So You Want to Control Your Own Destiny, Do You?
Founder motivations and control for impact entrepreneurs
Lean Startup is great for finding scale opportunities, quickly, You make assumptions, discover your customer needs, run some tests, and you can quickly get feedback that you’re either on the right track, or need to start again.
Yet one thing that tends to stop founders from even asking the right questions in the first place is the reason why they are starting a business.
Why are you doing what you are doing? What’s your motivation?
I like to ask this question of very new founders. I got to ask this question twice last week: at NYC Media Lab’s kickoff of their intensive customer discovery program, The Combine, and at in my two week Lean class at NYU ITP.
There are two basic patterns in the answers — and often the two answers coming from the same founders:
1] I want autonomy. I don’t want anyone looking over my shoulder. I want to control my own destiny.
2] I want to see my technology/product/service reach as many people as possible (only a few publicly admit to seeking wealth but will acknowledge this in private).
Yet these two motivations set up a dilemma, The Founder’s Dilemma, to be precise, as researched by Noam Wasserman. A Harvard Business School professor, Wasserman studied tens of thousands of companies to understand founder motivations and the high rates of entrepreneurial failure.
He found that entrepreneurs often make choices that do not maximize their wealth. Founders are often torn between wanting to control their company, and wanting to grow their company.
“The need to negotiate a trade-off between wealth and control, between building financial value and maintaining a grip on the steering wheel… founders’ early choices can have delayed and unexpected but significant effects, sometimes because natural inclinations such as passion, optimism and conflict avoidance lead to shortsighted decisions.”
– Noam Wasserman
In Wasserman’s analysis, you can aim to be “King” — seeking complete control over your company, self-funding and maximizing your ownership stake. Or you can aim to be “Rich” — seeking external investment, and sharing equity to attract and motivate cofounders and employees. Control-oriented companies fail to live up to their potential because they fail to attract capital, and also fail to attract strong co-founders and world-class employees.
Meanwhile, founders seeking to build for financial value have a higher hit rate for reaching their potential.
I’ve loved Wasserman’s work ever since I read the findings of his early research. I’m a recovering control freak and have learned how my own desire for control has limited my upside.
But I’ve been struggling with Wasserman’s Rich Verses King concept when working with a the new crop of impact entrepreneurs. These are founders who want to grow and scale their businesses, but they have defined a core purpose beyond financial outcomes. They want to help people. They want to restore the planet.
When we talk about the Rich vs. King dilemma, they want to consciously choose King. The path of Rich means making decisions oriented towards maximizing wealth. Yet these founders find this goal tantamount to greed, which they define as the root cause of much of the capital industrial system they aim to disrupt and unwind.
More critically, they fear the motives of investors who may not share their same values, or who may want them to simply maximize shareholder value, and not seek a social impact goal. They are researching B-Corp status, LC3, and even considering not-for-profit structures in order to protect their mission and vision from the likes of misaligned investors.
When we break it down further, these impact entrepreneurs do not follow the classic control pattern. They are open and willing to attract strong equity-sharing co-founders, and want to give decision rights and control to employees. Specifically it’s the fear of investors who want a different outcome that limits their growth. They tend to self-fund and bootstrap, and aim for a corner of their market, rather than go for the biggest possible impact.
The double dilemma of the Impact Entrepreneur
The desire to control the destiny of the company leads to avoiding external funding, which limits the company’s potential. Impact entrepreneurs settle for a smaller corner of a market, a known problem, and may even compete with non profits in the space. More critically, they fail to make the big, disruptive shifts that would manifest the world they want to see.
“The best problems to work on are often the ones nobody else tries to solve.”
– Peter Thiel, Zero to One.
What’s the way out of this? My cynical, Wall Street self says, “That’s the way business works. The spoils go to those who seize the power, and maximize for their personal wealth. The markets are geared to find the most efficient financial returns.” But my meditation-and-yoga-practice-self sees a new possibility.
We are witnessing a grassroots movement of entrepreneurs, globally, seeking to contribute to a better world, by creating a business. They are motivated by the act of creation, they want to be connected to their community, and to the world.
There will always be enough money to chase wealth maximizing business ideas. But my bet is that we’ll see a new form of capital, with more evolved expectations.
We we can hope for: We can encourage impact entrepreneurs to aim big. To go after those problems we can’t figure out how to solve. To back these high potential, high impact companies to private investors with aligned values. We can see a future where high impact companies get the backing and support they need to grow and attract the best talent. To trust that giving up control will lead to the greatest outcome. We may then become clear about what it truly means to flourish and prosper.
Jen van der Meer is the Founder of Reason Street. Jen is on a mission to decode business jargon and distracting panic that keep us trapped in old ways of thinking, and explain business potential in human terms. You can explore the Business Model Library, read The Non-Linear Growth Competency Gap, The Day the Business Model was Born, and Models that We Live By.