A few decades ago, when tech startups were a brand new thing, the success stories of the first wave of tech giants were mostly attributed to the genius of the founder(s). It’s not difficult to see why—companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Google were changing the world at an unseen pace, so it definitely seemed that their founders and leaders had prophetic abilities.
These impressions were solidified by stories like Apple, who ousted Steve Jobs from the company in 1985. After more than a decade of troubles and middling success, the company decided to re-hire him as a CEO in 2000. Since his return to the helm, Apple managed to grow more than 200 times (from a $3B market cap to more than $620B a few months after his death).
Amazingly, if you believe that Jobs was the main reason for the company’s growth, then it would have been a sound financial decision for his board of directors to offer him a sizeable remuneration in order to get him back as CEO (when he returned, he did it for a salary of $1).
Because of stories like these, it’s not a surprise that a lot of investors are searching for charismatic, strong-handed, visionary leaders to place their bet on. Of course, cases like WeWork and Theranos display that putting too much faith in charismatic leaders without carefully investigating the underlying objective economic reality is a risky move by investors.
More importantly, “be a disruptive visionary” is not a piece of particularly useful advice to give to an aspiring startup founder. In fact, Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, seemed to mimic Steve Jobs (down to the black turtlenecks). Yet, while this helped her convince a lot of big investors to put their trust in her, it didn’t help her disrupt the healthcare industry and to create a real, profitable business.
To help aspiring founders succeed, you have to give advice that is much more actionable and that helps them understand what works in practice and what doesn’t.
Because of this, if you search under the glamor and bright lights of the startup world which is reported by the business media, you’ll find that the startup community has slowly and steadily moved away from the search for the charismatic visionary leader, and towards a scientific process which maximizes the chances of success of an innovative venture. This is reflected in popular books like The Lean Startup and a wealth of online resources and startup guides which focus on what you should do, rather than who you should be.
This scientific process boils down to using the feedback that you receive from the real world (from your customers, rather than from the press or even your investors) in order to discard bad ideas and to invest time, effort, and resources in good ideas which find the elusive product-market fit.
That said, even though you are more likely to find real, sustainable success by employing a rational, scientific process of idea and product validation, you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of how you are perceived. The media, the wide public, and even most investors and potential partners wouldn’t have the patience to delve deep into the minute truths found by your validation experiments. They wouldn’t even care about your efforts if there isn’t a good story clearly visible.
The reality is that people care about an ambitious vision and a good narrative even though they tend to be deceptive. So, when talking to outsiders, it pays dividends to present them with the familiar optics of a confident startup founder with big ideas. For good or for bad, confidently selling the economic potential and social impact of your venture is part of the startup game. That said, when you are making plans and decisions, make sure not to buy too much into your own hype and to keep your feet firmly planted on the ground.