One might say that great founders build great organizations. But, one might also say, average individuals create “me too” companies. And incompetent individuals fail at business.
A companies culture reflections the personality of the founder who created it. Great companies do not happen accidentally—their founders created, nurtured, and grew them.
- Before You Can Be a Great Founder, You Must First Dare
- It may be Difficult, But its Easier If You Learn How To Act Like a Hero
- Start Today — Take the First Step
- Overview: The Great Founder Theory
- Two Key Challenges To Being a Great Founder
- Three Great Founders
- Conclusion: Don’t Be Afraid to Think Different
- On Site Resources
- Related Pages
Before You Can Be a Great Founder, You Must First Dare
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Act II Scene 5 of Twelfth Night. — William Shakespeare
If you want to be a manger, work for a corporation. If you want to do something great, be an entrepreneur.
Entrepreneurs who think like a manager will fail. For one thing, you can’t manage a team ‚ you lead a team. You can’t manage change, you learn and you adapt. You don’t manage risk, you face down fear. You won’t always succeed, you will also fail. You never fall back, you need to fall forward. You have to have the courage to DARE.
Start Today — Take the First Step
See the online short courses you need to enhance your success.
It may be Difficult, But its Easier If You Learn How To Act Like a Hero
“We Can Be Heroes” — David Bowie
“You grow yourself the way a tree grows—from the inner to the outer.” — M. Johannsen.
Start Today — Take the First Step
“Anyone can captain a ship in smooths seas. But it takes a great man to guide a ship through the storm.” — Unknown
Overview: The Great Founder Theory
We can learn a great deal about how to grow a business from those who have done it (Branson, 2000), (Isaacson, 2011), (Smith, 2012).
“I remember years ago sitting in the initial management class in an MBA program. Fortunately, the professor teaching this course was an engineer who founded a successful engineering services company. It was a joy hearing him describe how theory worked in the real world; damn, he was a great storyteller.
One of the things I’ve never forgotten, even though that class occurred many years ago, was a theory that explained entrepreneurial success— one primarily overlooked in today’s textbooks on management. At that time, the theory was known as the “great man” theory. Today we are more likely to use the phrase “great person” or “great individual.” However, the assumption underlying the theory is a deceptively simple one: One might also say, average individuals, create “me too” companies. And incompetent individuals fail at business.” — Murray Johannsen, personal story.
“Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night – Act 2, Scene 5)
Great companies don’t happen by chance. They don’t sprout up like flowers in the garden of the marketplace. Instead, they germinate and are cultivated by exceptional individuals who, against all odds, succeed. And you do not need a business degree to become a great entrepreneur.
Two Key Challenges To Being a Great Founder
It’s sometimes said markets are analogous to a sea, with organizations sailing these seas as ships. A management degree prepares individuals for living and working on large ships. It helps one to serve as the crew of this vessel, either at the operational level or in the officer ranks. Among millions doing, a few lucky, highly motivated individuals ascend into the captain’s chair (CEO). These are vast crafts, with the best technology, with a large number of individuals on the crew, sailing well-defined navigation paths, finding fish where they were seen before.
Contrast this to an entrepreneurial company that starts with a captain but no crew. The founder sails a small, leaky boat with a sail full of holes through unfriendly, treacherous seas. The captain of this unsafe vessel hopes to find a large school of fish, but navigation maps aren’t accurate, and he’s dead reckoning the best course. This captain must keep finding fish, plug the leaks, stitch a better sail, hire a crew, and build a better boat — all at the same time.
Challenge 1: The Problem With Business Education
“If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”— Abraham Maslow.
We see an intense focus on management in all aspects of the entrepreneurial start-up. There is a natural preoccupation with raising money, customer acquisition, the business model, and often the business plan.
Yet, in strength, there is also a weakness. In the single-minded focus on management or technology, we see the neglect of other vital areas that should not be ignored. Successful entrepreneurs must manage but must be more than a manager.
What has been forgotten? Essentially, great individuals found great companies. Therefore, it’s Job 1 for entrepreneurs to evolve into Great Entrepreneurs while building the business.
Challenge II: The Entrepreneur is Always an Unfinished Work
To become a great entrepreneur, you must keep evolving, growing, and changing. Great Entrepreneurs are:
- Self-aware enough to know their strengths and weaknesses,
- People follow them because they are transformational leaders,
- They model the successful, and they strive for self-mastery,
- and do not stop until they become wise.
To be a Great Founder, you never stop growing your skills. It’s continuous personal improvement now and forever. I remember Abraham Lincoln’s saying, “I do not think much of the man who is not better today than he was yesterday.”
One might ask, why should the primary focus of the Founders be on improving themselves? Shouldn’t it be about the business, the technology, the money? It’s a good question. When I got the MBA, it was an article of faith that it’s all about the organization. Still is, actually. And if you want to be a caretaker executive in a multinational corporation, this makes sense.
