Why Founders Fail: The Product CEO Paradox

Paul’s Comment: There is no True or False answer to this philosophical question: “Are founding CEOs better to bet on than hired-CEOs?” It all depends on the individual and the context often riddled with conflicts and politics. But the important point is to be aware of those choices, analyze the context with circumspection and while making a decision treat the people involved fair with respect and dignity. The article by Ben Horowitz provides rare insights into the pros and cons of these issues.

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How to Survive a Startup – Tips for New Team Members

It is hard to find more emotionally charged environments than at a newly forming startup. The excitement, passion, exuberance, uncertainty and fear create quite a potent mix. All of this makes the interpersonal team dynamics even more delicate than normal. Having been on both sides of this equation – as a founder and as a hired CEO – I can attest to difficulties in dealing with these challenges, especially since ego-related issues tend to be seen through one-way mirror. To help you deal with these, here is a post providing practical tips on what to expect and what to do to survive the experience.

NOTE from Paul: The guest post below is written by Jill S. Ram and originally appeared on her site. It is re-blogged here by permission.

If you’re an executive and you’re thinking of joining a startup, know what stage of a startup to join. If the company is in its first year or so, don’t expect to make significant changes. If you join after the company is somewhat established and mistakes have been made and learned from, you’ll likely be more successful from the outset. If the founder has stepped aside, well, by then, the company is likely not considered a startup anymore. It won’t be functioning like a big company yet, and it won’t have all the structure in place that it needs, but it will be run with more practicality and with less emotion. Timing is everything so choose it well.

Let’s focus on early-stage startups.

If you join in the early stage, remember this: Be wary of being the first in the role or in taking over the founder’s area of expertise. Some founders have a technology background, some marketing, some sales, some finance. Whatever his “baby” is, you will be under much more scrutiny if you are hired as his “replacement”. If you’re the first executive in the given role, make sure you understand what the founder thinks he expects of you, and forget about what you know you can and should accomplish – for now.

Reminder two: The founder is always right (especially true if you have been hired to take over the area of the business that he normally runs). Don’t argue endlessly. I’m not saying your ideas are wrong; I’m just saying that many of them won’t be adopted until the founder sees what you see. You may think you have been hired for your experience, your crystal ball, if you will, but it doesn’t matter what you see in that ball. You may know, emphatically, that some of the decisions being made are the wrong ones, but my advice to you is to go with it. The only way to survive is to get on the bus. Standing in front of it trying to get it to go left or right will only get you run over. It will be hard to watch the bus veer off course. Really hard. But you have to let it go there and end up in the wrong place. I know, you think you were hired to prevent that from happening. You were; just not the first time.

Hopefully, the bus will only be one stop short of where you thought it should be headed. Maybe it will end up in a completely wrong neighbourhood. But it has to go there for the founder to realize it was the wrong direction. He needs his own “aha” moment. That’s when it will click for him. And that’s where you come in. That’s when he’ll start trusting your crystal ball and you’ll be allowed to put one finger on the steering wheel.

There are endless analogies to better understand this concept. Here’s a simple one. Your friend’s wedding is about to take place and you know he’s choosing the wrong person. But he doesn’t see it yet. There’s nothing you can do to get him to see it, especially if he doesn’t want to. And why would he? It’s been working for him. Do you abandon the friendship? Of course not. You support his decisions and stand by him as he embarks on his journey. And when he has his “aha” moment and realizes what you’ve known all along, that’s your cue to step in. Not to say “I told you so”, but to help get him back on track.

Same thing with a true startup. Be there for them. Don’t sit there helplessly and wait for the accident to happen. Support the decisions that they think are right. Remember, it’s those exact decisions that got them this far. Your challenge is getting them to see that it’s not the thing that’s going to get them to tomorrow. But that doesn’t mean coming in with an axe and chopping out the rotting wood. Remember that it’s not completely rotten yet and it’s still acting as the foundation.

The question is whether or not you are able to support the founder’s decisions without compromising yourself in the process. If following his path leads you to doubt yourself or be continually discouraged, maybe it’s too early in the game for you. After all, you need to feel like you have some worth; that something you are doing is making a difference. Only you can decide how much patience you have.

