Founders Tell a Good Story, but How Much of It Is Real?

Founders who succeed and make you a lot of money?

Well, they’re heroes.

And the ones who don’t?

They’re not necessarily bums. Most aren’t. But some, sure. I’ll go there.

But it’s the heroes I want to talk about today.

Last week, I said, “I’m not on some Greek hero’s journey.”

The implication? Founders think they are.

At least, that’s how many spin their stories…

Overcoming insurmountable odds in a journey with a preordained triumphant ending.

We could chalk it up to the typical aggrandizement you find in Silicon Valley.

Or the bottomless store of optimism that many founders need to make it through their many challenges.

But I have another explanation…

These stories go a little bit further back than Silicon Valley. And their contours are deeply ingrained in our imagination.

So deeply ingrained, in fact, that we’ve been telling and retelling them through the millennia.

These stories can inspire us to strive beyond what we would otherwise aim for. They even have the power to elevate our achievements to “heroic” levels of stamina, sacrifice and determination.

It begs the question…

Is a founder’s journey the 21st century version of an ancient mythological story – that of a Greek hero’s journey?

Modern Heroes in Our Midst?

We can find out by comparing the tales of startup founders to the standard characters, plot points and settings found in all hero myths – otherwise known as a monomyth.

Joseph Campbell talked a lot about it in the 1980s. His books were best-sellers. I’m pretty sure I read all of them.

So I’ll be using his main stages of the classic mythological hero’s journey to answer our question…

The Call to Adventure

A discovery or gathering danger triggers the hero’s journey, forcing a departure from family/home/country.

The founder: They discover a new technology, product or business model and quit their job to strike out on their own.

Similarities: Discovery. A leaving behind.

Differences: Fighting danger becomes fighting inefficiency and inattention to customers. Moving to a new city is not required of a founder, but many do make major moves.

Refusal of the Call

Faced with a choice to accept or refuse the quest, the hero usually says no. They do not wish to forsake their comfortable lives.

The founder: They may hesitate to leave an attractive job in a big tech company, but it’s usually not part of a founder’s story. Their story begins with a conviction that they know better than anyone else how to fix a serious problem.

Similarities: None.

Differences: Refusing the quest is not part of the founder’s myth.

Supernatural Aid

Before the journey begins, the hero gets training and equipment to help them meet future trials. It comes from otherworldly characters.

The founder: They begin their quest following a painful or frustrating experience. They offer a solution to the “problem,” often with the support of peers and mentors.

Similarities: A need for help.

Differences: Unless the founder knows Marc Andreessen or Fred Wilson, the help doesn’t come from superhumans.

Crossing the First Threshold

The hero crosses the threshold into an unfamiliar world of challenges.

The founder: They move into their garage or basement. Perhaps they rent out a space the size of two oversized janitor’s closets in Silicon Valley for $10K a month.

Similarities: From comfort, stability and predictability to deprivation, risk and uncertainty.

Differences: Many times, the founder is not alone in crossing the threshold. The classic Greek hero may be accompanied by other people, but the journey is very much theirs and theirs alone.

Test, Allies and Enemies

The hero undergoes a series of challenges. They face monsters and monstrous forces. Each successful test further proves their ability and marks their progress.

The founder: They also undergo a series of tests and critical decisions. Crises are not uncommon and overcoming them is essential to progress. Milestones mark a founder’s progress in building a successful startup.

Similarities: Overcoming a series of tests defines a successful founder, much like the mythological hero.

Differences: Founders tend to portray their product experiments as a smooth (as opposed to chaotic) process. The emphasis is on the positive… the solution… the success. The difficulty of the challenges is downplayed. And there’s also this: The tests are not life-challenging (though some founders might beg to differ).

The Approach

The hero prepares mentally and physically for the major challenge ahead.

The founder: They most certainly hope their enterprise will avoid an existential crisis. But if it comes, it could well arrive in the form of their first major fundraise – a defining event for a founder and their young unproven company. Accelerator programs spend a lot of time training founders in the art of raising money.

Similarities: If it’s there, it’s a muted part of a founder’s story.

Differences: A startup may run out of money or be forced to pivot. These are major challenges that test the abilities and determination of a founder. Many founders do manage to rise to the occasion, but the mental and especially physical preparation is not emphasized in their story.

The Ordeal

The hero faces their greatest challenge, which is also their greatest fear. All their skills and abilities must be used to emerge triumphant. If they fail, they will die, or their life will be utterly ruined. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

The founder: They pivot. Or find more money for their broke company. Or finally find a business model that works.

Similarities: A part of many founders’ stories. For example, Elon Musk’s Tesla faced financial collapse in 2008. Musk lost all his money and lived off the personal loans of friends for years. The company came back, as did Musk’s wealth. And Musk is probably the country’s most admired founder.

Differences: Was going broke Musk’s greatest fear? I can’t answer that one. Is this ordeal the centerpiece of his story? How about overcoming the crashes of the first three rockets SpaceX built? At best, a life-defining ordeal that towers above all other challenges is an optional part of a founder’s story.

The Reward

The hero earns a reward or accomplishes their goals. The reward may be an object of great importance, knowledge or insights about their identity.

The founder: Their startup scales and becomes self-sustaining. Their reward is great wealth and sometimes great acclaim… and the knowledge that they can successfully build a company.

Similarities: The reward is large, life-changing and involves self-knowledge.

Differences: Gaining possession of a physical object has no parallel in a founder’s story, unless that physical object is a pile of greenbacks.

Return With the Elixir

The hero returns home with knowledge or treasure to transform their world. Their return brings hope or a solution to a major problem. Their life is never the same.

The founder: They continue their journey with a new startup or perhaps as an angel investor.

Similarities: Entrepreneurial success means a big problem was fixed. They have acquired the knowledge to try to do something similar, perhaps something even more transformative. They cannot return to their previous life.

Differences: Home is where the next entrepreneurial challenge awaits. The journey usually continues.

As you see, there’s a lot of common ground here.

Should this matter to you?

Yes, it should. And here’s why.

Invest in the Company, Not the Myth

From the very beginning, founders are told to create a compelling story about themselves.

What’s more compelling than a hero’s journey?

Stories are powerful. It can be argued that mythological stories are the most powerful of all.

Transforming ordinary businesspeople into larger-than-life heroes is merely the latest example.

These stories can attract top talent as well as investment money… from us.

So, as investors, we should be aware of their power… and their seductiveness.

When we invest, we should be investing in not only a good story, but a good company.

Founders as heroes is myth-making. Never forget that.

Their journeys are as real as our journeys, but that doesn’t make them heroes.

I do wish them success, however.

May their journeys end in a glorious liquidity exit.

And may the “elixir” they bring back be the private shares they sold to us, made many times more valuable – not by their “heroics,” but by something slightly more prosaic…

Their extraordinary business and technological acumen – the stuff successful founders are made of.

Invest early and well,

Andy Gordon
Founder, Early Investing