A devastating disease is affecting entrepreneurs. It can strike at any time, in a project’s wide-eyed infancy or years after it has launched. Those afflicted are sometimes the last to know. The illness first strikes the founder, then soon takes down the entire enterprise. It’s called Founder’s Syndrome, and it can happen to you.
Thankfully, Founder’s Syndrome is not a medical condition. It describes what can happen to the person who starts an entrepreneurial project. Symptoms tend to crop up after a business has been up and running for a while, when the founder is unable (or unwilling) to accept feedback or assistance from others or the organization has evolved but the founder sticks rigidly to outdated priorities. But even when your project is still getting off the ground, other related symptoms can emerge.
Left unchecked, Founder’s Syndrome can be the undoing of even the most innovative of enterprises. While no one will ever die from it, if the Mayo Clinic were to write a summary of what is involved, it might go something like this . . .
Symptoms and Causes
Early on, you work tirelessly on every aspect of your project. If it’s your big idea to produce an opera then, dagnabbit, you will do everything for it, from photocopying music to driving nails into flats. But after sacrificing a few weekends to work on it, you find yourself steeped in resentment for the very thing you created. At the same time, your passionate work ethic might spawn an inability to delegate. It’s your baby, you say to yourself, and you’re the only one who can do everything right.
You also might experience poor time management caused by perfectionism: that e-blast was fine to begin with, but you spent another three hours tweaking it. All your hard work makes you feel as if the world owes you something—whether it’s a wealthy patron you think should have donated already or a collaborator who hasn’t read your mind that you could use some help (or perhaps is intimidated by your perfectionism or put off by your inability to delegate).
And these are just the issues that can crop up at the beginning. True Founder’s Syndrome is manifested later in an organization’s life, when the infrastructure for decision making, power sharing, and even work delegation still reflects a start-up spirit. In a typical scenario, a strong personality or personalities dominate all aspects of a project’s operations. Other people involved do not feel empowered or authorized to initiate change, allowing the status quo to persist. The organization collectively loses sight of the fact that a nonprofit exists for the benefit of the public, not one person’s gain. Morale suffers as the people involved no longer feel a sense of ownership about their work, and the quality of programming deteriorates. Funders may lose confidence, and the whole situation becomes a vicious cycle.
Despite its name, it’s not just founders who can exhibit signs of Founder’s Syndrome. It can happen to any leader or small group of leaders who start the organization, lead it successfully through difficult times, transform a project, or who have simply been at the helm for a long time. Strong personalities with a yen for the limelight are particularly susceptible (which, unfortunately, describes many of us singers!).
So what’s wrong with a personality-driven enterprise if it’s been working all along? Well, the qualities needed to get a project off the ground aren’t always the same ones needed to keep it going.
A start-up often involves one or a handful of people playing many roles. That is fine, but frequently that means that there are no mechanisms in place to create checks and balances. This can create problems over time, especially when it comes to financial matters. If no one has to approve the founder’s spending, for example, money can easily be unwisely spent or go missing.
Fundraising also suffers during a bout of Founder’s Syndrome. Foundations will be unlikely to support a project that does not use professional bookkeeping, for example. Individual donors need to know that the organization will last longer than any one person’s involvement. Overcommitted personnel and shrinking funding that come just as an organization is beginning to grow can spell disaster.
Moreover, if a founder’s decision-making authority is too large and is not kept in check by a board or other staff members, it has the effect of diminishing enthusiasm for everyone involved. People tire of obeying a micromanager and can lose sight of the mission. The situation becomes susceptible to a mutiny, and a founder can find herself on the outs of the very organization that she started.
Tests and Diagnosis
In general, if a project has been active and growing for around five years but the leadership structure has not changed to reflect that growth, the whole organization should consider the possibility of Founder’s Syndrome. For example, a small board of friends and family members that rubber stamps the founder’s decisions is acceptable during an organization’s infancy. But as it matures, the board needs to rigorously assure good financial practices and a business infrastructure that will support continued success. This might mean standing up to a founder’s ideas. Having ideas for a music project does not qualify the founder to make every business decision.
