Phil Kemp, CEO of Bruntwood SciTech, considers founder’s syndrome and how the successful have avoided it.
Innovation in digital tech often starts with individual genius.
There’s little initial requirement for vast investment, huge campuses, or a phalanx of professional advisers. The trappings that come with a successfully scaling tech business, for better or worse, will materialise with time. But in the early stages, intellect, drive, and long hours in front of a keyboard can be all that’s needed.
This sole ownership, where founders find themselves fulfilling every conceivable role and operating with complete autonomy can, quite frequently, provide the fertile breeding ground for an ailment that’s afflicted some of Silicon Valley’s best and brightest: founder’s syndrome.
The malady isn’t exclusive to the technology sector. But the creativity, drive, and single-minded enthusiasm required to turn a light-bulb moment into a credible product, are traits that predispose one to the condition. They’re also found abundantly in tech workers.
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At its most severe, founder’s syndrome can manifest in a steadfast refusal to relinquish any control of the company, or to take on advice on long-term direction or day-to-day operation.
A lack of democracy within, or professional advice from outside, can quickly cause the culture to tank. The startup may find itself unable to attract talent, or pursuing foolish projects because workers are afraid to speak up.
Compounding this, is that in a world which has seen technology strip away barriers to publishing, headstrong founders are a rash Tweet or leaked email away from reputational ruin.
Unchecked, characteristics crucial to innovation’s inception can be an entrepreneur’s undoing.
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In the early days of growing a business, work-life balance regularly takes a backseat. Driven by a need to develop their product to a viable, investable, concept before they get beaten by burn rate, personal health and wellbeing can be seen as an unaffordable luxury for many founders.
This scenario is amplified in the tech industry; where companies yet to turn a profit can command eye-watering valuations, and being pipped to the post by a competitor can prove terminal for a startup.
Invariably, however, this creates the perfect breeding ground for symptoms of founder’s syndrome to develop.
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Clearly not every company built around induvial genius succumbs to it. Take Microsoft and Apple; two of the original tech giants.
In the case of the former, Bill Gates has been in a leadership position at the company, in one shape or another, for more than four decades. But the founder has known when to recruit the right support, and when it was time for him to switch positions within Microsoft.
He stepped down as CEO almost 20 years ago and shifted his role on the board from chairman to ‘founder and technology advisor’ in 2014.
Similarly Apple, the world’s first trillion dollar company and one widely regarded as being built around a cult of personality, has continued to thrive since its founder passed away in 2011.
Indeed its fastest growing revenue stream, Services – which includes Music, iCloud and Apple Pay – only took off in the post-Steve Jobs era.
Both founders had the foresight to realise that for their organisations to scale to the globally-dominating positions they occupy, would require more than one individual driving force.
The comparative speed at which many of this new generation of tech companies can scale may be partially responsible for the prevalence of founder’s syndrome.
It’s less about hardware and physical products which can have long lead times and require years of R&D. The relatively junior tech giants are building billion dollar businesses on nothing more than innovative platforms and algorithm-driven apps.
Dorm room to boardroom success stories often play out in mere months.
There are precious few industries where an individual can be propelled from relative obscurity to publicly-scrutinised CEO in such a short space of time.
A new breed of CEO-founder frequently has to cope with the pressures and celebrity of the role, without the decades of experience that the likes of Jobs and Gates developed.
Prevention is better than cure
According to Noam Wasserman, Harvard Business School professor and author of The Founder’s Dilemmas, those at the helm of startup businesses have a straightforward choice to make: “do they want to be rich, or king?”
As he correctly points out – few have been both.
Because while investor interest in tech is white hot, and the hunt for the next unicorn – a company listing publically for the first time with a £1bn valuation – unrelenting, nothing puts venture capital firms off like founder’s syndrome.
Investors regularly harbour ambitions to replace founders with more experienced CEOs. That we’ve seen a new job title become prevalent amongst the C-suite – Chief Technology Officer (CTO) – is testament to this.
In addition, of the ten largest tech giants globally, only one is privately owned: Ant Financial – the electronic payment arm of China’s Alibaba. If market opinion is to be believed, that too will be floating soon.
For founders, therefore, it’s prudent to check the ego at the door from day one.
Is your ambition for a huge windfall on exit? Or simply to create a global era-defining technology? Neither will happen without embracing external support, and ceding some ownership.
Innovation needs but a moment of individual genius to spark. For it to disrupt an entire industry, or become an ubiquitous part of daily life, however, its architect must embrace the requirements of scaling-up, collaborate effectively, and avoid succumbing to founder’s syndrome.