The Founders bluff

When I started my first “real” company in the early days of the Internet era I was traveling with my immediate family to visit my mother in Bangladesh. I remember distinctly the fear I had but it wasn’t about flying or malaria or anything related to the actual journey. It was what my answer was going to be when someone asked me “what do you do for a living?”

I was nervous about a title. I asked my brother and, after looking at me like an idiot, said “you are the founder of a startup.” Period. Full stop. No hesitation.

It has always been an odd role to play because that’s what it seemed like what I was doing back in those early days. I was playing the role of someone trying to build a business. There was no hubris or ego in doing the role but I felt like stating it as a fact — “I am a founder” — wreaked of both.

While it does take a certain type of person to start a new business, my view has always been that it’s an act of insanity rather than a stroke of ego to do it. Who in their right mind chooses this kind of life? That’s why I’m always bewildered by the founders bluff.

This is an affliction that happens all too often. It’s when the founder tries to shield everyone from the truth or tries to take on all the responsibility of success or failure. They won’t admit when it’s not going well but will carry the load and let everyone else carry on. When founder bluffing kicks in it is obvious to everyone except the founder.

There are tell-tale symptoms. Founders are meant to be the most optimistic in the room but sometimes that goes too far and over-optimism means over-compensating. Chalk this down to founders shielding the team from most of the truth or trying to live up to the weight of the title.

Founders play a role in a company, they don’t necessarily play “THE” role.

Founders are also the closest to the dirt and it’s very hard to explain the things they balance every day so often times they don’t. A million great things could be happening but it could look like things are standing still as the founder(s) holds everything close to the chest. This one is more about shielding themselves from the 999,999 things that won’t happen. Managing expectations is fine here but, if there are other co-founders, this cannot extend to that group. Full disclosure is imperative.

The founders bluff is at its worst when it is among founders. No one wants to seem weak or vulnerable so they get in line, speak the words they should — not what they need to say. When this happens the founding team is kidding themselves about the future of their business. How can anyone operate when co-founders don’t feel they can have an open dialog about their changing needs? This is the most egregious display of bluffing — with the most impact, personally and professionally.

If you can’t align with your team and founders or feel like you are all alone in the fight, cut the bravado, open your mouth and start speaking from behind the ego and hubris. Breakthroughs and movement will follow. Guaranteed.