I AM NOT A FOUNDER
Note: This piece was originally published on SoJo Stories. It has been posted here with permission from the author.
I am not a Founder. There I said it. If you’re so inclined you can stop reading now. Step away and click on the next story of budding genius and flashes of brilliance.
The Founder story is everywhere. Founders are mythologized and worshipped, even if all they do is start something. You might be thinking: “All they do is start something! Do you know how hard it is to start something?!!” Yes. Yes I do. And I have the utmost respect for it. But sometimes it seems like all we talk about is the glorious startup story, and not the perseverance and intelligence it takes to follow through to become successful. If we keep telling such one sided stories and we’re not careful, pretty soon we’ll find ourselves in a situation where nine out of every ten startups fail. Oh wait.
I am not a Founder, but I am the CEO of a startup. It wasn’t my idea. I could tell you a story of how the idea came to me, but I won’t because that would be lying. It’s a great idea, nonetheless, and one I found so compelling I was willing to quit my job – my big, well paying, government job – to work on it. More on that part in a minute.
I’m not much of a dreamer. I don’t like blank canvases. I was never the creative type who would paint vivid word pictures of grand dreams about the future. I’m not a fan of that kind of thinking — in fact, in my previous life as political advisor, a big part of my job was to protect my boss from getting swept up in that sort of thing. I’m the kind of person who would rather spend my time planning than dreaming. And while I’ve found some others like me, everyday I spend in startup world makes it clear that we’re the minority.
Or at least it feels that way. No one seems to be interested in what the second hire has to say. Or the third. Or the fourth. But everyone wants to hear from the Founder, hoping perhaps that if we hear enough founding stories, the genius will rub off on us.
I am not a Founder. But I am the CEO of a company called SoJo. We’re building an online learning platform for social entrepreneurs — essentially a Khan Academy for people with no business background who want to launch startups with a social purpose. Just like how equipping STEM graduates with entrepreneurship skills has led to a flourishing startup digital economy, we think equipping Arts graduates with entrepreneurship skills will accelerate the growth of the startup social economy – where business is measured by its social impact, as well as its bottom line.
I joined SoJo as a volunteer, when it was still in its very early infancy. I was fascinated by the startup world, but didn’t think there was a place for me in it. I had never considered myself an entrepreneur. I always saw myself as an advisor and a builder — I wanted to analyze and implement ideas, not sell them. But social entrepreneurship appealed to me. As a concept, it seemed to have space for my policy wonkishness and my desire to build things, and was about more than just making money, which felt right.
I met Kanika Gupta, SoJo’s Founder, when I interviewed to volunteer with SoJo, and we clicked immediately. She was fresh out of school and had developed the idea for SoJo through her Master’s thesis in public administration. She had launched the concept only a few months prior to my joining and knew she would need help implementing it. One of the things that immediately drew me to her was her self-awareness that she was an ideas person – not necessarily an operations person – and that in order to succeed, she couldn’t do this alone. I found that kind of humility to be admirable and rare.
For the next eight months, we worked side by side as I helped her shape the strategy and business plan and took on partnership and development roles. I fell in love with SoJo and the experience of building something from the ground up, so in late February 2013, I decided to leave my job and join Kanika full time. We were both so excited for the next phase in this adventure. She had brought on some other team members — who were all amazing — but the two of us had really formed the executive team and by having me join full time, it felt like we were about to become unstoppable.
But like every compelling story, there’s an unfortunate plot twist. My last week at my job, Kanika took a bad fall and suffered a serious concussion. She had to step away from the company immediately and stop doing all work. I jumped in and went from volunteer to Acting CEO overnight, trying to keep the team, our partners and our funders all calm while we faced the tremendous uncertainty that comes with any brain injury.
At first doctors thought it would be six weeks or so before she could return to work. But brain injuries are fickle and mysterious, and soon six weeks became three months, then three months became six months and so on. Time passed, doctors upgraded it to a traumatic brain injury, and as 2013 came to an end, it was becoming clear that the Acting CEO role that I had stepped into because someone had to was about to become permanent. In January of 2014, I formally took over management of the company.
It was an emotionally turbulent year, a roller-coaster of fear, uncertainty, ambiguity and sadness as we came to terms with what was happening. To say this episode was a setback to our original plan is a massive understatement. Kanika is recovering well, improving every day, but it is highly unlikely that she will return to SoJo in the near future.
We had every excuse to quit and fail honourably. Kanika is the quintessential charismatic Founder and with the loss of her, no one would have judged us for giving up under the circumstances. But we’re a determined and resilient bunch, motivated by a deep desire to accomplish a goal that feels bigger than any one person. The idea of SoJo isn’t anyone’s baby – we’re all foster parents to the vision, motivated by the desire to see it grow up into a strong and successful company.
Last September we re-launched the company with a free public platform and in November, launched a specialized paid service to help colleges and universities develop social entrepreneurship programs targeted at Arts students. We’ve built an incredible team of dedicated employees and have persevered through more adversity in our startup phase than most businesses will ever know.
While we’ve adjusted it a little to make it our own, we continue to pursue the vision set by Kanika – though very few people involved today have ever met her. And while I never would have survived without the team around me, I’m incredibly proud of what I personally have been able to accomplish in the face of such a seemingly insurmountable challenge.
So that’s who I am. I’m not a Founder. I’m not a dreamer or a visionary. I’m not a game-changer or a rockstar – so if you’re looking to fill your bootcamp/panel/keynote with those kinds of people, don’t call me. I don’t tell those stories.
But I have a story to tell. I have experiences to share, experiences that aren’t being talked about enough, that a lot of people out there can relate to. There are more employees than Founders in the startup world, and they have been ignored for too long. Sometimes accidentally, but sometimes willfully, and always at our own peril.
Everyone sweats how many startups fail, but they don’t fail at being founded. And the Founder doesn’t fail at the goal of starting something. They just don’t follow through. If we glorified stories of those who follow through as much or more than we glorify those who launch, perhaps that might change. But if we want to change the story then we need to find new storytellers. And those people, like me, aren’t Founders.