Founders, when we look in the mirror what do we see?
I don't mean that haggard shell of a complexion that looks like a time lapse video of decaying fruit. I mean do we look in the mirror, squint really hard through bloodshot eyes and say:
"Welp, that's it. Today's the day everyone is going to find out how big of a Founder fraud I really am!"
Today's the day our investors find out we have no clue how we'd ever grow this company to an exit. Today's the day our customer calls us and says "There's no way I should have put my faith in you!" It's the day we finally admit to our staff that we were never 100% certain we should have told them to join this company.
Yep, today is the day that everyone reveals us for the fraud that we truly are! And guess what? They are going to be 100% right.
That's because, at our core, startup Founders are all frauds.
We are forged from the fiery embers of uncertainty, guesswork and crippling self-doubt. To make matters worse, we develop compounding guilt with every passing day that everyone we interact with is finally going to get wise to the fact that we have no clue what we're doing.
The problem with that line of thinking is that it assumes there's some certainty to this business to begin with. That there is some "other method" of building a company where we don't just guess and hold our breath.
Spoiler alert: there isn't.
So let’s talk about why we all feel so self-conscious when none of us really knows what we’re doing!
We're not talking about Elizabeth Holmes at Theranos type fraud.
We're not talking about willfully deceiving people with some Madoff scheme. We're talking about the feeling like we're supposed to be doing the right thing, but we can't seem to draw out the confidence to support ourselves.
What we're really uncovering is uncertainty. We feel like we're supposed to be certain, and yet when we dig deep we can't find any foundation to build that certainty.
"How do I know this product idea is a good one?"
"How can I be sure this person should quit their job to work for me?
"How do I look an investor in the eye and guarantee this will be a great investment?"
If the lack of certainty makes us feel like a fraud, it's not because we're actually frauds. It's because we just don't fricking know. Steve Jobs "certainty" may have invented the iPhone, but he also invented the Newton. Don't know what the Newton is? Case in point. Oh, you do know what the Newton is? Then "case in point" times ten!
None of us has a crystal ball.
Being uncertain doesn't make us frauds. In fact, what makes us frauds is when we do know what we're doing. If we knowingly jeopardize someone else's well-being to an unfortunate end, yes, we're totally frauds.
Madoff knew he was screwing his clients. Enron knew they were deceiving the banks. Loki knew Odin had left Asgard while pretending to be Thor's father.
"But wait! That can't be true — I'm reading stories every day about other Founders crushing it."
No, my friend, you're reading some filtered version of someone crushing it. The truth is everything leading up to that self-indulgent post was a bunch of guesses that lead to the right outcome — just like the ones we're making every day. The only difference is we're reading about the network of guesses that worked.
If we make the mistake of thinking that what we can see from the outside is reality, then we're misled by default. We are so far removed from the truth it's insane.
In fact, here's how many layers of BS we'd have to peel back to get anything resembling the truth:
From the point where a story was published in some journal, where we took the events of the Founder to be gospel, we'd have to filter through the bullshit they told the reporter.
Then we'd have to decrypt what that Founder told their employees and investors, what that Founder would tell people publicly, and then whether that Founder was even honest with themselves.
Being in the business of helping over 1 million Founders get stuff done, let me tell you first hand — no matter what a social media post or gushing article may suggest, that Founder was guessing all the way and is thanking their lucky stars any of it actually worked.
Look, you want to know how bad it is?
I've been building startups for 25 years, from absolute dumb concept to hundreds of millions in revenue. I've mentored thousands of startup Founders through every growth situation you could fathom. I've written countless books and articles on the topic of how to start a company. I became a startup millionaire by the time I was 22, sold four companies, and bootstrapped Startups.com to a $100 million valuation in under 3 years.
And you know what? I'm a total steamy, sweaty fraud. Just like you.
Why? Because even with all this knowledge, all of those successful outcomes, and a total lack of humility, I look in the mirror and second guess myself just as much now as I did 25 years ago.
Probably more so now, because before I thought there was a method to know the way forward. Now I'm 100% sure I'm going to be guessing forever.
The only way to beat the "impostor syndrome" known as being a Founder fraud is to embrace the fraud.
Look at this business for what it is: a series of best guesses that we're hoping we can bend into our will. This isn't a business of certainty. When we try to start companies from pure ideas, with no foundation or pre-existence, everything is uncertain.
That's the whole point.
Our jobs as Founders isn't to create certainty out of thin air. It's not even to guarantee outcomes. It's to constantly make the best guesses we can make and then do everything in our power to make them come true.
So long as we are innovating, creating and transforming industries. we will forever been sprinting into the abyss of uncertainty.
And if that's what makes all of us Founders "frauds" then I say call me a fraud for life.
Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes Bizplan, Clarity, 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.