What every founder fears.
Answers to your questions
The other night I found myself in a surreal moment of storytelling as a part of the audience for Yancey Strickler’s private telling of Kickstarter’s company history. I listened in awe as he narrated the growth of their company, from an office with one large table, to dinners amongst coworkers who grew to be friends, to the yearly company vacations with increasingly large rental homes, to a newly constructed office with Yancey’s desk right in the center of everyone else’s. He spoke with such love for his company, the people, and their product that I found tears slipping down my cheeks, as I was reminded of the story of another founder and another company.
Yancey only recently became Kickstarter’s CEO. The two earliest founders departed at the end of last year. As the last question of the evening, I raised my hand and dared to ask, “And what happened to the company—to the people—when the founders switched roles and exited?” What Yancey said surprised me. He called the founders brave. Even when their company was at the height of success, they had decided it was their moment to try their hands at something different, he explained. Internally, Yancey said that employees looked to the future.
Later that night, I was retelling the event to my husband, and I said, “What struck me most clearly about Yancey’s story wasn’t what he said, but how he said it.” Even in their current absence, the founders were ever-present in company storytelling. If I hadn’t asked Yancey about the founders, I don’t think anyone in the audience would have even known they were gone. The company grew from the founders’ hearts, minds, and hands. They were the company, and the story of Kickstarter began with them. That meant a lot to me, and to Tom, as we’ve been reflecting on our own founders’ narratives — his at GitHub, and mine at Omakase Charity.
Tom started GitHub with a couple of friends, and the atmosphere was a similarly shared experience for the founders and early-stage employees. In fact, the whole point of GitHub was collaboration, free from hierarchy and status, in a way that not only optimizes efficiency, but creates community. In that context, the recent allegations of harassment at GitHub were particularly jarring and painful.
During GitHub’s investigation over the past month, my family and I have supported the company. We did not answer press queries or post on social media, because we didn’t want to bias the investigation in any way. We were advised by legal counsel not to contact anyone at GitHub, many of whom are our closest friends. We had full confidence that we would be exonerated of the accusations, because we knew the story behind them, but as everything flooded onto Twitter, Secret, and Hacker News, our silence took its toll. Imagine watching as thousands of people said terrible things about you, your family, and the company you built—things which weren’t true. And you couldn’t stand up for yourself.
As expected, we were fully cleared of all accusations of harassment. Still, there is no way to repair the indelible marring of our reputations caused by these allegations and other completely unfounded rumors that were intentionally and maliciously spread about me and my family.
If you know Tom and me, you know that we’re not ones to sit idly and twiddle our thumbs. I’ve been living in NYC, pushing forward with my own company, Omakase Charity, which is the first nonprofit accepted into TechStars. Tom joined me in NYC, where he splits his time between lending a hand to my company and hacking on a new project. We frequently turn to each other, squeeze hands, and say, “What doesn’t kill you…”
After weeks of silence, we learned that, despite, being found not guilty of the harassment accusations, questions popped up regarding Tom’s judgment in a separate area. We learned that unnamed employees felt pressured by Tom and me to work pro-bono for my nonprofit. We racked our brains trying to understand this new allegation. It made me question every action I’ve taken in building Omakase Charity.
I have many close friends at GitHub, and I certainly had reached out to them when I began to build my company last summer. Never having founded a company before, I wanted lots of advice. I invited anyone I considered a friend, inside and outside of GitHub, out for coffees and drinks. Later, I started pitching new people I met at events or parties or bars or on the train. I thought this was what a founder was supposed to do. I thought building a business was about networking and telling the world about your idea.
I am so very sorry if anyone felt that I was pressuring him or her for advice, labor, or to sign up. I truly never had that intention. I was just excited about my business and thrilled to share it with anyone who would listen. Several other spouses at GitHub have drawn on the network inside of the company for their charitable endeavors, and I didn’t see myself as doing anything different. I was the wife of the CEO, but that never entered my mind when I hung out with any GitHubbers.
That blind spot was my mistake. In my enthusiasm over my project, and my idealistic belief in the status-free community of GitHub, I failed to recognize that power structures cannot ever be obscured entirely. It’s a powerful lesson, and a mistake I will not repeat.
As a result of my actions, in part, Tom left the company he founded. I knew Tom wouldn’t be at GitHub forever, and I know how excited he is to be able to focus on his new project, but I’m still sad that this is the moment of his exit.
What every founder fears
I initially wrote this essay with the title: ”What every founder fears—when a company becomes more important than its people.” GitHub has become a large company, whose immediate priorities, understandably, are to heal itself internally and externally. Great founders have an instinct for when the priorities of the company surpass the innate desire to fight and to hold on. I’ve been proud of Tom for every step he’s taken as a husband and as a GitHub founder, but never more so than now.
I have never known anyone like Tom. When I was interviewed by the 3rd party investigator, she abruptly asked if I thought Tom was naive. I was dumbfounded, unable to answer until she offered a different word; “Perhaps, you would call him optimistic?” Naive, no. Optimistic, absolutely.
I suspect that what founders really fear is being misunderstood in their motivations as their companies grow. They fear that employees view them as disconnected and only trying to build empires of gold. Tom saw himself not as CEO, but as the architect of a unique business structure. He wanted to create a company where he, himself, would have loved to have been an employee. This guided every meeting, every email, and every public talk. He wanted to invest heavily in employees and to create a space that gave each employee the autonomy, tools, and support to build great things. In our home every night, he spoke passionately about how to build a company that gave employees freedom.
I write these things today because no one else can. I write because I know that many people have questions, and I hope I have answered some of them. I am grateful to Yancey, whose founder’s story taught me that a great company will remember its founders with fondness and pride. I find this moment liberating. Tom and I look forward to many barbeques, brunches, and playdates with GitHubber friends and families. We’ll still wear our octocat t-shirts. And we can all root for the continued success of such a special company.
I, however, will root even more loudly for Tom, because I’m his wife. (Just you wait and see what he has up his sleeve!)