Why is a Founder so Hard to Replace?

"I'd really love to find someone to replace me as the Founder. Finding someone with more experience, more skills, and ideally a fresh set of legs would make my life 1000x easier. What should I be concerned about when trying to backfill myself as the Founder?"

July 3rd, 2024   |    By: Wil Schroter

There are a ton of jobs we can hire for — a "Founder" isn't one of them.

Nearly all of us, at some point, dream of replacing ourselves with someone else, ideally someone that's a big level up, so that we can take the pressure off of us and enjoy the good life. But over time most of us arrive at the same conclusion — back-filling the role of "Founder" is nearly impossible.

Why is it so hard? Clearly, there are more people out there substantially more qualified than we are to run our companies. Yet, time and time again, Founders try to recruit the "perfect replacement" only to find themselves right back in the leadership chair before they know it.

The answer lies in the fact that while we can hire capabilities beyond our own, there are a few inherent traits of being the Founder that we simply can't hire for. They often don't show up in the job description, yet they tend to be the essence of why Founders exist.

The Ownership of Vision

Our vision is like a baby — we can hand it over to someone else to take care of, but there's something about having created it that makes it feel unique to us. I remember on of my Co-Founders whom I recruited as a CEO of one of my startups lamenting after we sold the company "I'll never do that again — I'll never run someone else's vision because it never felt like it was truly mine."

There's so much truth in that. It was hard to be the Tim Cook of Apple when the last guy was Steve Jobs, the co-founder. Tim is a great CEO, but when he stands on stage to present the next new gadget, the world is just waiting for Steve to re-appear to give it the vision and excitement it was supposed to have. It doesn't matter who replaces Tim — he's never going to have the vision of a Founder.

We can't simply transfuse our vision to someone else and pretend it's theirs. They may support the vision, but ownership comes from having a hand in its creation. There's something magical about how intensely Founders feel about their own visions and how hard they will fight to transform them into reality. We can't hire that out.

The Pain of Consequence

We also can't replicate the consequences we feel as founders, or in this case, owners. The delta between our own personal consequences toward the failure of this startup and anyone else's that we hire is massive. It's kind of this simple — if our new CEO screws this up, they lose their job. If we screw this up, we lose everything.

It's easy to see the difference there when we talk about outright failure, like our business failing. Where it really matters though, is in the tiny little details on a daily basis. The difference in how we talk to our customers, or how we make sure a payable gets collected faster, or how we pay just a little more attention to who's actually on Slack today than anyone else does.

Our focus is refined because there is a consequence to Founders that typically doesn't exist with "employees." It's not a matter of being responsible, it's a matter of having your ass on the line in an epic way if you're not. Our consequence and the motivation that comes with it, simply can't be replicated.

The Tolerance of Risk

Very few people are willing to take on the type of risk that a Founder does, which is why there are so few Founders in the world! But without giving us too much credit, it's not like we have a choice. We got the job simply by being willing to take on a ridiculous amount of risk. It also means we're not likely to lose the job.

Being able to take massive risks while still knowing we can keep our jobs (unless we lose the company!) isn't trivial. If we roll the dice and come up empty, it's up to us not to fire ourselves and try again. That same certainty does not exist as an employee, and it prevents them from taking the kind of big gambles that we don't think twice about.

The role of the Founder simply isn't a job — it's an institution. It's the fabric and DNA of our startup, both employee and institution, at once. Sure, there are things we can hire for that anyone can likely do better (like managing people!), but let's not pretend that just giving someone our title or role is going to replace what we bring to our startups — ever.

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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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