Founder Led Startups
Fred Wilson, who I’ve read every day for about 8 years, wrote a thoughtful post on the pros and cons of founder led startups. When to keep them, when to let them go, when to embrace them and perhaps when to discard them altogether. I am so tired of reading posts that get my brain waves flowing, motivate to write something that’s on my mind, but then pause – which leads to the inevitable full stop – from writing because I’m so concerned what I share won’t be perfect or even helpful. The reality is that if its helpful to me to write, and if its helpful to even one person, which could include just me!, then i should just get it down. The habit is where the gold lies… not in each individual post.
With respect to my own experience leading my own companies over nearly 25 years, i will only say that I always knew I should be replaced as quickly as possible. It took me 14 years to articulate that to other stakeholders in a direct fashion (“Laird, we should talk succession planning” – 2011), but unfortunately I wasn’t able to convince nearly anyone who had sway, including my own dad who was on my board at the time, that it was strategically sound for me to step away.
Something I knew with 100% certainty as Boloco surpassed 15 and then 20 locations in the post-recession years is that there were many other leaders who had seen and experienced first-hand what it took to get to 50 and more locations. I knew that my own stake in the business would be more valuable if I moved aside in favor of a more seasoned executive. When I finally did leave, it wasn’t during a time of strength and therefore the company suffered in the years that followed, and wasn’t able to attract the capital or the talent necessary to keep growing. We – my board – moved too slowly to replace me.
I share this not meaning to speak negatively of myself, but because my joy has come in so many other ways in the decade that has since passed. My sense of contribution didn’t rely on being in charge, or being CEO… which too many of us think is the case. I have gained the most satisfaction and earned the most income when I find myself working alongside other entrepreneurs to help them launch and grow their own businesses, and most importantly getting way out of the way unless called upon to help.
Founder led businesses where the founders stick around for years or even for the life of the founder can’t be that many in number. So many things change. I’m about 10 years past what i would consider my operating prime just because i couldn’t stay away – emotionally – from the brand i built even after such a public departure in 2013 (i bought the business back in 2015 in pretty rough shape). It’s true that I still love owning Boloco, but only because I aggressively use what’s left of it (6 units at this writing, with negative desire to grow) to test new technologies (which I often invest in) and workforce empowering strategies and solutions – it fulfills me deeply to focus on leveraging our business for good purposes beyond serving delicious food. But I don’t run the day-to-day business… i know better these days.
What i do have that few traditional, non-founder managers can replace, however, and I’ve seen this too many times to count in other founder-led businesses – is what I call irrational passion for the business. Even when its sucking the life out of me, just as it does to so many other founders, I get up ready to go to battle every day no matter how hard things get. Irrational passion, though, doesn’t necessarily build sustainable, successful businesses. It gets things going, it gets us out of deep dark holes, it helps find moments of greatness and inspiration that people notice… but its the disciplined managers and leaders who carry those nuggets to build long-term value. Today, I love it when i know its time to move aside… and generally, especially at this stage in my career, its almost always time to do exactly that.