With three decades of professional experiences behind me (five decades of life), I have seen and survived situations where ‘letting go’ or ‘breaking up’ for a founder, creator, progenitor is often hard to do, whether in business, in philanthropy, in government, in partnerships, and even in family systems. Succession, it turns out, is complex, particularly in startup situations. Allow me to explain — but first take a minute to digest a few definitions and an oldie but goodie below.
- Demigod: A deified person
- Daedalus: A master crafts-person
- Despot: A tyrant, oppressor, patriarch/matriarch
If you believe in what Neil Sedaka endorsed in the early 1960s as true — that Breakin’ Up is Hard to Do —then how might this thesis fit into the increasingly complex and fast-paced world of startups? What of those milestones when a founder is forced with a situation where departing from a creation is both the right and wrong action? Damned if you do? Damned if you don’t?
Founders are pioneers, determined individuals with the vision, tenacity, and wherewithal to begin and sustain value out of thin air. Founders start countries, religions, enterprises, inventions, and movements. Founders are a critical underpinning in the success of modern society. Founders are magical, to be heralded. And yet, sometimes, there is a dark side, where the tragedy of founder’s syndrome results in not knowing the importance of or not having the meta-cognition or fervor to let go. Sometimes, purposefully or otherwise, founders do not build and communicate with an honest, conflict-free set of advisers who relay when it’s time to pass the baton.
Looking for a credible resource, I landed on a 2012 Forbes article by Kevin Ready entitled “Founders Syndrome: The Third Rail of the Startup World.” My simplistic takeaways from the article, and confirmed with ample scar tissue, are that founder’s syndrome occurs because of the inability (or unwillingness) to 1) share, 2) listen, and/or 3) partner. Ultimately, it is about power and control. The article highlights that founders syndrome involves one or more people who:
- Are intent on keeping total control of decision making and intellectual property rights for their technology.
- Often have a deep seated (and mostly unconscious) psychological need to be the center of the operation, and to be recognized.
- Often tacitly believe that the value and elegance of the invention makes its widespread adoption inevitable, and that it will change the world.
Startup founders who cannot get out of their own way typically exhibit an overabundance of narcissism, and often exhibit the dichotomy of low EQ and high IQ. Tragedy awaits. Sometimes, however, there is a second chance. See: Steve Jobs at Apple. Jack Dorsey at Twitter. Jerry Yang at Yahoo! Stephen Schwarzman at Blackstone.
Ultimately, one could ask the question, is the juice worth the squeeze when it comes to founding a company? Having validated, invested in, advised, and survived thousands of startup journeys, my emphatic answer is YES.
However, founders and respective advisers must do everything in their power to stave off and catch early in a company’s life cycle any founder’s syndrome tendencies, as it is often the toxic ingredient that leads to ruin for all involved.