The Founder as Parent
Nonetheless, I remain committed to People Engineering; when I have something worth saying and the time to say it—I shall say it here!
I am a parent, and an observer of parents.
I am a founder, and an observer of founders.
The parallels between a parent’s journey rearing their child, and a founder’s journey growing their company, are simply too strong and too instructive to ignore.
Childhood / Startup
When a company is first founded, it is utterly helpless and dependent on its founder. There is no aspect of the company’s operation that is not subject to the founder’s direct control, no boundaries to the founder’s involvement. The founder is omniscient and omnipotent. Much like a baby freshly born, the identity of a founder and that of their company is deeply intertwined, such that it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins.
Being the founder of a startup is a 24/7 job. It is only the founder’s energy and commitment that give the startup life, that propel it forward. For most startup founders, the idea of a vacation is laughable. Even if they do take time off, much like a parent with a child—the company comes with them, and shapes and defines the vacation.
The feeling of being a startup founder is one of being utterly consumed by the company. Although it is exhausting, it is also deeply rewarding and motivating.
Adolescence / Scale-up
Once a company reaches a certain level of scale (typically 30-50 people) it reaches its scale-up phase. Much like a child’s adolescence, this is a period of turmoil and transition. There is too much going on in the company for the founder to be able to meaningfully be able to contribute to all aspects of the business. There are many senior specialists who will not tolerate interference in their area of authority and expertise. The founder needs to learn to give the various individuals and teams within the company space to do things their way.
Although the founder still enmeshes their identity with that of the scale-up company, the sentiment becomes less mutual. The company develops an identity of its own amongst those who work for it that is quite distinct from the identity of the founder. Although the founder looms large within the company, those within it look to them more for guidance and inspiration, for a sense of safety. It is common at this stage for the founder to make unwelcome intrusions into the daily work of the company; employees will perceive this as overreach and micromanagement. Their reaction to such intrusions will be to distance themselves from the founder.
Learning to let go of the “bodily functions” and to take on a new role as a mentor and a guide is one of the toughest challenges a founder faces at the scale-up stage. Failure to meet this challenge will cause a deterioration in the relationship between the company and its founder, to disobedience and resentment; all the hallmarks of a rebellious teenager.
When a founder takes a vacation from their scale-up, they will likely miss the company more than the company misses them.
Adulthood / Mature Company
Having made it through some of the rites of passage that represent adulthood as a company (achieving profitability, going public, having a mature product line, slowing growth), the relationship between the founder and the company becomes one between two non-dependents in a mutually consenting relationship. The founder may no longer be leading the company, but even if they are: they are there as an employee of an entity that is far larger than themselves, that has a life of its own. The founder of a mature company may be important, but they are no longer necessary.
The founder of a mature company is a figurehead, remembered (hopefully with fondness) as the progenitor of a vigorous organisation. However, if they wish to remain involved in the life of the company they must do so on the company’s terms. The fully-mature company makes its own way in the world, dependent on their parents no longer.
Avoiding Dysfunctional Parenting
For both parents and founders, the most common dysfunction I see is this: a mismatch between the role that is being played, and the role that is needed. A parent who gives their teenage child neither freedom nor wise guidance is like a founder who micromanages their scale-up, interfering with daily operations while neglecting to articulate a clear vision or strategy. The parent of adult children who is unable to relate to their children as adults and hence loses the closeness they crave is like a founder of a mature company, ejected unceremoniously as CEO.
In all cases, the way to avoid dysfunction is this: to focus on adapting your role to meet the needs of what is a rapidly changing entity. Too often pride, ego, identity, or simple inattention lead to a founder playing a role that was suitable for yesterday’s company, but no longer meets the needs of the company today.
As a founder, be aware, be present, and always remember to appreciate your company for what it is today.
Tomorrow will be different, and you will never have this exact relationship again.
Meet my other baby! The Startup Podcast is a collaboration between myself and Chris Saad, where we use our extensive operating experience to break down all the different things people working in startups should know. We cover a different topic each week, from hiring to fundraising, ideation to business model selection, execution to managing a market downturn, and more.