Elon Musk is not Elon Musk
By Alex Crompton, Director EF Singapore
Perspective for insecure founders
On Friday night I had an emotional conversation. The founder I was speaking with felt like quitting. They’re afraid they don’t have what it takes.
But they’re wrong.
They have what it takes. I know because I’ve had an identical conversation with almost every founder I’ve worked with.
The problem is perspective.
Starting a startup is like assembling Frankenstein’s monster.
In the beginning, you have literally nothing. It’s a startup — that’s the point. No customers, no product, no team. All you have is the hope that it’ll work out eventually.
Limb by limb you try to breathe life into the beast, praying each new piece works as intended. More often than not, it doesn’t. Customers aren’t keen after all, the product is harder than you thought, and no-one wants to join your ‘project’.
Even when something finally works, the result is never what you expect. You’ve created a monster. Customers pay buttons and expect brilliance, the product is being rewritten again, and your team is simultaneously demanding and incompetent.
A startup going well is almost as hard as one going badly. Inside, every startup I’ve ever seen is a mess. Body parts are not where they should be.
If you want to know how it feels to be chased by an 8 foot monster, the best way is to start a company.
Even the best founders become insecure.
How could it be any other way? You’re doing something new. Not just new to you, but new to the world. You couldn’t possibly know what you’re doing.
You can get advice, of course. But memorising cookbooks won’t make you Gordon Ramsey. You only learn by doing.
Besides, often there’s no cookbook. If it’s a good idea, either no-one knows or no-one knows how: otherwise, someone would have done it already.
If you’re feeling insecure, you’re doing it right. The best founders know they’re close to failure, all the time.
You might be smart and your odds might be different to most. But if you’re smart, you know what can go wrong. You’re creating a monster, and you should be terrified by every limb you attach.
Half truth superheroes
This puts founders in an unusual predicament. You need to convince investors to invest, customers to buy, and employees to work.
But how do you get someone to invest in a wretched monster? To buy a product that doesn’t exist? To work for an insecure amateur?
The truth is, you lie.
You know it’s a monster. You know you don’t know. You see the end is near. But they don’t, so don’t bring it up.
Tell them what could be. Tell them your best guess. Tell them what keeps you going. Then keep going. This is what successful founders do: whatever it takes to succeed.
This isn’t misleading, it’s leadership. Stories in the press, stories at events, stories over coffee — not always a lie, but never the whole truth. What you say is whatever’s most useful.
Half truths make founders seem like superheroes. And we like superheroes.
Half truths don’t make success easier. They just make it possible.
I used to think hard things came easy to certain people. Now I realise hard things are just, well, hard.
Your perspective makes a difference.
I learned this from my Dad. Growing up, I saw him work hard. He worked endlessly to escape his poor upbringing. Years of 5am starts, financial problems, and personal anxiety took it’s toll: his body started breaking; his friends fell away; and his marriage was jeopardised.
My Dad worked hard for 40 years. In the worst moments, we were scared he didn’t have what it took. I know he almost quit. Almost.
Now, he is a great man. Earlier this year, he sold the company he founded and retired. Ask his team, he’s a confident, fearless leader. Ask his investors, they always knew he could do it. Ask the press, he’s a big company CEO.
He has what it takes, after all.
When I meet a founder who seems like a superhero, I think of my Dad. When I meet a founder who isn’t, I think of my Dad. Now, I know the whole truth.
Founders aren’t superheroes.
I’ll bet even Elon Musk isn’t much like Elon Musk. Just ask his kids.