When is Founder Ego Too Much?

"Where does confidence end, and baseless ego take over? As Founders we're constantly challenged to bet on ourselves and "go with our gut." Yet is there a point where we're no longer being confident and instead just being egomaniacs?"

April 26th, 2023   |    By: Wil Schroter    |    Tags: Emotional Support

When is our ego an asset and when is it our greatest enemy?

The startup world is loaded with big egos, and if we're being honest, it kind of needs to be. We operate in one of the most insecure environments there is, where everyone is creating something out of nothing and hoping that next week they can simply make payroll. Without a little overconfidence, that's not an easy path to follow.

But that same overconfidence, when it's just pure ego, can also be our downfall. There's a point where we're no longer just confident, we're actually starting to lose our self-awareness altogether, and that's a dangerous spot. Many Founders don't even see it happening.

We Treat Assumptions like Facts

Early in our startups, we're forced to make a lot of big decisions, from product details to pricing strategy to the copy on our homepage. As the startup evolves, we develop strong opinions on what the product and market should be, and like all startups, we debate endlessly over these decisions.

The debates are healthy, but when we start substituting "I think" with "I know", particularly around things that we could not possibly know, our egos become a problem. For example, when we're determining the price of a product, we don't really know what the price is until we've tested enough variants to let the data tell a story.

Just because we feel strongly about our initial assumptions doesn't make them facts. One of the best techniques I've found to dispel this issue with myself and everyone in the room is to open up with "Before we begin, let's agree that none of us knows the answer as a fact. So let's talk about what to test, not what we think we know." It gives everyone in the room, particularly ourselves, the agency to be wrong.

We Think the Problem is Everyone Else

As our team expands, and problems arise (it's always more problems...) we start to see the chinks in the organization. We see salespeople miss targets, dev timelines slip, and marketing campaigns fall short. We jump into meetings to rally the teams and find out who missed the mark and try to correct them.

There are generally two ways to address problems - to make them "our fault" or to make them "someone else's fault." When nothing is "our fault" we've got a big problem. As the Founder and leader of the organization, everything is ultimately our fault. If sales miss their targets then it's our fault that we employed, managed, and delivered a bad outcome.

What's worse is when we refuse to even consider ourselves as the root of the problem. If we have a toxic culture where people are constantly infighting - that's on us. Every time we "blame the organization" we're implicitly making an indictment on our own ability to manage a company.

We Can't Admit Defeat

In the worst-case scenario, we steer the ship to the bottom of the ocean. It's actually the default condition for most startups, but we don't ever see it that way. Once the revenue slows, the funding dries up, and our exuberant staff is updating their LinkedIn profiles, we go from trying to build the company to trying to save it.

There's a line between fighting for the future of our startup — we do this for most of its life — and simply not being able to admit defeat. The question I often ask Founders is "Are you playing to win at this point or are you playing to simply not lose?" When a startup has no future and we're simply trying to avoid the ego shock of failure (we all do) then it's really about us, not the startup.

In every case, our ego is our worst enemy. It's the manifestation of a lack of self-awareness, insecurity, and immaturity. We need to manage it the way we would manage anyone else on our team, by zooming out and asking what its motivations are and whether it's a good team player. Chances are, not so much!

In Case You Missed It

The Cost of Toxic Employees (podcast) We all know the value of having a star player on our team. But what about the opposite? Wil and Ryan discuss how to identify and handle toxic teammates before their impact spreads across the organization.

How Does a Founder Get Fired? Fired as the Founder — totally a dream, or a nightmare come true?

Fighting Cynicism In Company Culture What are the root causes of cynicism? And how we keep it from contaminating our company?

About the Author

Wil Schroter

Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes BizplanClarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.

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