May 28, 2019

Demystifying the Cult of the Founder

It’s an easy trap to fall into. Most of the time, when we think about a company and what makes it successful, we immediately think of the founder. From Steve Jobs to Bill Gates to Elon Musk, founders are given a mythical, heroic status. While it’s often these visionary founders who can see potential where others don’t, behind every star founder there is an entire team of people working hard to bring their ideas to life.

This cult of the founder goes beyond startups. Take Lewis Hamilton — a five-time Formula One World Champion and widely considered to be one of the best drivers of all time. These wins are internationally-celebrated as Lewis Hamilton’s wins, but many forget he had a team of hundreds of engineers and support crew behind him. Knowing this, it’s not surprising that a racing driver might suddenly rank considerably higher after they switch to a new team or car. At the end of the day, it’s more than just the athlete that wins the race. It’s the same with startups. Founders are important, but ultimately their success depends on having an exceptional, highly-invested team and the resources to succeed.

Building a successful startup is inherently very hard — it’s a challenging undertaking even with a great co-founder and team. At Expa, we support founders because we understand that building a startup is a hard journey to go alone without any support. When a startup facing roadblocks is open to outside perspectives, we can use our firepower to come in at critical stages to help problem-solve. Founders who allow their team and community to have ownership are likelier to succeed.

Attracting the right team isn’t always easy, but it’s integral to a startup’s success. To source great early-stage hires, the first place we turn to at Expa is our collective network — who are the people that we’ve worked with in the past? And, who would be the ideal person to hire for a role? Even if it’s that VP at a company you don’t think you can get, we can facilitate meetings, which could lead to referrals (or even a hire). We believe that it’s worth it to take the time to explain your vision to people who may not be looking for a job. Most great people aren’t looking, but could leave their role after being inspired by a new company’s mission. Since founders spend as much time internally with a team as they will externally with potential investors and customers, hiring the right people early on makes all the difference.

At Expa, most of our companies work out of our offices in San Francisco, New York, and Vancouver, where the cost of living is high. Rather than asking for talented people to work hard for a startup idea (high risk) for low compensation (low reward), we aim to be as competitive as possible on salary. When this isn’t possible, being generous with equity is key — when employees are properly invested, they’re intrinsically motivated to work well. And, at the end of the day, holding onto equity only matters when a company works. Recruiting smart people is essential, and poor compensation shouldn’t be why a talented person who’s passionate about your idea has to say no.

Strong teams make a huge difference, and setting up these founding members to succeed by giving them clear goals and permission to act with ownership is also critical. With this, teams are given the space to figure out the best way to execute and achieve these goals. Creating an environment that encourages proactive problem-solving and creativity, instead of one where employees are simply told what to do, empowers teams to build something truly great.

Great founders can only succeed when they have the right team, the right founding members, and the right investors building and supporting alongside them. Perhaps, what makes great founders truly great is that they can attract, leverage, and grow those few key people that make all the difference.

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