” “But once I was in real startups, it was like, ‘Oh crap, this is a whole different game.’”

At the helm of About, Kurnit tackled new challenges like raising capital and experiencing the intense mental and financial pressures that come with being a founder. (Twice, he had to cover his 61-person staff’s payroll to keep things above water.) However, his “startup guy” mentality—that delicate balance between hard-headed determination and the openness to listen and learn from your own naysayers—allowed him to learn the new terrain quickly and turn About from an abstract idea into a successful corporation.

“Like every startup, we had to pivot our business model several times along the way, and as a founder, you have to have the ability to comfortably pivot and to make due when things are not going so well,” Kurnit said. “We kept getting stuff thrown in our face, and we had to figure out how to overcome whatever those problems were, which was so scary but so fun.”

Those qualities served him well as About grew and as Kurnit and his team faced difficult situations, including the radical decision to change the company’s name from The Mining Company a month after it went public. They also served him well more recently as he has become an investor in nearly 60 companies (including Balloon, which he calls, along with Zoom, “the answer to our future work”) and a dozen venture funds. Now, his startup ambitions and executive expertise are benefiting today’s business leaders as well, as Kurnit has created a substantial six-part flight template series, Executive Decision-Making.

  • Refine Your MVP
  • Brand Name Considerations
  • Brand Name Brainstorm
  • Joint Venture Considerations
  • Align on a Joint Venture
  • Prepare for Downsizing

The series guides users through four high-stakes scenarios that require exacting executive acumen—building an MVP, finding the perfect brand name, joint ventures, and downsizing—all of which Kurnit has successfully navigated firsthand, sometimes more than once. (He has led four joint ventures and several downsizings throughout his career.) Although all four situations commonly occur somewhere down the post-founding road, Kurnit’s persistent energy and inherent ability to know what to do with a figurative blank slate are imbued throughout the series, and his ebullience is contagious. It is no wonder that those two men who sat beside him on the 27th floor in 1996 threw caution to the Manhattan wind and jumped out alongside him.

“To be an entrepreneur, you have to have guts. You have to have conviction,” Kurnit said. “While everybody else thinks you're wrong, you have to think you're right without being arrogant. You have to break a ton of rules. You have to be ready to fail, but let me tell you, it is the most satisfying thing in the world when you succeed.”

Check out Scott Kurnit’s Flight Template Series

Founder, Former CEO,