The Founders Story: The great men of history

Having worked in the London start up scene I’ve really enjoyed seeing some of the energy and innovation that people have. It’s particularly enjoyable seeing the way entrepreneurs are developing and utilising technology to try and enhance our lives. As a project manager, these are the sorts of challenges I absolutely love.

One of the less healthy aspects about start up life is the pressure. Starting a new business is difficult. Starting a business that relies on developing new technology requires significant time, skill, patience and most importantly investment. It is fair to say the barriers to entry are significant. It often involves months or years of unpaid or underpaid work – with no guarantee of success. Not surprisingly, the make up of people involved in start ups is predominately upper middle class, white and male. There are of course many exceptions to this rule,  and I’ve been lucky enough to meet some amazing people from different walks of life in the start up space.

One of the narratives around start ups is the “Founders Story”. This has been described by Fortune Magazine as the ‘love story’ company founders have with how their creation started out. In the technology space, comparisons to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs can become a daily obsession. The narrative goes that some brilliant person with incredibly innovative ideas has this brilliant vision which ultimately makes it big after a long struggle. The TV series Silicon Valley satirises this idea. The struggle to compete with existing market players, the need to get investment and ultimately to succeed.

When I hear people talk of the Founders Story, I am reminded of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In this novel Tolstoy rejects the idea that major events in history are the result of great men. War and Peace is set when the French led by Napoleon are at war with Russia. Tolstoy rejects the idea that the French lose this war due to poor decisions by leader Napoleon:

And it was not Napoleon who directed the course of the battle, for none of his orders were executed and during the battle he did not know what was going on before him. So the way in which these people killed one another was not decided by Napoleon’s will but occurred independently of him, in accord with the will of hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the common action. It only seemed to Napoleon that it all took place by his will

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Tolstoy in his epic novel War and Peace wrote about the Great man of history theory. While writing at the time about Napoleon, 21st century entrepreneurs would do well to pay heed to this view. 

Start ups, like any other business are never solely the result of one persons effort alone. For any successful business to succeed it requires the contribution of many others. For example with technology companies it requires investors who believe in the project to take a financial risk. It requires developers, engineers and developers to put time and energy into building a minimum viable product (MVP) to take to market. It then requires marketing and sales people to build interest in your companies proposition and ultimately make sure what you are developing sells. And most importantly, it requires a top notch project manager to ensure everything is delivered on time, within budget and meeting the required quality scope. This PM also needs to communicate progress to all stakeholders and ensure important information is being share in real time (and I do all this for a very reasonable day rate 😉 )

But even if all the above goes to plan, a great many start ups don’t succeed. Is this because they don’t have the right leadership or founders? They certainly play a role. But other factors such as market demand for your product, the state of the economy at the time of launch or a plethora of other factors outside of the control of the founder can sink a start up. In some cases start ups can pivot to new idea or product, which can be down to innovation or skill, but is still at the mercy of external conditions.

The whole ‘Founders Story’ narrative subtracts from the good things that can happen in the start up space. It puts ego and pride at the centre, when humbleness and a willingness to learn from mistakes is required. Did Steve Jobs help create the Apple brand? Yes. Is his contribution grossly overstated?  You bet. Would we still have smart phones had Jobs never been born, almost certainly.

Reading 19th century weighty tome’s like War and Peace may not be top of most entrepreneurs to do list – but it may help them significantly if it were.

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