The Founder’s Trap: Responding From Identity

Me Is Not My Company

Entrepreneurs/founders who want their company to achieve massive growth, “What is my identity and is it holding me back from what I desire?”

To get a real, useful, and/or precise answer about what they desire from life and business, they must learn to not respond from their current identity.

Lately, I’ve been reading some articles from Scott Adams’ (of Dilbert fame), which say they are about persuasion and persuasion techniques, but I see them as ultimately about identity. One recent article was on persuasion and climate change science.  Can we, laymen, really know a topic such as climate change without being a climate scientist? Adams argues that we probably can’t. But why then do so many people have strong convictions about this topic, for or against — as if they have TRUE and full knowledge? Their beliefs about climate change rhetoric (not science) have become part of their identity and they can no longer have a rational and objective discussion on this topic.

Founder’s Trap: I Made It. It’s Mine.

With entrepreneurs, I’ve found that they often set up an irrational identity around having created something from nothing. The business would not exist without them, therefore their logic goes, it won’t continue to exist without their direct involvement.

I’ve gotten questions about this frequently over the last few years:

“Okay, let’s say I’m no longer involved in the day to day functioning of my business (subtracted out of all jobs in the company), what do I do then?”

Let me stress that this is an existential crisis for them.  I don’t even know how to write in a way that conveys the angst they express when asking, “What will I do?”

Caught In The Founder’s Trap

If your identity is wrapped around you being the reason for your company’s existence (i.e. the entrepreneur or founder), you’ll not be able to see into a future where your company doesn’t need you to thrive.  You’ll, consciously or unconsciously, set up chaos in your company so that it requires you — you become the arsonist and firefighter all in one.

The identity of Founder or Entrepreneur holds many back from moving up to a manager let alone an executive… or even the pinnacle, an owner.  

Most entrepreneurs are making decisions as a technician in their business — “I’m good at coding therefore I should code in my business.”  Most of these companies don’t exceed $1 million in annual revenue because the business model is tied to the productivity of the founder.

Some move to frontline management — “My team is good at coding so I’ll keep them on track by being a project manager.”  This kind of management, sometimes, allows the company to grow into the low millions.  But even then, the company is capped by the founder’s productivity — capped at his ability to juggle a lot of projects.

A few get to the executive level — “I make sure the people in my company, from technicians to managers, have the resources they need to fulfill my vision for the company.”  This company becomes limited by the creativity of the founder and his ability to let others lead within the company.  Many can’t let go of command-and-control management even at the executive level.  

Almost no one makes it to the owner level — “I collect a check each quarter and meet with my executives periodically to see that the company is in good health.” Most founders that get even remotely close to owner level sell before they have a chance to take on the Owner identity.  

Escaping The Founder’s Trap

So back to the question of “what do I do if I don’t have to work in my company?”

When founders are free of the daily grind that they’ve become accustomed to, they and their business is poised for a Vertical Leap. I used to tell my clients about all of the opportunities that will arise when they are freed of daily labor.  Then I stopped… because their identity wasn’t ready for it. Those opportunities just sounded mythical.

I jokingly say, “you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” Because until I can get their behavior to shift from technician to manager to executive, their identity will remain fixed.  They’ll remain stuck in the “I’m an entrepreneur and the reason for my company’s existence.”

Working with a client for a year or more allows them a chance to take on a new belief system that keeps lower level behaviors from resurfacing. One of my clients has made huge strides in the last 7 months, but every few weeks will have an old belief pop up that gets him thinking he should be doing a lower level activity in his business — even though he has a trustworthy, competent team who would eagerly accomplish the task for him.

Take a look at how you behave in your business. Are you acting as a technician, a manager, an executive, or an owner?

How you are acting now is a product of the identity that you’ve assumed.

Also see: Paul Graham’s article about identity written back in 2009. Read it here, it’s worth it: