The path of a startup founder is a difficult one. Part commander, pioneer, and obsessive artist, a founder needs to wear many hats to make his/her vision come true.
A founder needs to have a combination of stubbornness, charisma, resourcefulness, and single-minded focus to overcome the many difficulties that come with starting a new enterprise.
But once the business becomes well established and it’s ready to grow, a surprisingly common illness strikes. The very same personality traits that helped the founder get the business going start to become an issue.
These founders become afflicted with Founder’s Syndrome.
What is Founder’s Syndrome?
Founder’s syndrome is a malady that affects a founder who has an excessive personal attachment to the company and hoards most of the power in the organization.
Sufferers of founder’s syndrome refuse to delegate responsibilities, make most decisions (regardless of how big or small they are), and fear changes that might derail their original vision.
Instead of working towards its overall mission, the organization operates according to the whims of the founder. Although the name of the syndrome might indicate that it’s a problem that only affects one person, in practice, it’s an organizational problem that affects the entire organization.
Why does Founder’s Syndrome happen?
More than anyone else, founders invested blood, tears and sweat into getting the company off the ground. If it wasn’t for the founder, the organization wouldn’t exist.
But that effort also causes the founder to become attached to the company. It’s not unusual for founders to refer to the company as their baby. While there’s nothing wrong in feeling pride and a certain level of ownership over something you helped create, just like a real an organization grows over time, and its needs change.
The personality traits that a founder needs to have in order to start a company (stubbornness, charisma, resourcefulness, and single-minded focus) aren’t always the best ones to have for a company to run smoothly after it’s been founded successfully.
Some founders refuse to accept that reality. Due to a combination of personal attachment, stubbornness and ego, sufferers of founder’s syndrome refuse to delegate responsibilities.
Because they were directly responsible for bringing the company into the world, they feel that they will always be the best qualified person to make all decisions, and that without them, the company would fail.
As a result, they ignore input from other board members, and avoid implementing organizational changes in fear that could derail their original vision. They maintain a firm grip on all decisions both big and small, and refuse to even talk about a succession plan.
This refusal to delegate responsibilities and accept the inevitability of change always leads to problems in the organization. And if left untreated, it has the potential to seriously damage or even destroy the organization
Symptoms of founder’s syndrome
Sufferers of founder’s syndrome rarely notice their affliction. It’s usually other board members and employees who notice these symptoms, and feel concerned about them.
But if you’re a founder and have heard whisperings of founder’s syndrome, keep an eye out for these symptoms.
The organization's public image is indistinguishable from its founder
The company’s inner circle is mostly made up of close friends and family members of the founder.
New hires are chosen according to their personal loyalty to the founder, not according to their skills and experience.
Disagreement with the founder is actively discouraged.
The founder constantly sabotages any attempts to create systems and controls that may eliminate his/her needs to micromanage tasks.
Although the founder does hire experts, their opinion and insight is typically ignored.
The founder acts as if he/she is a visionary with near-supernatural instincts about the industry (even if he/she lacks experience or technical training to warrant that feeling).
The company has no succession plans. If the founder goes, the company does too.
The company lacks long term success metrics. And any attempt to establish them is avoided or resisted by the founder.
When the founder is forced to delegate responsibilities, he/she publicly resents it.
Who is vulnerable?
Regardless of personality types, or the nature of the industry, any founder or organization could become affected by founder’s syndrome. But there are three personality types that are particularly vulnerable:
Thanks to their extroverted nature, charming disposition, and fearlessness, ESTPs are some of the most likely personality types to become organization founders. Here at Typefinder, we describe ESTPs as “the Dynamo”, but there’s a reason why ESTP’s have also earned the nickname “the Entrepreneurs.”
ESTPs posess an abundance of energy, ambition and hunger for success. They love trying out new things, and questioning established norms and ways of doing things.
They are usually quite intelligent, and are well aware of it. But instead of simply learning things for the sake of accumulating a vast amount of abstract knowledge, ESTP’s enjoy finding practical ways of using their knowledge. If they can’t figure out why it’s useful to learn something, they simply move on.
When it comes to dealing with differences of opinion, ESTP’s are also not fond of “beating around the bush.” They are direct, and take pride in calling things as they see them.
ESTPs are also very sociable. They love talking about subjects they are passionate about. And thanks to their infectious enthusiasm, they find it easy to persuade others into their points of view, making them natural leaders.
These qualities make ESTP’s amazing startup founders and visionaries. They find creative ways of securing capital and act as the driving force of a new business.
ESTPs absolutely hate feeling boxed in or constricted by norms and expectations. Although this dislike of the status quo helps ESTPs become innovators, it also gets them into trouble.
An organization can’t survive on innovation alone. It also needs to institute time tested methods and procedures that give predictable and measurable results.
This runs contrary to ESTPs tendency to want to try out the newest and latest paradigm, usually without consulting others in the organization. This of course, inevitably becomes a source of conflict.
Although ESTJs aren’t the first personality types to be associated with breaking new ground or challenging norms, when they do decide to become startup founders, they make extremely effective ones.
ESTJs love to create order by means of hard work, dedication and values. They bring a no-nonsense approach to management, and will happily assume the role of tireless leaders. When an ESTJ says they will do something, they mean it. And you better believe they will do anything in their power to get it done.
ESTJs aversion to disorder makes them great at establishing and implementing systems and rules. They usually have no problem delegating tasks effectively and objectively.
However, this aversion to change also make ESTJs prone to rigidity. They tend to view solutions and points of view in binary terms. Right or wrong.
As a result, they often fail to see that that there may be more than one way of overcoming challenges, and struggle to recognize that not everyone follows the same path or contributes in the same way.
ENTPs are typically extremely smart, intellectually curious, and cannot resist an intellectual challenge.
Their creative thinking skills allow ENTPs to excel at coming up with innovative solutions to problems, and finding ways of implementing them too.
ENTPs love learning new things, and are especially fond of mastering abstract and philosophical concepts. And unlike ESTPs, ENTPs do love learning for its own sake.
Their incredibly flexible mind lets immediately shift from one complex idea to the next. And due to their vast accumulated knowledge, they are extremely adept at proving their arguments, whether they actually believe in them or not.
ENTPs possess natural charisma and way with words that make them compelling to engage. In fact, even those who disagree with them tend to respect their ability to defend their points of view..
Thanks to their endless energy and enthusiasm, ENTPs are willing and able to put in long days and nights to find the answer to any problem they are tackling. On the other hand, ENTPs are some of the most argumentative people you would ever meet. There’s nothing they enjoy more than a good battle of ideas, regardless of how they actually feel about the subject matter.
Being so rational, ENTPs often push their ideas without regard of feelings, or the tolerance level of other, more agreeable personality types.
And unless their someone brings plenty of evidence to contradict their opinions, ENTPs will quickly dismiss opposing views (and even people).
The same mental flexibility that makes ENTPs adept at coming up with new and groundbreaking ideas make it very difficult for them to commit to one for the long run.
They get bored easily, and if there’s no conflict to overcome, they get restless (and may even create their own source of conflict).
Founders deserve our respect. If it wasn’t for their unshakable confidence, their charisma and their willingness to take risks, the world would be a completely different place.
But at the same time, it’s important that they understand that the scope of their role changes over time. They must be willing to meet expectations, and learn how to deal with others.
But if a founder is already afflicted with founder’s syndrome, not all hope is lost. There are ways to treat founder’s syndrome and bring the company back on track. We’ll take a look at how to deal with it in a future article.