The founder mythology’s impact on the talent crunch

In the last month since running StartupBus and reflecting on the boom in seed funding for startups and the talent crunch of engineers in the San Francisco Bay Area,  if it’s one thing I’m seeing a lot more of, it’s the fact that more ‘entrepreneurs’ exist. I’ve been asking myself then, what exactly is a founder?

So it’s good timing to see Chris Dixon to write about the very topic where he defines a true founder from the fake one. But for me, it isn’t so much about glorifying the ‘founder’ as some hero and everyone else ‘not good enough as me’ as Dixon alludes to. Rather, I’m curious: what is it that makes someone a good founder?

When I asked my friend Alisdair Faulkner a few weeks ago on this very topic, he said  that a founder is by the simple fact they are. Meaning, instead of talking — they actually are doing something, which goes to Dixon’s point. I’d argue that’s the fundamental trait of being an entrepreneur, which is the bias to action. But is being a do-er a good founder?

One prominent venture capitalist I spoke to recently remarked that a lot of the startups these days are smart engineers dropping out of Google, thinking they are founders and getting funded because they can. But the truth is, they aren’t good founders and it’s likely they will fail.  The danger of this point, is that we won’t know this, as the increasing trend for companies is to acquire startups for the talent (over the product or profits) which means these failures in capable founders are masked as successes and who in turn will influence the perception of success.

That’s a bad thing and let me explain why. To give you an example in a different context of why this matters, a basic competency for management is the ability to motivate your staff. If you can’t do that, you will create a significant cost to the businesses but which goes unnoticed and impacts the organisation — like a slow growing cancer due to reduced morale. Why is this a problem? Because an incompetent manager will get promoted through their career, continuing on their path of destruction. Problems they caused get masked as other issues, and so incompetency doesn’t get rained in on.

…so let’s step back here. Why does it matter? Because just like the mythology of the CEO, I think we need to clearly set the expectations in the industry that behind all the status, you should be true to yourself.

Let’s look at this from another angle. A good founder is usually a superstar…but  makes a terrible CEO as CEO’s need to be good at delegating rather than doing it all themselves. This weakness is hidden in small environments but becomes apparent when the business needs to scale.

Fred Wilson recounts a story of what a (good) CEO should do. He claims:

Sets the overall vision and strategy of the company and communicates it to all stakeholders. Recruits, hires, and retains the very best talent for the company. Makes sure there is always enough cash in the bank.

And that’s it. Notice no word is mentioned about being a good worker. Good CEO’s make terrible workers (in the sense of building the product, doing admin, etc), in the same way good founders make terrible CEO’s (as they want to work on the product and neglect the management side of being a CEO). And likewise, a terrible CEO is a founder who does what founders do which is experiment when instead they should be focussed on execution and not distracting the business. This is why a startup CEO is a very different animal from a growth-stage CEO — and once again, very different to a mature company CEO. Which is why I have a lot of respect for people who are founders and are willing to hand over the CEO role to another person, as they are making a mature decision that benefits the business, not their ego.

Anyone can be a founder, like how anyone can be a CEO — or an employee — but that doesn’t mean they are good ones. So if starting is what defines a founder, then anyone is a founder — but what makes a good founder is one who starts and is able to finish.  Think you’re a founder or a good CEO? Maybe you are, but the good ones don’t hide behind titles. Feel free to call yourself one, but at least be honest and recognise you can’t be good at everything.

And who knows, maybe this talent crunch might ease up  a bit when smart engineers realise they are…smart engineers and that’s it.

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