But I’m assuming you want to be a Founder of something that will last a long time. OK, this is an assumption on my part. Some you won’t do a quick harvest of the business, walk away with a small amount of cash and a story for the grandkids. Or maybe you’re going for the fast cash from investors who will take control of your business after a Series B or C.
One might say that a management degree allows you to play a well-defined role inside the box of bureaucracy. The entrepreneur, though, faces an environment of chaos and uncertainty, with worry, anxiety, and fear sailing companions as they try to figure out how to keep their boat from sinking with them in it.
For many years my students have been studying famous entrepreneurs and presenting their insights on what made them great. After seeing these presentations for twenty years, you see patterns, whether the great person was someone from Asia, Europe, or other lands. For example, many greats have no university education yet become billionaires (Li Ki-Shing, Richard Branson).
Others don’t bother to complete college (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, David Geffin). They come from all economic strata and countries. And yet, there was something about them that achieved fame.
The history of business is full of famous men and women who started companies that have become well-known name brands today.
Just a quick sampling of famous entrepreneurs (with a significant focus on America).
Three Great Founders
I have spent many years studying great individuals and believe they think differently than others. So it would make sense when you think about it, that there’s something fundamentally different in how they act and make decisions.
Steve Jobs presents the archetypal case of the Great Founder (Isaacson, 2011). Like other billionaire entrepreneurs, he never received a college education and never went to business school. I suppose a cynic might say that a reason he was successful relates to never having learned the theory base of how to manage a corporation. In Jobs’s case, he had to make things up as he went.
“So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We want to do it. Pay our salary, and we’ll work for you.’ And they said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.”— Don Clark-Big Dog, How to Try to Stop Great Ideas.
But success for Jobs was not an easy road to travel. After experiencing early success, he was fired by the board and left Apple. This was the beginning of what you might call the wilderness years.
His stay in the wilderness lasted nearly 12 years, during which time he started two companies. Next was a software company Jobs sold to Apple for $400 million. It contained some software that became the basis for Apple’s OS X operating system. And, of course, Pixar, which was sold to Disney in 2006 for 7.4 billion and a seat on the Disney board (MSNBC, 2006). But in his heart, he still cared about Apple.
“It’s as if Apple is an old fiancée from college that Steve met again at a 20-year class reunion,” Ellison told Fortune magazine in March. “Steve is happily married now with children and has a great life. When he meets his old girlfriend again, she’s an alcoholic, running around with a bad crowd and making a mess of her life. Even so, in his mind’s eye, he still sees the beautiful woman he once thought was the love of his life. So what’s he supposed to do? Of course, he doesn’t want to marry her anymore, but he can’t just walk away because he still cares about her.” — Larry Ellison on Steve Jobs, Fortune Magazine, March 1997
The company was close to a real fiscal cliff when he returned to Apple. He found his child, his baby suffering declining sales and dwindling cash to fund operations. However, he was asked back by the board and paid a dollar a year to revitalize the company, and the rest is history.
Great Founder Case # 2: Bill Gates
Bill Gates is another genuinely exceptional individual who became famous as he continued to evolve. Not only is he a success in the for-profit sector, but he and his wife Melinda also have a foundation focused on health care and education.
This video is from an interview at Harvard where he discussed his days at Microsoft as the head of a successful social enterprise.
Potential Great Founder Ludwick Marishane: A Bath Without Water
This is an excellent example of what it takes to be successful. But, you will note, that this is not about sitting in a university classroom cooking up a business plan.
Conclusion: Don’t Be Afraid to Think Different
“The key to success is to focus our conscious mind on things we desire, not things we fear.” — Brian Tracy.
“A superior man thinks of what is right; a small man thinks of what is popular. A superior man demands much from himself, and A small man demands much of others. A superior man does not accept his lot in life, A small man is full of complaints.” See Video: A & E Biography: Confucius: Words of Wisdom, (21:20).
On Site Resources
McKinsey: Leadership Development for Competitive AdvantageTransformational leaders have to be concerned more than numbers. Great businesses are also concerned about developing talent. After all, if your people keep making the same mistakes repeatedly, maybe you should intervene.
Branson, Richard (2000). Losing My Virginity. Virgin Paperbacks
Collins, Jim (2001). Good To Great. HarperBusiness
Freeland, Chrystia (2012). Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-rich. The Penguin Press.
Isaacson, Walter (2011). Steve Jobs. Simon and Shuster.
Reinhart, Carmen and Rogoff, Kennith (2011). This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, Princeton University Press.
Surowiecki, James (2004). The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few. Anchor Publishing.
First Published: March 16, 2014. Last Updated July 21, 2023