When LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman was asked about the process of starting a company, he said it’s “like throwing yourself off the cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down.”
I ask you, what kind of person even thinks that’s possible?
In two words: Tech Founders.
My years in the C-suite have enabled me to observe these larger-than-life, mythical creatures in their natural habitat, breathe their rarified air and witness superpowers that mere mortals can but envy. And that’s when I had my epiphany: I’m as likely to become a tech founder as I am to go swimming with sharks on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, slackline across the Grand Canyon or wrestle alligators in the Everglades. I’m not that guy, and I’m okay with that.
I apologize if I’m about to dash your dreams of becoming the next Jobs, Gates, Benioff or Brin. What I really hope is that my insight will be your inspiration to find your path to even greater professional satisfaction and success. Besides, given what I know about founders, if you’ve got what it takes, nothing I write here will stop you.
An Operational CEO With No Illusions
Throughout my almost three decades in management roles at tech companies (established and start-up) I’ve discovered that I’m a startup junkie. I dig the challenge, the adrenalin rush and the tremendous sense of accomplishment as we secure successive rounds of funding, achieve our sales goals and move closer to an exit. I thrive on it.
As I moved up the management ladder, however, I believed that founding my own tech firm would be the capstone of my career. Not because I lust for Silicon Valley stardom. I thought it was just the natural progression of my professional growth. Now I know better.
I believe founders are not made; they’re born. It’s as much in their DNA as any other genetic trait. Craig Harris, founder of HG Data and I guy I admire greatly, says it’s just something you have and/or are exposed to early on. He likes to tell how going back as far as middle school, he set the weekend plans for his group of friends. “No matter how many ideas the others had, in the end, they all came around to my idea,” he says. At first, it became a challenge among them to see if anyone else could prevail and eventually a joke when his friends would say, “Hey Craig, what are we doing this weekend?” Craig is more than a leader. He’s the kind of person you want to follow. There’s a distinction.
One of our LeadGenius co-founders, Prayag Narula, another guy I hold in great esteem, confided in me recently that he’d long thought of himself as an accidental founder. “Then a friend reminded me that I had set goals for myself when I was back in India: come to Silicon Valley, get a degree, and start a company.” Prayag dreamed it; more importantly, he made it happen at great physical, psychological and personal sacrifice during the early years.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not putting myself down or being self-deprecating. I’m damn good at what I do. I’m the operator who can help a founder scale. I may not have the initial vision, but if you want to make that vision a reality, I’m your guy. I can’t initially see it, but I damn sure can execute it.
Besides, I’ve seen the founder’s job, and I don’t want it.
Traits of Tech Founders
I suspect there’s maybe a 10% difference between the traits of a founder and how I see myself, an operational CEO. But that 10%…it’s an enormous chasm. Some might call it that je ne se qua, that inimitable something, that X-factor that we can’t quite put a finger on. Well, I’m going to try. I’ve listed six of what I think are the most distinctive superpowers—and how they manifest in founders as compared to someone like me.
While I have a vision for where a company needs to go tomorrow, next month and a year from now, I can’t see over the distant horizon and envision possibilities. I can build the plan to ensure the quickest and most efficient path to that horizon, no doubt. But what’s over it and being able to see it years before others…that ain’t me. Founders have x-ray vision to see what most mortals can’t even imagine. It’s this vision that gave Steve Jobs the self-assurance to say that he and his development team had the “discipline” to imagine and build what people want to buy. Founders, in other words, see over the distant horizon and inspire others to chart the course to get there.
I’ve lived through one of the most dynamic technological explosions of many centuries, and couldn’t see the future right before my eyes on more occasions than I would like to admit. I didn’t have the appreciation to understand what VHS would mean to the movie business or what Netflix would do to Blockbuster. I remember laughing at friends scooping up Apple stock when Jobs was fired and the stock tanked during the Scully years. I was a user of the pre-IPO companies of Amazon, Facebook, and Google, but never bought their stock after those IPOs. The jury is still out on some of my speculation from this decade, as I’ve tried to get ahead of some ICOs, such as Bitcoin, and some cannabis stocks. While others could see these new markets and trends, I didn’t have the vision to aggressively participate in them like others I know.
I can cajole, persuade, even twist a few arms when I have to. I actually think that like most operational CEOs, I’m a good leader. I rely on my efforts to treat people right, help them find their next job when necessary and maintain relationships long after we’ve gone our separate ways. In truth, there are very few former employees that I’m not comfortable calling out of the blue…even if I had once fired them or they resigned on me unexpectedly. I can speak in front of groups and even hold the attention of a room. But it’s not my natural tendency.
