Thinking About Thinking

When Founders Refer To Their Company As “I”

Posted in Founder-Owned Businesses, Technology by larrycheng on November 14, 2011

Given Volition’s focus on bootstrapped high growth technology companies, we meet company founders every week that have built amazing companies with very little resources.  It never gets old hearing stories of how founders put companies on their backs and will them to survive and succeed.

Yet, in the process of meeting with founders week-in and week-out, I have begun to notice that with some regularity, certain founders refer to their company as “I”.  Often, I will hear phrases like, “I will reach $20M of revenue,” or “I will grow 100% next year and hit breakeven,” or “I will have the best technology platform in the market.”  On the face of it, it might seem objectionable to refer to the collective efforts of many people in a company with a first person, singular pronoun.  Yet, candidly, I don’t entirely begrudge the practice, but it also reflects a company that is still in the process of maturing.

I don’t begrudge it because there was a point in time when the company was quite literally just the founder.  If anything was going to get done, the founder was going to do it.  Even in the early days of a company where there are other employees, it’s not uncommon to have the founder be the senior person for every functional aspect of the business.  The founder is both the head of sales and by default the top salesperson.  The founder is the product visionary, product developer, and only QA person.  The founder is effectively the chief financial officer and the chief financier of the company.  And, of course the founder is the energy and spirit of the company.  I don’t begrudge use of the term “I” to refer to the company because for many of these companies, without the founder, there would be no company.

But, it also refers to a company that has some maturing to do.  Even if a founder is seemingly indispensable to a company –  like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, or Sergey Brin –  a company must grow to the point where the center of the company isn’t the founder, but the center of the company is in fact the company itself, and its mission for its customers.  Ironically, the person best positioned to help drive this transition in a company is the founder.

Some founders adopt a mentality to keep things comfortable for themselves –  the strategy, people, and practices of the company stay within the comfort zone of the founder.  The founder structurally builds a company where they are at the center and in many ways the company exists not only because of the founder, but to serve the founder as well.  Other founders aim to build something bigger than themselves.  The company is not defined by their own comfort zone, but by the vision of what the company can achieve.   The company exists not for any single individual, but for its greater mission and purpose.  The company transitions from an “I” to a “we”. This can be an uncomfortable process for some founders, but often times it’s a necessary one in order for the company to reach its fullest potential.

I have immeasurable respect for founders.  Day-in and day-out, I’m rooting for the founders of companies that we invest in and even the founders of companies that we don’t invest in.  There are many people that work at a company, but only one founder or founding team.  It’s a special and unchangeable position.  But, for companies to truly succeed, they can’t just be about the founder.  They need to be about something more.  And, that’s perhaps a goal all founders can aspire towards.

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  1. Conrad Wai (@sventured) said, on November 15, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    Another pet peeve of mine is when employees refer to the company as “they.” Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I think it’s a subtle indicator that there’s a lack of ownership, in the general sense of the word.


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