A Founder, Not A CEO

In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell claims it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. I guess I’m a slow learner, as it’s taken me a mere 148,000 hours to realise the opposite. Namely, that I’m not an expert at something.

After running 3 businesses in 5 countries over ~17 years, I’ve come to a simple realisation about my professional life and what it means, for me, to be an entrepreneur: I am a Founder, not a CEO.

I’ve known this for a couple of years but have been stuck. Why? Because to be an entrepreneur means you have to be both. You can’t just leave your company after the first bit. You need to be the driving force until it works, or you get thrown out.

Running a company after founding it, is not only what is expected, but examine most shareholder agreements and you’ll see that it’s rigorously enforced, by law. If you are a Founder turned CEO, you are often not allowed to found another company, or work anywhere else.

Let that sink in.

You are a Founder, but you are not legally allowed to be a Founder any more. An entrepreneur but unable to start things. I’ve only just realised how strange this is – legal documents prevent you from doing what you do best. It is a bit like wanting to be a world-class surgeon, but being forced to practice on a single patient.

I believe many Founder-CEOs are in post not because they’re the best person for the job, but because they believe there’s no alternative. A striking number of the founders I’ve spoken to have confided they feel distinctly one, or the other, but not both a founder and CEO.

Each entrepreneur is different. That’s what being an entrepreneur is all about. Yet we currently take people with a seemingly rare and precious gift – the ability to found things against all odds – and require them after founding to subsume these skills and desires and then become leaders and managers, even if their head and hearts are elsewhere. I wonder what the entrepreneurial landscape would look like if entrepreneurs and founders were allowed and encouraged to focus on the part they’re best at?

The Narrative

Why has entrepreneurship become so un-entrepreneurial? Unfortunately, there is a narrative that’s become ‘the way it’s done’.

Back when I started out, entrepreneurship was a somewhat niche activity, to the extent I was teased by friends for wanting to be one. Today, it sits squarely as one of the most exciting career choices a person can make. It’s star is on the rise; a sexy career that is encouraged by politicians, figureheads, universities and the media.

Yet for all that has been written about becoming an entrepreneur, little is said about the type of entrepreneur you can become. Entrepreneurship is widely hailed as a way to break the mould, yet there is a tacit expectation that you will sell your soul to a different conformity in order to succeed.

The oft-told story of the entrepreneur follows a set narrative: Our future entrepreneur toils away somewhere and imagines a different future. They say enough is enough and starts a new company with limited resources and faces significant struggles. Things go quite well at the beginning, but things take a turn and the entrepreneur ends up barely holding it together. This can last a significant amount of time and pushes the entrepreneur to the limits, multiple times. Other people will call them mad and suggest they give up, but they have superhuman staying power. From the jaws of defeat, something semi-magical happens and fortunes are reversed. A slow but steady retreat from failure begins and the entrepreneur, through grit and determination and a number more bumps in the road, becomes successful after years of toil and almighty sacrifice. The entrepreneur finally deserves this title, offers sage advice to newcomers and is hailed as victor and manages company with lots of happy staff and cash in the bank and maybe starts new things with oodles of capital. They live happily ever after and repeats this same narrative to wide-eyed audiences at dinners, conferences and award ceremonies. The End.

But it’s rarely the real story. Plus this character perhaps isn’t even an entrepreneur. If you’ve started a business once and then grown it, you might have spent 1% of your time being an founder and 99% of your time being a CEO. Is this person an entrepreneur? They’re certainly not a Founder.

I’m not claiming that being a Founder is any better than a CEO – both are vital. If anything, I’m in awe of people that can juggle the responsibilities of tens, hundreds or thousands of staff. Perhaps creating new things is simpler and more exciting, and therefore it’s easier to be a Founder than a CEO. Certainly it is for me.

Yet I strongly I believe forcing entrepreneurs to be both the founder and the manager of a business is often counterproductive – perhaps even the cause of some of the mental health issues that plague founders today.

Entrepreneurial Entrapment and an Escape

Psychologically, Founders often make terrible CEOs. Being a Founder is about taking the path less trodden – spotting an idea, a problem or something that you want to fix and focusing on that. It’s about non-conformity, going off alone, breaking rules and perhaps being quite a difficult person to work with. Not the recipe for a great manager, or leader.

In addition, entrepreneurship bills itself as a way of becoming one’s own boss and, if you’re lucky and good, changing the world. The ultimate path to freedom. Yet many, many entrepreneurs feel much more trapped than their counterparts in ‘normal’ jobs. One minute, you’re carving that path to freedom, the next you are beholden to customers, employees, regulations, investors and, perhaps above all, your own and others’ expectations of you.