With a true startup, you will find yourself going through these stages:

  1. Exuberance and passion – at the excitement of being a part of something so dynamic and exciting
  2. Frustration – at the things that aren’t done efficiently or correctly
  3. Excitement – at the idea of how much opportunity there is to help change these things
  4. Discouragement – at how those opportunities are being overlooked and how your skill set is being completely underutilized. What are you doing there?

This is when you have a decision to make. Here’s how to make it:

Ask yourself these questions: Have you seen any change since you started? Has anything new been adopted or is the founder stuck on doing everything the same old way? Is the company hiring the right people? People who are going to bring something new to the table. Were they hired to challenge the status quo or embrace it? Of all the decisions that are being made, do you agree with at least some of them? Are your values fundamentally the same as or directly opposed to the founder’s? Do you respect the founder? If you answered yes to most of these (where there were options provided, the “yes” would be to the first part of the question), you may want to stick it out, as you might be asked to use your crystal ball in the near future.

Remember that founders are concerned with one thing at the outset: the top line. So are their investors. Chances are, you will be asked to do things that, although they increase the top line, they may impact the bottom line (and the culture) negatively. This will be evident to you; not so evident to the founder who’s fixated on revenue. The investors will see your crystal ball as valuable, but only once they get their claws in the business – once they really start focusing on profitability. That will come soon enough.

The best advice is the following:

  1. Forget everything you learned working for a bigger company – for now. It won’t come in handy for quite some time.
  2. Study your environment. Don’t come in thinking you know it all. What worked at your last company might not work in your new one. Anyone can make observations and identify what’s missing. But you weren’t hired as a consultant. You were hired to help take the company to the next level, by implementing the right things at the right time. Heeding that latter part will be the difference between success and failure.
  3. Don’t knock what the company was built on. You will alienate yourself and be the cause of your own failure.
  4. Do what is asked of you, even if you don’t support it 100%. It may be a flawed course of action, but it’s likely not going to destroy the company. It hasn’t thus far.
  5. Get things done. Don’t take too much time doing it the “right” way. If you can get it done the right way without it taking longer than it would take to do it the flawed way, fine. But if doing it the right way means inertia, you will quickly cripple the company. If you accomplish nothing, you are useless to the company. The trick is to find a way to remove the rotten wood and simultaneously replace it with cement, all the while achieving the founder’s goals and the ones you were ultimately hired to achieve, even if unbeknownst to the founder. Balance is key.
  6. Pick your battles. Fight a good fight but know when to waive the white flag. The sooner you are able to gauge if something will be well-received or not, the better off you will be.
  7. Be agile. Be able to change directions on a dime.
  8. Listen. Really listen.
  9. Have patience.
  10. And last but not least, do your daily affirmations. You’ll need to remind yourself that you’re good. No one else will.
About the Author
Jill Ram is a Montreal-based Senior Tech Sector executive who specializes in cultural development and change management.

How Can Canadian Startups Access AngelList?

The recent phenomenon of AngelList in the US holds a promise of revolutionizing seed funding for startups. The reason for it is three-fold: it addresses the toughest stage of startups – I call it “Two guys and a piece of paper” – financing, it applies the effective principle of risk-sharing, and thanks to the recently passed US JOBS act, it uses a legal framework which makes it palatable to the investors and founders. With the recent addition of the syndication mechanism it all works even better. The question is how could Canadian (or other non-US) startups access it and benefit from this nirvana?