Another test is to examine the roles that the founder plays. If you, as a founder are still wearing multiple hats (music librarian, set builder, bookkeeper, leading soprano, etc.), you likely have not delegated enough responsibility to others. One question to ask is “What would happen to this project if the founder were no longer doing most of the work?” If the answer is “fold,” then you’ve got a diagnosis.
The best way to treat Founder’s Syndrome is to prevent it from happening. From the beginning, surround yourself with supporters, but also with people who are willing to ask the tough questions and deliver bad news if that is what you need to hear. As a founder, you have to be passionately devoted to your vision, to seek out others who are equally inspired, and to work ceaselessly to make your ideas come true. But then once you have some accomplishments, you have to be equally enthusiastic about delegating work and accepting ideas for improvement.
As for resentment, consider it perfectly normal and work through it. This project is your baby—but babies take a lot of work and sometimes they aren’t the best company. But no one asked you to start this project, so don’t expect anyone to volunteer to help you out of the blue. You launched this endeavor not just because you wanted to promote yourself (right?), but because you were committed to realizing an artistic goal. Anyone who has the potential to help you will be motivated by that goal and their chance to make a meaningful contribution toward it. In order for that to happen, you as a founder have to share leadership by fostering trust, respect, and mutual support among your collaborators.
For example, if you want to start producing operas, you might benefit from at least assisting with every aspect of the production. You will quickly discover where your strengths lie and what you need to outsource. Maybe you were crackerjack at juggling 30 cast members’ schedules but could not sew a costume if your life depended on it. But in order for others to help you and take ownership of their work, you have to communicate your confidence in them by allowing them to contribute their interpretation of your artistic goals, even if they are not exactly what you first had in mind.
Lifestyle and Home Remedies
It is easy to get your emotions caught up in a project that you are starting. We all too easily evaluate ourselves on the basis of the success or failure of our endeavors, and a musical undertaking is especially public. Take a moment to make sure that you are not launching a music project to meet some unmet need, such as a desire for approval. For that matter, it’s good practice to keep your self-image independent from anything in your professional life.
If none of these steps works for you, your personality, or the enterprise you’ve started, you’ve got two alternatives: end the project or you get out. Without managing your own expectations and being flexible to adapt to the changing needs of the business, the project might be better off with you as the director emeritus—or else the situation might breed infighting, mistrust, and a loss of confidence.
If you begin a project with an understanding of your own limitations and the expectation that at some point you will stumble into mistakes, your case of Founder’s Syndrome will not be as severe. Once you have that pie-in-the-sky vision of artistic success, take some time to think about the whole life of the project—and where you will fit in.
Is this something you plan on doing only for a few years, on a limited scope, and with no particular goal? For example, producing chamber music concerts until your career takes off. In that case, you can simply stop doing it when you would like, and no one is worse off for it.
But if you are starting something that you would like to see continue for a long time, build some planned obsolescence into your initial groundwork. That is, your own obsolescence.
Say you teach music to at-risk teenagers through a local community center. And say you teach them how to improvise their own musical theatre show. And maybe over the years you keep doing it, develop a curriculum, and train other teachers. Before you know it, you’re ready to launch your own nonprofit. You are now the creator and leader of a wonderful enterprise that can potentially enrich lives for years to come. But a project of that scope is no longer all about you. It needs capable, dedicated teachers to carry on the programming. It needs a constantly replenished supply of donors who will find inspiration in the mission, no matter who is doing the work. It will need professional staff to balance the books, raise money, and keep things running smoothly. As talented and as visionary as you might be, you can’t do all of this. And even if you could, you can’t do it forever.
So from the very beginning, plan an exit strategy for yourself as the founder. It may sound counterintuitive, but it will ensure a fair balance of power and a network of people devoted to the cause. If all goes well over the course of a project, more collaborators—volunteers, fellow artists, paid staff, board members, etc.—will get involved while the founder eventually transitions to an advisory role.
With a little advance planning and a few reality checks, you and your artistic project can lead happier, healthier—and most importantly—longer lives.