It is different for every entrepreneur. I’m only beginning to explore what this means for me. I have started a number of businesses with varying success, yet even during boom times, I’ve never enjoyed managing a team, or being the CEO. For someone who went to boarding school (https://simpletom.co.uk/2016/03/02/boarding-up-the-soul/), the mounting pressures and expectations of a running a single business produce a ‘fight or flight’ response in me, and significant stress which is just plain destructive, rather than the necessary road to entrepreneurial fulfilment, as I had been promised. With hindsight, I can now see that my TEDx (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZBo1j5Zmbo) and other articles (https://simpletom.co.uk/2016/10/07/the-happy-entrepreneur/) were a desperate attempt to find some balance. My own vocation was enslaving me and I didn’t quite realise why, or how to escape.

I LOVE starting things. I get tingles of excitement even thinking about initiating something. For me, I am ‘in flow’ when I am creating something new, taking an idea from nothing, to something. It’s something I’m really good at. Yet I’ve become a CEO quickly and often, to the extent that it’s constituted perhaps 15 of the last 17 years. Whoops.

And so late last year I decided to break this cycle and the #1 rule of entrepreneurship: ‘don’t give up’… by quitting. To some, I’ve committed the cardinal sin. Entrepreneurial heresy. To others, I should have done it a long time ago. It has indeed had a dramatic impact on my company and team. Thankfully because of my exceptional co-founder, team members and some of the most extraordinarily enlightened investors it has not been the disaster that it might have. (A hat tip to Rory Stirling https://www.linkedin.com/in/rorystirling, Kindred, 500 Startups and Playfair amongst others. I owe them a separate blog post. For now, know that you want these folks on your cap table during hard times and existential crises, if you’re lucky enough to have them).

Being Entrepreneurial

What next? A break, perhaps… I’ve been travelling, reading, meditating and sleeping 10 hours a night yet still feeling tired – it feels like I’ve some serious convalescing to do. The moment you take away the responsibilities of being a CEO, with the accompanying adrenal fuel, you realise quite how stressed you were. I look on at others running the show and wonder how I lasted so long. I feel, for the first time in a long time, like I have space in my life to meander, to talk to people in the street, to engage in relationships without feeling like I should probably head back to my desk to forge on. The tendrils of stress are potent and the release wonderful.

Yet through the tiredness are tingles of excitement. In the film the Sixth Sense, the young protagonist looks around at the world and sees dead people. I see companies and opportunities. Wherever I look, I see problems that I’d like to fix. Peoples’ dreams that they’re not sure how to get off the ground. More than ever, I’d love to help people with these and, free to found multiple things in parallel, I believe I can start to focus on what I am best at and born to do.

In the last few months I’ve already begun work on two new companies  with no intention of ‘running them’ (here’s one I’m very excited about – http://www.brilliant-ethiopia.com), and I am bristling with new ideas for others. It’s felt amazing. They may or may not work – perhaps that’s not even the point – the simple act has been like surfacing from depths and gasping entrepreneurial oxygen. The focus on ‘making something work at all costs’ is part of the narrative that entraps people. Without that concern, there is space, freedom and less overwhelming stress… Perhaps that stress is the only way to ensure lift off – but I believe that’s what the naysayers would have us believe, rather than the reality.

How to be just a Founder

Now that I have ‘gone public’ as a founder not a CEO, I had expected to find a waiting tribe – an experienced and merry band doing the same thing. Blog posts explaining ‘How To’ live this life. And yet it seems there are very few people who seem to make just founding their art. Many have started multiple things, but usually in series, not in parallel. Other than Branson, or Stelios (who have some fairly unique characteristics and significant capital at their disposal), there aren’t many heroes of this tack.

And so, despite feeling like I’d discovered where I was, I realise I’ve still a lot more discovering to do. I enter this new phase of life hoping for resolution, but have many more questions than answers. What does a life look like for someone who wants to start things, but not run them? It’s a dream, but is it even possible? Who or what are the best examples?

With that, I need your help.

I am keen to explore, learn and tell the stories of these rare entrepreneurs who counter the traditional narrative. I want to celebrate these so others, like me, who feel trapped, can see a different path. It’s time to get a bit more entrepreneurial about being an entrepreneur. Who exemplifies the founder, but not CEO? Do you know someone that has thought, or experienced a lot more of this than I have?

I’d love to hear your thoughts – so please if you know someone, or have an opinion please do comment on this article or if you would rather do so in confidence, on this Google Form: https://goo.gl/forms/H9aOxvhPqeIhRwu92

I promise to share what I learn as I embark on this new journey. With every ending comes a new beginning.

Thank YOU in anticipation,
Tom

PS – and thanks to Rory, my co-founder and a couple of other founder/CEOs for taking a look at this article in advance and adding their thoughts. There is a lot to learn from the past, as well as the future.

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5 thoughts on “A Founder, Not A CEO

  1. Astonishing read. I talk to founders every day who – I say this with certainty – have no idea that this is a perspective that exists, let alone an option to be had. Would love to swap notes and discuss.

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