Silicon Valley celebrates a certain kind of founder — the kind of person who will do whatever it takes to succeed, who isn’t afraid of breaking a few eggs to make an omelette, who looks at rules as challenges rather than limitations.
Not surprisingly, founders like that can get into trouble when they find themselves on a larger stage, and the past week has provided two stark examples: the founders of RadiumOne and GitHub.
Early-stage founders are used to relying on the ferocity of their vision to build something out of nothing. Creating a company is an epic undertaking that ends in failure for most founders — but for those that succeed, it leaves them with a sense of extreme confidence in their own abilities.
These founders often find it difficult to transition into the role of a more responsible, growth-oriented leader. That leads to the notion that “founders can’t scale” — though, of course, there are dramatic exceptions, and it is possible, with forethought and good sense, to avoid this fate.
Let me put it another way: Early-stage founders who have succeeded can sometimes be real jerks.
What might have passed for amusing earthiness in the early stages appears as obnoxious inappropriateness in a bigger company. Someone who is a high-fiving bro might be super successful in an early-stage company yet brashly inappropriate in a larger context.
And then there are people who do far worse. Gurbaksh Chahal, the founder and former CEO of advertising company RadiumOne, pled guilty to misdemeanor charges of domestic violence and battery following an incident in which he beat his girlfriend.
The incident was captured on Chahal’s own home security cameras and allegedly shows him hitting her 117 times. However, the tapes were ruled inadmissible in court because police had not followed proper procedures in seizing the evidence. Nevertheless, whether he hit his girlfriend once or 117 times, he pled guilty to the domestic violence and battery charges.
In light of that admission, RadiumOne’s board fired him as CEO of the company. It was the right thing to do: Someone who hits people is not a good choice to lead any kind of company, let alone a large advertising company with a bright future and a possible IPO in the works.
In a separate incident, Tom Preston-Werner, a cofounder of Github, was forced to resign his position as president of the company after accusations of sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior emerged. This situation is murkier, as an investigation by Github found no pattern of sexism — but it did find that Preston-Werner had made inappropriate choices, such as “confrontational conduct” and allowing his wife to work in the office.
In both cases, you’ve got terrifically successful founders who, it turns out, are flawed — perhaps deeply flawed — human beings. In both cases, those flaws became an obstacle to their continued success and, indeed, their appropriateness as leaders of the companies they had started.
It’s time to re-examine the myth that successful founders can be or should be jerks.
Sure, we’ve all heard the stories about how rude and blunt Steve Jobs could be. That doesn’t mean you have the right to act rudely and bluntly in your own startup. First of all, you’re not Steve Jobs. Second of all, Jobs succeeded in spite of his abrasiveness, not because of it.
Is there increased scrutiny on these companies because the economy is so hot and so much money is flowing into the sector? You bet.
But these founders aren’t being held to an unreasonable standard.
As Micah Baldwin said earlier this week in VentureBeat’s “What to Think” podcast, the way to stay out of trouble like this is to be a decent person.
It’s just that, in an early-stage company, you might be able to get away with being a jerk for longer. But if your company sticks around and grows up, sooner or later the truth will come out.
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