Founders Must Be Rooted
Paul Graham claims that 20% of companies YC has funded have had a cofounder leave. That is an enormous number. One in five.
If we’re entering the Age of the Cockroach, we need more rooted Founders.
How rooted are you?
Do you feel confident, rock-solid and determined about the mission of your company? Do you have a support system and community that helps in the tough times? Are you structuring your life on a longterm view that will enable you to maintain consistent output and stability for your investors, employees, and partners for as long as it takes?
For Investors, Employees, and Partners of startup companies:
Are the Founders you work with rooted?
Would you follow them into battle? Are you confident that they’ll stay with the company no matter what happens because they care deeply about the mission?
Shutting Down Chrg, Inc
I’m asking these questions because, despite a decade of experience living the high-pressure, 16-hour day rollercoaster startup life, I do not think I truly understood the meaning of being a Founder until this year.
I learned this lesson the hard way – my cofounders and I recently shutdown our electric vehicle charging startup and returned our investor money.
Our team developed several key insights in a fast-growing market with massive potential. We built a strong brand and and launched a new product that was showing early signs of market fit. Then, unexpectedly, we ran into serious issues between the cofounders. Motivation-vaporizing, culture-changing, nerve-racking issues. We tried to patch things up initially, but over several weeks it got worse and worse. In order to save time and investor capital, we chose seppuku over a slow death.
As Founder and CEO, I ultimately blame the collapse on myself. I fought for as clean and quick of a shutdown as possible, but I am deeply angry and embarrassed that I let it come to this conclusion. I spent a lot of time reflecting over the last few months, trying to uncover mistakes I made and actions I missed that could have saved the company.
Founders are the Foundation
There’s one key thought I keep coming back to:
As a founder, your job is to carry everyone – customers, investors, employees, partners – until you reach the goal you set out to achieve.
Read that again. Process it.
Your title is not Creator or Inventor, it is Founder. You’re not just building a foundation, you ARE the foundation of your company.
Building the product; selling to customers; providing emotional support for employees; creating vision and a product plan for the future; even taking out the trash. The list goes on and on. Someone has to do these jobs to move a company forward. It is your job as a Founder to make sure they get completed – even if you delegated the task initially. This is an extreme amount of responsibility which requires firm footing.
I wasn’t prepared to carry everyone when I started Chrg. I was expecting to learn from and depend on one of my three cofounders who had more experience and domain expertise in our market. When the relationship with that cofounder changed, I wasn’t prepared to continue. I carried the weight with my other cofounder for awhile, but quickly realized that the path was not sustainable because I was not prepared to do it from the beginning.
Thiel’s Law – a startup messed up at its foundation cannot be fixed –doesn’t just apply to the product and branding and market of a business. It applies to the Founders themselves, both individually and how they operate as a team.
Startups seek high-growth above all else. High-growth costs money. But more than just cash, high-growth costs focused time and gut-wrenching mental energy.
Founders must supply the time, energy and capital to build the initial product and start the growth cycle. As a company matures, Founders can work with investors to supply more capital and hire employees to supply more time and energy, accelerating the growth cycle. With enough time, the company may achieve the goal it set out to accomplish, and in the process become self-sustaining.
But until that time, by calling oneself a Founder, you are making a commitment to be the Foundation upon which every other process and person depends for as long as it takes to accomplish your mission.
Rooted Founder, Rooted Foundation
To form a solid Foundation with your cofounders, individually you must:
- Know yourself and maintain personal stability, and
- Maximize creative output and time availability
You and your team need to solve every problem that comes your way. As the Foundation of your team, you don’t get to choose when problems arise (middle of the night, middle of vacation, etc), or what types of problems arise (technical, personnel, or just taking out the trash).
The second point, time availability and output, is championed in the Valley. All night hackathons, offices with chefs and barbers to minimize time away from the office, and a work-anywhere culture with always on messaging (from BlackBerry messenger slaves to Slack slaves) all support maximizing availability and output for founders and employees.
What’s strange about the Valley is that the first point of self-knowledge and emotional stability – which I now realize should be the first and highest priority of a Founder – seems to be discussed much less often.
The more I’ve thought about this, the more absurd it seems.
Get Rooted, Your Way
Startups are marathons and not sprints, so consistent and high-quality output is the goal. I believe founder depression, burnout and worse all result from misaligned expectations and not being rooted. From not having a support-system and community that can help give you perspective. From taking on too much pressure when you have unsolved personal insecurities.
No two Founders are alike, which means that no two Founders will be rooted in the same way. But however they find it, all great Founders have become rooted enough to carry the weight of their company forward.
There’s an inner confidence and self-reliance component of being rooted that must be learned over time. Elon Musk once ate on $1 a day to prove to himself that he could survive even if his endeavors failed. Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed College because he didn’t want to waste his parent’s money until he knew what he really wanted to do with his life. At a young age, Richard Branson’s mother dropped him off 3 miles from home and told him to find his way home. These kinds of experiences build inner confidence and determination that is transferable to future experiences.
But no man is an island. Even with strong determination and self-reliance, we all have breaking points. A Founder must also seek to root himself in processes of personal action (exercise, hobbies, charity work, and other stress relief and perspective-granting activities) and networks of people (cofounders, teammates, family, friends, and startup communities like YCombinator) that add further stability.
For example, Elon Musk moved away from his original home of South Africa, but he stayed close to family, cofounding his first company Zip2 with his brother Kimbal Musk. In the midst of financial trouble with both Tesla and Space X (in addition to a divorce from his first wife), Elon stayed afloat financially via personal loans from his friends.
There’s no right answer and there’s no perfect state, and each team and person will have different requirements. But there is a level of stability that will feel right once you find it. When you hit that right balance, your energy levels and output will shoot up. I encourage you to get rooted and find that balance.
The sky-high living costs, cultural differences and distance from family became significant distractions for me in San Francisco. The luck and learning factors of Silicon Valley networks is real and so I plan to visit for extended periods often. But these benefits of SF mean nothing if I am not creating the highest-quality code, music, and writing as often as possible.
I reduced my possessions and shifted my primary geographic base back to the Southeast (Charleston). I am spending more time with family. I am reading more, writing more, and playing music more often. I hit the gym everyday.
There are far too many important problems in the world that need to be solved, so I will start another company. And when I next claim the title of Founder, my intention is to solve the problem or die trying.
Any less of a commitment is a waste of time and energy. I hope more Founders will realize this, and will bring a similar level of commitment to their companies and missions.
Thanks to Ty Ahmad-Taylor, Mike Gibson and Jason Mitchell and for providing feedback on early drafts of this post.