There are at least two practical issues to address:

  • The legality of fundraising through the sale of equity under Canadian laws. The issue is that under the current Canadian securities laws, startups can only raise money by selling equity in their business to so-called “accredited investors,” who are strictly defined and typically include family members, angel investment firms, or venture capitalists. Should you wish to raise funds from a broader circle of individual investors, your company needs to go through a process of stock listing on a publicly traded exchange that is normally prohibitive to the startup. Alternatively, you need to operate under an exemption. More details on that are available in an excellent and succinct six-page document, “General Overview of Canadian Securities Laws Relating to Raising Capital By Early Stage Companies” prepared by FMC Law, members of the CrowdSourcing Advocacy Committee of CATA, and available through their office. Are there any other complications when soliciting funds in the US?
  • The practicality and the effectiveness of a Canadian startup (“Two guys and a piece of paper”) raising funds in the US market. Clearly, investing abroad in an unknown entity is yet another hurdle to overcome for US investors. The reality is that only a few sophisticated US investors would feel comfortable in this scenario.

One of the solutions to these concerns might be a structure involving a US holding parent company, say a Delaware corporation. That way the US parent corporation receives the investment through AngelList and flows through the funds to its Canadian subsidiary which is the operating entity. A structure like this might even qualify as a CCPC for tax purposes. In addition, we get the benefit of the generous Canadian SRED refund for R&D expenses (up to 65%) while simplifying a potential liquidity event (exit) for the benefit of the US investors. I have used an investment structure like this in one of my previous ventures and can vouch that the complexity and the cost overhead is quite reasonable.

So, since the issues around AngelList are new and fresh, now is your chance to weigh in. Please share your experience, thoughts, and views in the Comments section below.

Venture Money In, Entrepreneur Out

The delicate relationships between founders and venture capitalists are rarely openly discussed and even less frequently have carefully laid down rules that protect both sides sensitive interests. Since nothing ever goes smooth in early-stage company, the reality of the situation calls to put in place measures which would allow to deal with unavoidable conflicts in a civilized manner while protecting interests of both parties. The article below illustrates these realities.

NOTE from Paul: The guest post below is written by Bob Hebert and originally appeared on his site. It is re-blogged here by permission.

A recent edition of Profit Magazine is headlined “Lessons from Canada’s Best Employers”. It features a collection of “highly successful” entrepreneurs regaling on how to create “loyal, turbo-charged teams” and great businesses.

Inconveniently, at least one of the featured entrepreneurs was removed from the helm of his business before the magazine hit the newsstands. A man of undeniable vision, this entrepreneur had proven adept at attracting and energizing a team of bright, young employees in the pursuit of that vision. He possessed the same evangelical abilities with customers who signed up in droves for his product offering. But as the business grew, the supremely confident entrepreneur proved less adroit in evolving the hands-on, micromanaging leadership style that served him well when the firm was small. This in turn had a negative impact on his ability to attract, manage and retain an executive team capable of scaling the business. Though strong revenue growth temporarily cloaked the costs of this churn, maturation clouds were on the horizon. Given enough time the young entrepreneur may well have sorted out the leadership requirements of a growing, more complex business. But time became a scarce resource the moment the entrepreneur pursued big-time U.S. venture capital to fuel the next stage of his firm’s growth.

While in the business of risking capital, venture capitalists take every step possible to de-risk their investment decisions. Each success and failure is analyzed and processed into lessons learned, best practices and playbooks for future investments. Proven leadership is valued over its alternative, and young, promising entrepreneurs are rarely more than a few missteps from replacement. This is especially true in Silicon Valley where a class of serial CEOs and executive teams provide a bench of standby replacement talent. With the costs of trial and error learning thus needlessly high, it took but a few execution errors for the Canadian entrepreneur to find himself unceremoniously dumped at the helm of his own company. It took less than 4 months for the entrepreneur’s new ‘partners’ to become his executioners.

Learning is an iterative process, a cycle of action, reaction, reflection, adjusted action and so forth.  Self-awareness lubricates the cycle either increasing or reducing the time for individual learning. Hubris is a decided inhibitor. Entrepreneurs who own their businesses outright have the benefit of time to learn from the trials and tribulations of growing a business. But for those who secure professional investors or go public, their time becomes enmeshed with others money and a compression effect takes place. Their trials must now be almost error free. For our young Canadian entrepreneur, an award winning company and glowing magazine articles could not protect him from these realities. The good news, if it can be called that, is that he now has time to reflect on the meaning of hubris, humility, personal development and resilience.

About the Author

Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements.

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