The Wrong Motivations To Have As A Founder
I came up with five.
As a first-time founder, I’ve had to dig deep to figure out what motivates me. This year, I also grappled with navigating the motivations of my former co-founder. The experience gave me a front row seat to observing and distilling what drives people — specifically: what drives founders. There are a million different motivators. I’m not covering that many. Here is my neither exhaustive nor objective list of the wrong motivations to have as a founder. As in, avoid these.
I’m sure fear of failure, embarrassment, ostracism, shame have all been in the driver’s seat at major turning points in your life. However, when you let yourself be driven primarily by fear, you’ll find yourself living a life of avoidance. This isn’t just debilitating, it’s also dangerous, when you’re leading a company.
Founders and their companies are often regarded interchangeably, which is only natural. But when founders treat their companies as extensions of themselves, their fear of failure is no longer just a fear of failure for the company; it extends to a fear of personal failure. That’s bad.
Don’t get me wrong. A modest amount of fear can be a great motivator. Is your company down to a 3-month runway? Is it scaring you? Yeah, well, it should. The fear of closing up shop better be motivating you to haul ass ASAP. But, when you let your personal fear of failure dictate company decisions, that’s when murky, self-serving business decisions are made.
As a founder or owner of a business, the possibility of failing will never go away. I promise you that you will never feel safe; you will almost always feel fear. So learn to manage the fear and channel it in a way that’s constructive for the company. Learn to live comfortably with the discomfort of constant fear. If you can’t, get out of the business of being a founder.
Many founders tout their companies as trophies of their own success and as evidence of their personal worth. They start a company not to solve a problem, but to be “An Entrepreneur.” I know I’m probably in the minority here in San Francisco, but just because you have “founder” or “CEO” in your job title doesn’t automatically make you special or impressive or earn you respect. (See Building A Startup Doesn’t Make You Special).
If you’re motivated to do well with your company because you treat it as a reflection of your personal success, you’ve already failed. When your company is primarily meant to pad your resume or to (god help us) boost your dating profile, sooner or later, your decisions on behalf of the company are no longer made on behalf of the company but made on behalf of You & Only You, Inc.
If you need something to boost your ego, don’t start a company where your decisions are responsible for the lives of other people — your employees, your investors, your customers… just have a baby.
I kid. Jesus Christ, please don’t create a human life to feed your narcissism.
The best thing I did this year when we were down to a 5-payroll runway was to be transparent and vulnerable with my team. The company had very recently undergone a massive restructuring shake-up so it was a pretty hairy time. Given the state of things, I considered being judicious about how much to share with the team. I didn’t want to rock the boat further, but I also knew that the little control I would’ve maintained by withholding that information would’ve been short-lived and costly. I didn’t want to inaugurate my solo-CEO role with an act of omission. Plus, there was only so long (2.5 months to be exact) that I could’ve put up a facade of control before the proverbial shit would hit the fan. I decided to be forthright.
Contrary to the ensuing panic I was bracing myself for, the team met my news with concern but also appreciation and support. Everyone knew the risk of staying with the company, but everyone stuck around anyway.
Turns out, control and loyalty are two sides of the same coin. You can keep people in the dark and keep them on their toes by creating an atmosphere of uncertainty, but that form of control is neither effective nor productive. Instead of giving employees a reason to step up their game–which I found to be the case when they understood what was on the line–having them speculate about their futures can exacerbate the fear of the unknown. It creates distrust and resentment, which demotivates and undermines productivity.
Control established through genuine employee loyalty is built on trust and respect and being real with one another even (perhaps especially) when the truth is hard to hear. It may be counter-intuitive, but admitting your vulnerabilities can be a mark of courage and self-assurance that inspires more confidence than a carefully cultivated front of control. There’s this great Q&A with Brené Brown, who shares a quote:
“When you shut down vulnerability, you shut down opportunity.”
(If you haven’t watched Brene’s Ted Talk — “The power of vulnerability” — take 20 minutes tonight to change your life.)
“If you live for the approval of others, you will die by their rejection.”
As a founder, you can’t afford to be driven by the expectation that people are going to commend you and tell you what a good job you’ve done. It’s actually quite the opposite. You’re going to be questioned. You’re going to be doubted. You’re going to get rejected. A lot. Like A LOT.
Don’t let it be lost on you that you came up with the idea you’re championing and not the person you’re pitching it to. No one is going to believe in your product more than you do. So stop being so desperate for external approval. It’s not a cute look. If you believe in what you’re doing and there’s good evidence of product-market fit, why does it matter if some rando in the elevator doesn’t think there’s a market for your product? Is he even a target user?!! Use doubt and rejection to inform your next iteration.
On another note, I know this sucks, but no one is going to give you a gold star for a job well done. You’re never going to be praised by a supervisor. You’re never going to get a promotion. You can always do more in the eyes of your investors. Your extra hours and sacrifice will go largely unnoticed. Realize before you start a venture that you shouldn’t expect to receive positive affirmation. Most of your hard work will never be acknowledged. If public recognition is what drives good work from you, look for another job.
Startups don’t pay. It’s a shitty reality that starting a company is a privilege. If you don’t have the economic appetite or requisite risk profile to fail, you honestly shouldn’t get into the startup business. If you’re motivated by making it big, recognize that the chance of this happening is so, so, SO slim—even slimmer than reported because success stories are systematically over-counted — that you might as well just accept now that it’s not going to happen to you. If it does happen, it’s going to take years of hard work. Seriously. You’re not Mark Zuckerberg. You’re not the exception.
I’m not saying your idea isn’t a worthwhile investment and doesn’t have the potential to be an oh-so-special unicorn. What I’m saying is to manage expectations. Don’t drink your own Kool-aid. Sure, launch a company with the intention to have a massively lucrative exit in 2–3 years, but don’t delude yourself into thinking it’s a guarantee. As my dad likes to say, “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.”
To those who glamorize founding a startup, being a startup founder is not glamorous. Even the hint of glamour lies beyond the visible horizon for me. Real talk: There have been long stretches where I’ve foregone my salary. I had the first full-blown panic attack of my life on a NYC sidewalk when my co-founder told me an investment we were counting on was falling through. Most company acquisitions don’t actually net the founders a cash payout; their equity re-vests to incentivize them to stay at the acquiring company. If there’s one word I would use to describe being an entrepreneur, it’s this:
Last I checked, “sacrifice” is not a synonym for “riches untold.” The reality is that a lot of hard work goes financially unrewarded. Like Trump contractors, startup founders can expect to be severely under-compensated for the blood, sweat and tears they put behind their work (sorry, too easy). So if you’re looking to make a quick buck, look elsewhere. This ain’t for you.
Why a list of “wrong” motivations rather than “right” motivations? Because, well, what are the “right” ones?
Running a startup is much like parenting. (Disclaimer: I have literally zero experience parenting and won’t purport to know what real parenting entails so, if you’re a parent, forgive my metaphor if it misses the mark.) Anyway, running a startup is like parenting. There are pretty much universal objectively wrong ways to lead a company/parent a kid (for the record: I’m thinking money laundering and child neglect here), but no one actually knows the formula to get it “right.”
I can’t tell you definitively what “good” motivators are — what works for me likely won’t work for you — but I do know that the aforementioned “bad” motivators are ones to actively avoid. I mean I figure, in the test of life, we’re all just using the process of elimination to get one choice closer to the right answer, aren’t we? So, okay — 5 down, 999,995 more to go.
Side/end note: We’re in the market for a technical co-founder with sick skills and a good soul. If my list resonates with you and you’re actively trying to do better and be better, hit me up.