Years of floundering Founderism lie ahead

Companies matter less than the fact they were Founded – look at Joanna Riley’s 1-Page

1-Page founder Joanna Riley at the Web Summit

1-Page founder Joanna Riley at the Web Summit

 

I made a grievous error when, about 18 months ago, I wrote a column in which I pondered whether we had reached peak entrepreneur. 

I noted that the term had become infuriatingly commonplace. Who amongst us could not find some way to describe ourselves (with a back-patting little flourish) as an entrepreneur, no matter what we do (or don’t)? The true challenge is finding someone, somewhere who isn’t an entrepreneur. 

But looking back now, I am ashamed to say that I did not then properly consider an even more egotistically bloated term: founder. 

Founder as a standalone, preening noun. Understood always to be a bigly upper case Founder, even when written as lower case founder.

At some point in the past decade, ‘founder’ transitioned from being a utilitarian descriptive term typically used in brief factual reference to a person (Bob Smith is the founder of The Next Big Software Company) to a standalone signifier of supposed glory (Bob Smith is … a Founder). 

Founder: a term so self-important that it no longer need be connected to an actual company, the company itself mattering less than the fact that it was Founded. By a Founder. 

These days, on the Ego Airlines flight to Silicon Valley, all those riff-raff, commonplace, penny-a-dozen entrepreneurs are now seated down in the back of the plane, while the swaggering ‘Founder’ is the one in business class speaking loudly of his personal friendship with Elon. 

Vapourware

And yes, I know there are actual smart and capable founders (lower case) that have founded successful companies. Though come to think of it, none of those people ever seem to go about describing themselves as ‘a Founder (upper case)’ versus, say, ‘the founder of company X’.

‘Founder’ as a self-endowed job title is so terribly Silicon Valley. While the region likes to present itself as an egalitarian tech mecca, the Valley has always been equally as much about self-promotion, empty promises, vapourware (products promised but never delivered), the idolisation of wealth, and breathless, buzzword-laden song and dance marketing, targeting clients and/or investors.

The term ‘founder’ is too often, slick packaging for banal contents. It suggests an elite supergroup, smart cookies a cut (or three) above those dullard programmers and researchers.

But too many founders are people with an idea for a company, but no real expertise, no programming capability, no way to know if their idea can be implemented. But they like being a founder.

Or they are the reverse: people who really know how to code and have cool ideas. It’s just that there’s no business model that fits their idea. But they like being a founder.

In other words, shame about the company. But don’t despair! There’s a Founder!

Not that investors – even big-name Valley venture capitalists who invest in tech as a profession – are averse to plunging cash into those companies such founders found. A case in point for the whole sorry mess that can result is profiled in Forbes at the moment in a piece entitled The Startup That Went Down Under: The Rise And Fall Of 1-Page.

Pyjamas

It opens with a description of company founder Joanna Riley “in front of an audience at a Dublin technology event exuding confidence”.  Of course, the event is the Web Summit. 

“I started 1-Page in my pyjamas in my apartment 3½ years ago, and today it’s public for over half-a-billion dollars,” she told the audience. So far, so Web Summit. But, according to Forbes, 1-Page even at that point was mostly smoke and mirrors.  The company had used a reverse takeover to buy a dormant mining shell company in Australia, enabling it to go public in that country.

And while employees told Forbes there was basically no there there, when it came to an actual, functional product – and that the recruitment company had few clients or sales – investors nonetheless drove up 1-Page’s evaluation to the stellar heights boasted about from the Web Summit stage.

A week ago, it all ended in tears when the board “voted to cease company operations after consistent quarters of unprofitability, missed targets and a dizzying drop in share price that erased more than 90 per cent of the company’s value. The board also voted to remove Riley from the company she cofounded”.

Riley’s response? “After raising every dollar the company has ever had and building it with, you know, complete hope, it’s been taken away by someone,” she told Forbes.

A comment like that, in a story like this, should signify that we’ve also reached Peak Founder.

But look at the Valley, the broader global tech start-up space, the ‘unicorns’ with their $1 billions-plus evaluations but no profits (for years).

I fear we have many years yet of floundering Founderism ahead.

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