Real Founders Don’t Fake It

Sabrina Horn, Author, Make It, Don’t Fake It: Leading with Authenticity for Real Business Success

During my first year in business, I gained a healthy appreciation for what it really means to be a founder. It is a position without boundaries but with infinite responsibilities. Every day, you will be innovating new ideas and processes, “founding” new ways to be efficient, deliver results, interact with customers, stay on top of trends, and build your reputation. Every day, you lay the foundation on which to grow a successful long-term business. It is all-consuming, exhilarating, exhausting, and at times overwhelming.

Frankly, it’s a lot more than many entrepreneurs are ready for. Before I started my company, I cannot honestly say that I asked myself if I was ready to be a founder. In retrospect, I wish I had, because I would have been better prepared for what I was about to take on. Along my journey as a young entrepreneur, there were moments when my inexperience frustrated me. It was in those moments that faking it — taking shortcuts, stretching, or minimizing the truth just a little — seemed easier and would help me move faster. I can tell you that every time I did, it set me back. “Fake it till you make it” never works, not in the long run anyway.

The fewer moments you waste on frustration, doubt, or any kind of fakery, the better. Banish them by thinking ahead about what it means to be a founder. Here’s what to consider:

1. Role and Responsibility

Think about what role you might play within your company. Not all founders are automatically CEOs. Many of those that are, relinquish that position at a certain stage of growth. Others prefer to be chief technology officer, head of business development, or something else from the get-go. Inventory yourself. Align different roles with your own experience and skill set. What are you good at? Where do you need help? Ground yourself in reality, and you will gain a clear sense of the team you need to build around you.

2. Weave a Safety Net

Beyond your leadership team and Board, build a personal safety net of champions and mentors: a band of people who have been in your shoes and care about your success. They will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. And they will keep you from faking it when the going gets tough, or you’re way out over your skis.

3. Establish Values

Founders have the opportunity and responsibility to articulate the values of the organization. By some estimates, values are the source of half the reputation of a company. Values can actually determine 44% of its market value. They drive your company’s culture, what you stand for, your business processes, how your people perform and communicate, and everything in between. Values drive your brand. Fixing a dysfunctional culture is a lot harder than creating the right one in the first place. And the right values will keep you off the so-called shortcuts that soon sabotage business success.

4. Disarm Fear, Organize Risk

In any venture, risk is inevitable. As a founder, fear of risk — of failure and the unknown — can be overwhelming. It infects some with Imposter Syndrome, the dreadful feeling that you do not deserve your success. The cure? Answer for yourself, What’s the worst that could happen? Then develop crisis plans to cope with it, so that you can realistically plan for the worst while hoping for the best. Nothing disarms fear and organizes risk like reality-based optimism. Periodically review your real accomplishments. Watch yourself in your own movie — visualize the scene you fear — and imagine how you want to see it playing out. Defeat fear, uncertainty, and doubt with data and knowledge. Arm yourself with a clear strategy and practical tactics.

5. Fight Isolation

There’s a good reason why people say, “It’s lonely at the top.” As a founder, there is only one of you. Employees may isolate themselves from you because you are “the boss.” You must often make tough decisions, each one a lonely act. Family and friends may be unsure of how to handle your entrepreneurial passion. Combat leader loneliness by seeking mentors and peer-level groups in your industry or through organizations like YPO and Vistage. Acquire a bias for action and connection. Express gratitude for others’ contributions. Teach a class. At social events, talk to the people you “never” talk to. Shatter the isolation iceberg.

6. Beware the Founder’s Curse

As a founder, the bond you have with the company you created can be as strong as that of a parent and child. Although a blessing, it can also be a curse, blinding you to potential flaws in your product or the holes in your strategy. Stay grounded in reality by making a commitment to keeping an open mind, being humble, and surrounding yourself with those who will always, always give it to you straight.

Sabrina Horn, CEO of HORN Strategy, leading a discussion at Hobart and William Smith

About Sabrina Horn

Sabrina Horn is an award-winning CEO, communications expert, advisor, and author. Horn is currently CEO of HORN Strategy, LLC, a consultancy focused on helping entrepreneurs and CEOs navigate the early stages of their businesses. She serves as an advisor and board member for a number of organizations and is a frequent speaker at industry forums and leadership conferences. Horn’s new book, “Make It, Don’t Fake It: Leading with Authenticity for Real Business Success” (forward by Geoffrey Moore) will be published in June 2021 by Berrett Koehler and aims to help executives make the right decisions as they start and grow their businesses for long term success.

She founded Horn Group, a public relations firm, with $500 and five years’ job experience, becoming one of few female CEOs in Silicon Valley in the early 1990s. For over 25 years, her firm advised thousands of executives and their companies — from the hottest startups to the Fortune 500 — doing so with a special focus on authenticity.



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