Founder is an overrated title
Want to be an entrepreneur? Go get a job
David Fincher’s “The Social Network” had a cultural impact not seen since Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” graced the silver screen in the late 80s. But instead of unleashing an army of Gordon Gekkos, it birthed millions of aspiring entrepreneurs. We’re still feeling its impact today, and it’s not all good!
To be clear at the outset, I believe that entrepreneurship is admirable and a net benefit to society. Who can argue with new business formation and folks chasing the American dream?
But the film, which outlines the early days of Facebook, painted a misleading picture of what it is to be a Founder. It sparked two myths about entrepreneurship in the broader culture that have done more harm than good to many who might otherwise do great things in their careers.
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Myth #1 – being a Founder is the only way to get rich
If you were to travel back to the year 2000 and say the word “Founder,” the average person would brace themselves for a talk about Marbury vs. Madison. Or maybe George Washington’s penchant for cherry trees. Post-2010? They’d expect to hear about the latest iteration of “Uber-for-X.”
“Once we have critical mass, then we’ll become profitable,” we’re told. Any day now…
When someone says they want to be a Founder, what is it they really mean? Is it a drive to solve a problem and better serve a set of customers? Is it a belief that they have the right stuff to build something new, effective, and profitable in an industry where they’ve built credibility?
More often than not, I don’t think this is really the case. It might be what’s verbalized, but the underlying driver is a desire for fortune and fame. They see entrepreneurship as the way to achieve it. And it’s honestly hard to blame them.
Media coverage over the last decade would make you think there was no other way to be really successful in America outside of founding a tech company or backing one as an investor.
Outside the media bubble, however, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Most millionaires work in mundane industries and have prosaic job titles.
But to the uninitiated, telling someone you’re “Founder & CEO” sounds cooler than spending a decade to become a VP of Sales at an industrial tools distributor. And the latter won’t make it onto the cover of Fortune Magazine. (Even though the tool seller has a higher net worth and better long-term prospects 99% of the time.)
How do I know this? It’s not just intuition. I was one of these people a decade ago. Founder (lol) & CEO of an e-commerce brand because I thought it was the cool thing to do. This despite having no experience whatsoever in digital marketing.
So how did I plan on building the business? Beats me! But man did that title sound awesome.
Myth #2 – Being young and inexperienced is a strength in entrepreneurship
Gordon Gekko was the villain of Wall Street. Modeled after jailed insider trader Ivan Boesky, he bragged about the merits of greed while preparing to carve-up a growing airline and cash out its pension fund.
Not long after its release, business schools were filled with contrast collar-wearing bros with great heads of hair ready to stake their claim as Master of the Universe. Who could blame them? Being the bad guy looked like fun!
Decades later, The Social Network put an old trope on its head. With King Nerd Mark Zuckerberg besting two “Men of Harvard” who would’ve been corporate raiders had they been born 20 years earlier. All while wearing a tee-shirt and flip-flops. Facebook may not have been his idea, but who cares? He’s CEO, bitch!
Before long, schools (business or otherwise), were filled by bros in tee-shirts ready to stake their claim as Founder of the Next Big Thing.
For years we’ve been told, explicitly and implicitly, that the best entrepreneurs are young, inexperienced, and dress like teenagers. Or better yet, are teenagers. The Zuck may have started the tee-shirt trend, but VCs quickly joined in on the action. In 2014, Peter Thiel (a man who I love dearly), said to “never invest in a CEO that wears a suit.”
A lack of experience gets portrayed as a sign of strength. It means you won’t have preconceived notions about how things are done in an industry. Is there any wonder that countless dollars have been burned at the altar of companies that can’t generate a positive gross margin?
As with so many things in our surface deep, Cart Before The Horse Culture, this idea has been taken to an extreme.
While there is certainly a (very) small subset of people who are capable of starting and building businesses in industries where they have little or no experience, this is just not generally the case. When you don’t have meaningful experience in a field, how do you go about finding a problem to solve through entrepreneurship?
Young Zucks-in-Training with no experience typically do one of two things. Either try and solve a problem they face in their day-to-day life or provide services to support other entrepreneurs.
The trouble with the first approach is that most of the problems they diagnose aren’t problems at all.
I was at a party several years ago when a guy started pitching his photo app within two minutes of speaking with me. “It’s like Instagram, but for when you’re out with your friends and you forget to post the pics. The app does it for you the next day as a fun surprise.” Is forgetting to “post the pics” really so big a problem that it requires the formation of a new enterprise?
And on the off chance you really stumble on a problem that you face in your day-to-day life, chances are most other people face it as well. This sounds great because it has the potential market size that VCs lust over. But it also means you’re trying to build a business in the most hyper-competitive market possible - the general consumer market - with no real experience to lean on. Good luck!
Meanwhile the second approach, providing services to support entrepreneurs, has gotten completely out of control. I fully understand and appreciate that SMBs (many of which are owner-operated services companies) need support services. But what we have now amounts to an entrepreneurship human centipede.
…services providers pitching services to other services providers pitching services to other services providers pitching services to other services providers…
You do NOT want to be at the tail-end of that!
There is a huge and undifferentiated sea of companies sending an endless array of generic cold emails to potential customers. Regardless of need or fit. All the while locking up talent that would be much better off gaining experience and credibility within an established company.
I receive countless messages from people saying some variation of:
re: re: Following-Up
Hey Justin, sorry for coming in cold here. I love what you’re doing over there at The Right Stuff. Are you looking for my completely untargeted service?
I know I’m not alone in this.
In reality, most successful entrepreneurs don’t proactively pursue the entrepreneurial path. For them, being a Founder isn’t a goal in-and-of-itself. It’s an outcome of serving a genuine market need.
Nor are they inexperienced. It’s almost always the exact opposite.
According to the Harvard Business Review, the average age of a successful startup founder is 45. They typically have many years of experience in the field in which they start a business. I bet they also own a suit.
These are people who were compelled to start a company because they saw an opportunity to serve customers in their field. Not because they sat around thinking about problems to solve, but because they encountered them firsthand while they built experience, credibility, and networks in the trenches of industry. In other words, while they were building their career as an employee somewhere.
It may not be sexy. And it probably won’t be turned into a movie. But this is what the vast majority of successful entrepreneurship looks like.
If you really want to be an entrepreneur, don’t sit around thinking about problems to solve. And don’t line your closet with an array of monochrome tee-shirts.
If you really want to be an entrepreneur, you should start by getting a job.