By Mike Asem
Great founders are cult leaders.
Cult leaders have a supernatural ability to compel groups of people to follow them into the void. Like Thanos from the Marvel universe, there is inevitability about them and their movement. In the same way that Jim Jones, Charles Manson and David Koresh (Howell) were able to convince hundreds to leave their homes, lives and families to follow them on a promise of something greater, great founders are able to recruit the best of us — turning us from strangers to community to family in pursuit of their ever-distant but brightly shining north stars.
Great founders don’t need vast resources or even unmatched intellect to pull people together and lead them as they do. They’re able to do this solely from their disproportionate amounts of charisma, purpose, passion and gravitas. They’re able to recruit the investor to not only invest money but to have a desire to serve on their board. They’re able to recruit the talented engineer or executive to not only join their company but also take a below-market salary with the promise of a fractional piece of their visionary pie. They’re able to recruit early customers and industry partners to commit to what the product could be not what it is today.
Great founders recruit hopeful innocents to dive deep into their visionary abyss — with smiles on their faces and eyes shining brightly from the reflection of their north star.
Great founders are truth seekers, even when the truth looks bad
When the Indianapolis-based Socio team started, they were chasing down a bad idea. They were trying to help students connect faster on social media with an app. But, after realizing users couldn’t get any value unless everyone else already had the app, they started seeking the truth about whether this was actually the billion dollar idea they thought it was.
What the Socio guys did next was look at what they’d built and ask themselves some questions. They asked questions focused around who had a problem that was both painful and something they were well positioned to solve. Soon, this led them to seek the truth about whether event organizers and attendees could use technology to optimize their events and unlock the black box of data of what’s happening.
Once great founders have an idea, they seek to find the truth about it — no matter what comes up. If the truth is good, they keep moving forward. If the truth is bad, they can’t help but chase it down — break it down into its most basic parts, and see what opportunities lie within. If they can turn the bad to good, then onwards they go. If the truth is just bad … they ask “what’s next?”
The team is still seeking the truth about Socio today, but right now the truth looks good. With just a handful of employees not much more than a year ago, explosive revenue growth and excited investors have Socio’s headcount now pushing 30 — likely to be 60-plus by the end of the year.
Great founders keep their eyes downfield.
Great founders are like great quarterbacks in that no matter what is happening around them — they always keep their eyes downfield.
Oftentimes early-stage startups are presented with a choice. Increase expenses and risk going out of business in order to grow fast and hit milestones, or keep expenses low and continue to do low hanging fruit that’s easier or less risky but barely moves the needle.
Like a quarterback, the founder could find himself or herself either making big leaps forward at the risk of throwing an interception, or consistently hitting the check down pass and getting the safe yardage.
The context that I think should be applied here, though, is that most early-stage ventures don’t have the benefit of a full game. Rather, most founders trying to build truly disruptive companies in spite of large incumbents and other competitive market forces need to realize their context is actually four minutes left in the game, down by 10. It’s here that great founders keep their eyes downfield. Through preparation and instinct they know when to take the check down, and when to take the chances that could break the game open for their vision to come to life.
Great founders don’t settle for the safe plays that lead to inevitable mediocrity and participation trophies, but always have their eyes downfield to take shots to win against odds and achieve true greatness. I
Mike Asem is the director of M25 Group, a micro-venture capital investment firm.