I’m likable, for sure, but I’m not hypnotic like most founders. Their natural magnetism just seems to attract people and keep them in trance-like rapture. Just as Craig Harris described his ability to sway his pals back in school, founders have an ability to lead with an emotional connection to others that is otherworldly. It’s not coercive behavior; they just seem to be able to convince everyone to get behind them and give of their time, their money, or both. The way they capture a room, it feels as natural as gravity. It’s the Pied Piper effect.
I admit on the surface, it seems that founders have an all-in, bet-the-farm fortitude toward risk. But it’s really a bit more complex than that. Founders have a winner-take-all attitude and a super-human degree of confidence. Then again, you pretty much have to given the odds. A recent Harvard B-school study pegs the failure rate at 75% for all startups (82% for first-time entrepreneurs) and 90% for all products.
It’s their willingness to risk homes, money, marriages, and family that I can’t fathom. I’m just too risk-averse. I put my money in index funds, don’t gamble while in Vegas and pay my credit card monthly. And if you think I’m just describing a commonsensical aging suburbanite, I was no better as in my early adult years. For example, I bought life insurance while our twins were still in utero…who does that?
This is wildly different than most founders, at least first-time founders. Most tech founders I know have bet-it-all on their enterprise. Literally, all of their assets are tied up in the outcome of their start-up. Those that have a great exit are heralded as brilliant and envied by many. Those that don’t – some fail quickly enough that they can try it a second or third time and might make up for losses. It’s an approach that through my lens is completely irresponsible, audacious and, sometimes, life-changing.
Blood, sweat, and toil are something founders and operational CEOs share. But founders combine perseverance with the superpower of Magical Thinking. This goes way beyond the power of positive thinking. And it’s on top of long hours and personal sacrifice.
Time and time again, I’ve seen founders almost create the future through sheer grit. I’ve seen them make bets on markets before they existed. I’ve seen them build a product before customers knew they needed them. I’ve seen them hire company-making staff before they had funds to pay them. In each case, a rational person would see their behavior as illogical or even insane. But having witnessed these actions on many occasions, it seems like their decisions can almost bend fate in their favor. Their ability to literally will something into existence is extraordinary. It’s the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy of biblical proportions.
I rely on hard work, long hours and a can-do attitude (which I also expect from the people who work for me). But beyond that, the ability to call upon the gods to do my corporate bidding is a trait to which I fall short.
Imperviousness to Criticism
We all take criticism sooner or later. It’s how we deal with it that makes the difference. For founders, criticism is like water off a duck’s back. They’re immune, and sometimes spiteful in the face of someone’s criticism or objections.
I can remember one particular fundraising trip in which we were traveling daily from east coast city to east coast city for a week. Worse yet, it was the middle of winter and the weather was conspiring against us. As we left each VC pitch that had ended with the classic encouraging-but-noncommittal-doublespeak which surely meant no mention at the next Monday partners meeting, the founder with which I was traveling got increasingly angry with each meeting. Leaving Manhattan in a snowstorm headed for Boston, I can still remember his red face dripping with melting snow in an Uber saying ‘Fuck these guys. They don’t know shit about our space. I don’t want their money anyway. I can’t wait till we crush it and they have to read about the exit multiple we signed. I’m going to make sure their pass is one of the biggest regrets of their career. I don’t want these pompous schmucks on my Board anyway.” Even for an East Coast guy like me, I blushed a bit. Tell me how you really feel, why don’t you?
In my case, I listen too closely to other people and even encourage contrarian thinking. When someone tells me my baby is ugly, it hurts, but I try to understand their perspective. More often than not, I recognize the wisdom of their input and can even come to doubt a bit of my business thesis.
Hyper-Competitive Killer Instinct
Competition is good. It keeps your startup team on its toes. But while sports teaches us competition, it also tends to help us appreciate sportsmanship.
For me, the difference is that for me to win, you don’t really have to lose. I’m content to beat the other team by a point or two. Running up the score – I find distasteful. I don’t need to humiliate someone else to prove my superiority. I can remember in various sports competitions of my youth trying to win, but also trying to earn the respect of my competition at the same time. I hate losing, but I don’t hate my competitor.
Many founders, I’ve experienced, have a killer instinct. They are not content to simply beat the competition; they want to grind them into dust and wipe them off the face of the earth. They never have a good thing to say about their competition and truly could not imagine a buyer making a decision other than their product-service.
Do You Have What it Takes?
Remarkable. Tenacious. Inspirational. Relentless. And maybe even a bit crazy. I am both jealous and envious of this rare breed that has the vision and energy to take risks I find unimaginable.
I admitted many moons ago I would never attend an Ivy. Some years later I finally had to concede I was passed my prime for the Olympics. And as I approach my third decade in the business world, I’m waving the white flag on ever being, and even wanting to be, a tech company founder.
I love what I do and I’m damn good at it. I just ain’t that. You?