As a young child, I had never heard of Steve Jobs. But I had heard of Scooby Doo.
And, as we all remember from just about every Scooby Doo episode, the bad guy is unmasked at the end. But sometimes, in unmasking the bad guy, they have to rip off one or two or three masks before they figure out who was really behind all the madness.
So forgive me if my image of a founder aligns more closely with the old carnival worker from Scooby Doo than it does with Steve Jobs…
He is that poor wretch who constantly masks and unmasks himself, gets no appreciation for his genius, and ends up in shackles while a bunch of stoned teenagers move on to their new favorite website.
So many founders — myself included — do an awful job of explaining who and what they really are, especially in a context that can be understood by the ever-accelerating parade of grownups who will eventually make their way into the company.
In my next company, one of my goals will be to articulately define who and what I am as a founder, even if I don’t fit squarely within a department or typical org structure. Perhaps that is why the most successful companies, long after they have shed the startup identity, come up with such eloquent and aggrandizing self-descriptions.
Facebook isn’t a place to stalk tomorrow night’s blind date. Its singular mission is to “make the world more open and connected.”
Google isn’t a place to learn more about the alleged Emma Stone sex tape. It is about “organizing the world’s information.”
And how many founders are able to similarly answer the question, “… what do you do for the company?” Most founders will snicker inside and imagine their own eyes rolling while they mutter, “What don’t I do around here?” Others will sack up and politely dismiss the question with “Well, I wear so many hats. I don’t know where to begin…” Or some crap like that.
This is particularly true for the founder who eventually moves out of the CEO role, an act that would be more common were it not for the fear of being, well, that “poorly defined founder guy.”
And even if you do stay as CEO, the phenomenon can just as easily occur where people — sometimes even yourself — begin to ask, “what does he really do?” As I reflect upon the six years I spent building my company, I now have a better appreciation for what value I contributed. And, no, it wasn’t about me doing a million little jobs. Even if that is how some people saw it.
My official title changed several times — “VP of Engineering” to “VP of Product” to “VP of Revenue” to my current title of “Founder.” But my real job was to “bridge the natural divides” that perpetually emerged.
That sounds broad and aggrandizing, doesn’t it? Just like one of those corny corporate slogans that make you want to throw up in your mouth. But it’s what I spent six years doing. Bridging divides.
It started when my co-founders anointed me as our VP of Engineering. This was curious, because I have never written a line of code in my life, and I had not heard of PHP or Ruby On Rails until I saw them on some Craigslist resume. Why did they pick me for this role? Because I was the “geekiest” one of us. But it may as well have been picked out of a hat.
And in that capacity, I quickly learned the reason why there have been so few sports startups (in contrast to the thousands of music and gaming startups). It’s because so few engineers care passionately about sports. Ours certainly didn’t. At our company, it was a natural divide — jocks vs. nerds.
Because I knew nothing about Engineering, and could not closely manage our four outstanding engineers, I focused on being the bridge between the “nerd” half of the office and the “jock” half. I myself was somewhere in-between. We would get a hundred legitimate complaints about the site each day. My job was to make sure that only two or three of those complaints made it to our engineering team.
Eventually, we did hire a real VP of Engineering, and I was out of a job. But not until the website that I “engineered” had raised $7 million in additional venture financing.
Fast forward two years, and I was arbitrarily anointed as our VP of Revenue. And in that capacity, I quickly learned the reason why so few advertising-based startups can earn VC funding. It’s because Silicon Valley investors, many of whom made their fortune in semi-conductors, are scared to death of Madison Avenue, and pretty much anything related to the fickle and incoherent world of New York City. It’s a natural divide, and one that still confounds the venture capital world.
So what exactly was a “VP of Revenue,” when we already had a highly-experienced VP of Sales? Well, our VP of Sales was alone in New York, and he knew absolutely nothing about technology or, to be perfectly honest, what anyone else in the company actually did. That included the dozen engineers and designers who he assumed now worked for him.
Thus, with my bullshit title in hand, I flew back and forth between New York and San Francisco innumerable times, to put out the Molotov cocktails that our VP of Sales was unknowingly lobbing at our engineering team — and vice-versa. And by the time I removed all of the grenade shrapnel from my Kevlar vest, we had exceeded our revenue goal in eight straight quarters.
In short, I can’t take credit for our website, as I never wrote a single line of code. Nor can I point to my own efforts in generating revenue. I never sold a damn thing. But there is absolutely no way that we would have achieved what we did, had I not spent five years “bridging the natural divides” that could have — and should have — undermined or destroyed us.
Ultimately, it is incumbent upon every founder to define, hopefully in an eloquent statement, what he really does. And it is rare that his job title, even if it contains accuracies, truly defines what he does.
As a founder, you are entitled to the dignity that comes with a transparent understanding of your value. And your investors should know what they’re getting in you.
My advice is to figure this mystery out before some corporate development tool does it for you.