The Founder Identity Trap

You aren't your business

This is the type of post I wish someone shared with me two years ago.

In corporate America I was a number. Make no mistake — you are too.

The truth of corporate life is that your worth to the company is 100% tied to your usefulness. Somewhere a manager has you as an expense in an excel spreadsheet. If you can’t be justified you can’t be kept, no matter how clever your water-cooler humor may be.

Corporations are the destinations degrees are designed for. In academia though your still a number — you’re tuition with legs while walking to the dining hall or lounging on the quad.

This is not a moral claim against these organizations. Still though, it makes sense that young people view startups as alluring escapes from feeling like a mere bead in an abacus.

We assume that the grass (and money) is plenty greener on the startup side of the fence.

As a founder of a startup you’re clearly no longer a number — you’ll be a person with a company! Your email signature will likely command respect. People will naturally invite you to speak at gatherings. You will be fawned over in the media. Investors will shower you with money because you ‘understand millennials’.

Everyone will reinforce the notion that you’re on an incredibly majestic Hero’s Journey into Unicorndom.

This will certainly feel better than being a number in an org chart, right?

Welcome to the Echochamber

For most first-time founders the transition transpires differently. Instead of working for themselves and building something meaningful, they end up working for the Echochamer.

The Echochamber is the collection of investors and accelerators who demand that you eat, sleep, and breathe your company at the expense of life.

It’s the startup press who will fudge realism for page views.

It’s the service provider emailing you after reading an article about your last fundraise.

It’s the ‘mentor’ who siphons equity and ego fixes for warm intros to nowhere.

The Echochamer takes down the clocks and strings up flashing lights on the walls of the startup casino. It will keep you attending events, reading its articles, taking coffee meetings, and shelling out cash4coworking.

You’ll keep doing it though because your life does not matter until you’re finally running an (unprofitable) unicorn.

The lesson for you is to not give in to the frothy hype of the Echochamber. Open your eyes to the implicitly self-interested relationships you will engage in while making a startup. Take advantage of opportunities that will benefit you but don’t let them take advantage of you.

If you give into the flashing lights you’ll find yourself gambling away your twenties building a startup that should have been a tweet.

And sure this is easy enough advice to give, but you won’t implement it unless you solidify one critical mindset change.

You are not your startup

The Echochamer is designed to reinforce the notion that your self-worth is tightly coupled with how well your startup is doing on that particular day.

This is how it keeps existing. The first step in avoiding the Siren calls of the Echochamer is to sever any relationship between your self-worth and the financial outcomes of your startup.

That’s the lynchpin upon which mentally healthy founders can build lasting and powerful companies without suffering through self-imposed sabotages.

A failure to decouple the two will shred your P&L as swiftly as it lays waste to your mental health. You’ll be too defensive and retaliatory to agnostically look at what is working and what is not in your business in order to make it better. You won’t put your work in positions where it will be judged by critics. You’ll exist in an endless stealth mode. You’ll always be ‘crushing it’ until the day you’re not.

Soon after everyone stops inviting you to events and tweetstorming about your now broken company you’ll be left with nothing but a ragged mental landscape and some worthless common stock to show for it all.

My wish for the young & naive founder is simple: decouple your self-worth from the success (or failure) of your startup. Both your work and health will be better off as a result of the schism.

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