There’s a common start-up fable that goes like this:
Entrepreneurs start company. Company becomes successful and attracts investment. Investors become board members and advise entrepreneurs to hire “experienced” managers with big CVs to take on functional roles like “marketing.” Company becomes “corporatized,” and entrepreneurs feel like outsiders in their own company. Entrepreneurs see the writing on the wall, become defensive, and try to hold onto control. Conflict escalates and company struggles to grow. Entrepreneurs leave company — often by force and with a lot of regret. Company survives but becomes mediocre and never realizes its original vision.
Sound familiar? You may have heard of a term (probably from investors and academics) called “Founder’s Syndrome” that describes a start-up’s inability to break through because of founders not ceding control fast enough and stalling growth. This term unfairly pushes all the blame on the entrepreneur — ever heard of “Investor’s Syndrome”?
What is actually going on here is a failure by all parties to understand, appreciate, and purposefully unleash the “Founder Magic” that all entrepreneurs possess. If properly done, Founder Magic can be like rocket fuel for your company’s performance. Close your eyes and think of the most successful companies in the world over the past decade—I bet the ones you are thinking of are still run by the original entrepreneur(s). That’s because they got this right.
Unleashing Founder Magic has been the most important part of my job as CEO of Zoona for the past six years. Zoona was started by two brothers from Zambia who were humble enough to let an inexperienced and overconfident MBA graduate from Canada come into their family business first as a partner and then as CEO. Soon after, I phoned a friend from my MBA class and convinced the brothers to let in a fourth partner. After three years of struggling to meet payroll each month while we tried to get our business off the ground, we successfully closed a $4m Series A round — which was unprecedented for a start-up from Zambia.
You are not just the “founder” or “entrepreneur” by title—you are the heart and soul of the company.
Suddenly, we found ourselves sitting on a pile of other people’s money with a formal board consisting of our Series A investors, the two original founders, two new independents, and me. The pressure was intense, and along the way we navigated through some hairy business, personality, and cultural issues that could have sunk us. Alas, in less than three years since investment, we have scaled more than 10X and built a profitable company with 1.2 million active customers, over $10m in annual revenues, and 120 employees in 3 countries.
These stats are great, but what I’m personally most proud of is that our founding team has scaled with the business. All of us have maintained C-level roles and created a thriving company culture that is becoming our most valuable asset and differentiator. We did this by ignoring a lot of advice and breaking a lot of rules (one of the founders even had the title “Chief Disruption Officer” for a period). We stayed true to what we felt was right for both the business and for us as the founding entrepreneurs. We unleashed the Founder Magic.
So how do you unleash the Founder Magic in your business? Here are a few tips from our experience at Zoona:
First, you need to understand and appreciate that you are not just the “founder” or “entrepreneur” by title—you are the heart and soul of the company. Everyone else will be looking to you for cues on how they should behave (this will go on for as long as you are in the business). Behaviors become habits, habits become culture, and culture is what will drive long-lasting performance.
Second, forget about job titles and past experience when dividing up roles and responsibilities. All that matters is identifying and applying your team’s strengths to what needs to get done. Luckily, there is a golden rule: it turns out people are generally good at things they like doing, so if you and your team are working on things each of you like, you will deliver results and grow with the business.
Be brutally honest about your weaknesses and stop trying so hard to improve on them.
As a word of caution, you will need a lot of courage and conviction to ignore external advice here (not least from your board and investors) because the vast majority of people think people with marketing backgrounds should be your Head of Marketing. At Zoona, our Head of Talent was hired as a financial controller, and our co-founders have recently changed roles to become our Chief People and Chief Customer Officer after a process of self-reflection and discovery.
Third, be brutally honest about your weaknesses, and stop trying so hard to improve on them. When you start a business, you have to do everything yourself, and the rest of the journey is a continuous process of letting something go. If you are spending a lot of effort on something that is taking energy from you, stop doing it, or you will do a bad job and risk burning out. There’s no magic in burn out.
Fourth, hire A-players (and only A-players!) who fit your values, whose strengths are a match for your weaknesses, and who get shit done. Find the person who wants to jump out of their chair with excitement to take all those critically important things you hate doing off your plate. Don’t forget to look internally — chances are you have people with untapped potential and undiscovered strengths.
Fifth, share stories of the early days over and over again. You were there first, and everyone who came after doesn’t know what it was like before them. When they do, they will be inspired, appreciative, and motivated to perform. At Zoona, we put the stories of early events in our history on the outside of our meeting room doors, and the founding entrepreneurs personally onboard every new employee in an open-plan office for all to hear.
If you follow these five principles, you can unleash the Founder Magic in your business and produce amazing results.