Six Months in Startups#3: Why the Founder Myth Needs to Die.
Stars in your eyes, pit in your stomach and clad in a company t-shirt, you beg your brain not to forget anything. Your three months at an accelerator, have culminated to your five minute rocket pitch.You oscillate between idealism and anxiety until reality hits you.
You’re a stereotype.
Just like everyone else.
Everyone has a story and that story is the same.
I could have worked for someone else for a sizeable salary. OR I dropped out of a top notch university because, I decided to found a company. I decided to do this because I have a groundbreaking and innovative idea that no one else has ever pursued before and I believe in wholeheartedly. It all started as an idea on a napkin. Then, after a few months of working out of a basement we deicide we need some help so..
We do some startup events. Do an accelerator. Get into Tech Stars or Y Combinator.Give up some equity. Raise ludicruous capital. Scaleable growth. Give away more equity. Raise more capital. Series A,B,C,D,E,F,G….Have the world fall in love with the little underdog that made it to the top. Woof Woof, the press hounding you. Your face in Tech Crunch, Beta Kit, Venture Beat, your story echoing across college campuses. Forbes writes about your loveable quirkiness. A bootstrapped story of a founder building a billion dollar company on hard work and audacity alone. The million dollar home in Palo Alto,the office with a foosball table and bean bag chairs, winter in the caribean as a story about your luxurious life in a hoodie leaks on gawker….
You exhale and dream for a second as you reach the bottom of your third red bull. For now all you have is a bank loan, leftover Taco Bell and a strange rash that worsens as your cash flow diminishes. But this will all turn around because you are doing all of the startup things.
This is the Silicon Valley founder myth that we’ve come to love an believe. And it needs to die. It needs to die because it perpetuatues an insular culture, false aspirations and inequality. Once the founder myth dies, the tech world will be better without it.
- The founder myth is an exclusionary iteration of the american dream. A veiled iteration of corporate america.But the founder myth, like the dream of corporate america, is exclusionary. The Silicon Valley rockstar is always young, white and male. The narrative of bootstrapping denies the role of privilege.Ideology, inequity and the insular culture of the tech world is veiled under the enthusiasm and veneration of the rags to riches founder. We venerate founders, their brazen individualism, vision and force of will. Startup founders are painted as the misfits, the unlikely male nerd cum iconoclasts, who were too brilliant to fit into corporate culture.Wrong. Good founders are smart, and know how to naviagate a business setting. Naviagating funding and partnerships is not entirely different from the bureacracy of corporate. Every founder is answereable to a higher up. Capital is not raised in a vacuum and there is a fair amount of climbing and flattery that goes into the process. Whether you’re an employee or founder you’re relying on other people’s money to survive at some point.Raising a new round is like getting a promotion. Your status and responsibility grows. You give away percentages, and like a corporate employee are working for someone else and their vision. You never make it completely alone.
2. The founder myth creates arbitrary benchmarks within an insular culture.
In startup circles you meet v.c’s, other foudners, startup enthusiasts, innovation evangelists….you are surroudned by people who are of the same world as you. Within this world benchmarks toward sucess are created. Getting into your first accelerator: you are on the road to success.Graduating from your accelerator, launching, closing your first round of funding, a story in a widely distributed tech magazine about how you are “disrupting” the industry, a litany of new followers on twitter. Success….
All of this means nothing without sales and profit.
Raising capital is the new record deal. Raising capital is sexy right now.Everyone likes money. You know what’s even more sexy? Sales. Sales bring you even more money. Sales and retention are the real indicators of how well you’re doing. Are you actually building a product that people want to be using all the time?
I sat in at an information session for hopeful applicants at a startup accelerator program a few weeks ago. This program is free and takes no equity. It also gives no capital. One of the first questions asked by the youngest person there “ Are we guaranteed venture capital funding at the end of the three months”.
No one is entitled to venture money. Venture money is tricky and you should shake hands with v.c’s who will spend time with you and know your industry.
Venture is not an indicator for success.Neither is press. Prioritise your sales and your people.The circle of startup funding, press and validation by other startup ressources can become a self-gratifying circle. It is not, however, an indicator success.
Startup culture will make you think that hard work will be rewarded. It will reward within its own insular construction. Startup culture will make make the founder emblematic and special through its own startup devices like startup press and venture capital. Take a step back and look at what is real: There are still not enough women, people of colour and people of varied abilities visible in tech. Most startups fail to be validated and significant outside of stratup culture.No amount of buzz or capital is a gateway to success.
Kill the founder myth. It is deluding and hurting us.
The most important thing that I have learned over the past six months: Don’t let anyone make you believe you’re special.
You’re not special. If you know that, you just might be able to create something that is special.