Representation and Startups

Charlie Crystle recently wrote an interesting post about honest self-representation among entrepreneurs. Assessing roles and contributions in early-stage startups can be tough. Ideas tend to morph quickly, there can be a lot of input from different communities, and The Cult of the Inventor tends to dictate history.

Because startups go through several phases before achieving exit or maturity, key contributors who join along the way often have little appreciation for what came before them and little appetite for what has to be done after they leave. And there’s no shortage of ego in the mix.

The term founder can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Founders usually:

  • Create and shape an idea
  • Create a company
  • Fund or get funding for the company
  • Bring in resources to help execute on the plan

There are myriad books and articles on founders and founding but here’s some dumb advice to anyone who has worked at an early-stage startup and hopes to leverage that experience into another opportunity:

  • If you joined a startup as an employee with a paycheck and others worked long and hard, often without compensation, to create what you’ve joined, give credit where credit is due. You may think that you’re creating all the value going forward, but don’t underestimate the value of what you’ve been given to work with.
  • Don’t inflate your role; don’t diminish the role of anyone else. It may seem tempting to claim sole ownership of something you worked on; it may be equally tempting to marginalize the achievements or involvement of someone else. This is usually transparent, and while it won’t help you, if discovered, it will hurt you.
  • If you were an early employee, but didn’t found, co-found, help conceive of, incubate, encourage, or inspire the creation of the company, don’t say you did. There is plenty of glory and compensation for being an early employee, architect, product maven or leader. And, while being a founder per se probably won’t open any doors, saying you were one when you were not will definitely shut doors.
  • Be careful about characterizing your involvement in fundraising, and be
    prepared to support any claims you’ve made with references. The people who raised the money are the people the VCs/investors believe were instrumental in their investment.

A final note, which should go without saying, but sadly, can’t: When it comes to characterizing your background and that of others, don’t be a jerk. Even if you think you came into a broken situation and turned things around, or if think you created something that someone else subsequently came in and destroyed, simply focus on your achievements in the context of the team and own your mistakes. Avoid assessing blame or implying fault- it will only raise questions and engender ill will and it won’t help you.

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