Start-up myths can be powerful motivating tools in good times and bad. They can also backfire
Do you remember the opening scene of All in the Family, in which Archie and Edith are singing "Those Were the Days"? In fact, guys like Archie didn't have it made back in the days when Glenn Miller played, but that's not the point. Archie's reminiscences helped pull him from the bleak reality of a world growing more incomprehensible by the day and gave him hope of a "return" to halcyon days. In a word, nostalgia was Archie's psychic fuel.
Founding myths serve a comparable function for entrepreneurs. The best myths, with a tweak here and an embellishment there, are an amazingly potent motivational tool that can even become part of popular culture.
Who doesn't know the saga of running coach Bill Bowerman, who outfitted his athletes with Nike shoes whose soles he formed on his wife's waffle iron? He then showed up at running events with his partner, Phil Knight, who sold the shoes from the trunk of his car. From that innovative beginning grew the enterprise that makes Air Jordans and inspires even die-hard couch potatoes to "Just Do It."
Once a founding myth is entrenched, it often functions as an elixir. Remember the scandal about the exploitation of Asian child labor that tarnished Nike chairman and CEO Knight's image? And recall when brown shoes threatened the entire athletic-footwear industry? I'll bet much of the staying power of the Nike sales force, marketers, and operations staff was derived from the sense that Knight had earlier weathered far more daunting impediments while building the company. I have no doubt that Nike's founding myth gave the folks at the Beaverton, Oreg., campus fortitude and made them feel they were part of something greater than a mere footwear company.
Entrepreneurial myths are invaluable in overcoming everything from unanticipated problems to threats posed by worthy competitors. In good times and bad they are the stuff that keeps entrepreneurial spirits flowing. Which is why, as is the case with most elixirs, they get mishandled and abused.
Entrepreneurs who start a business forge a founder's myth and instill it with the power that subsequent "generations" feed off of. Because those who have come in on the ground floor of ventures have personally prevailed against the odds and can claim parental rights to the myth, they too are allowed to brag about the company's origins. But that's where self-congratulatory boasts should begin and end. When "outsiders" recount the myth by invoking the royal "we," they commit a sacrilege.
That often happens when profitable entrepreneurial ventures are handed over to professional managers. An example of potential abuse of a founder's myth is the Hewlett-Packard ad campaign launched in late 1999 featuring CEO Carleton S. "Carly" Fiorina paired with a replica of the Silicon Valley garage that Dave Packard and Bill Hewlett tinkered in before founding the company. An ad campaign using HP's storied history to jump-start its (intended) rebirth as an entrepreneurial force is, at one level, well conceived. The campaign catchphrase, "The original start-up will act like one again. Watch," is pure psychological genius in that it acknowledges HP as an established powerhouse susceptible to hubris, takes the wind out of critics' sails, and promises that HP will seize control of its destiny.
That said, I fear the campaign may ultimately backfire within HP. Veteran entrepreneurial teams can feel outrage when their icons are tampered with. No one is granted access to the inner circle of entrepreneurial teams without first passing muster, which means demonstrating practical, hands-on worth. That's why "outsiders" who sense the power of the entrepreneurial founding myths should be very careful about using the myths for motivational purposes themselves. You just don't relate the myth like some campfire tale. In order to elicit its salutary effect the founding myth must be recounted the way a shaman invokes an incantation: for commemorative celebrations or in anticipation of, or during, crises.
That is what concerns me about Fiorina's ad campaign: HP was one of the most revered start-ups in America -- before Fiorina was born. Her detractors can easily claim, "She's not an innovative engineer like Dave and Bill; what the hell does she know about our tradition?" and use that fact as justification for opposing her management.
Because I have a soft spot in my heart for folks who do not understand the idiosyncratic rules and passions of entrepreneurial cultures, I'm offering here a few suggestions for learning how to handle the myths, even if, like Fiorina, you're not "licensed" to do so:
When an outsider uses the corporate myth as a managerial tool, he or she immediately sets up a comparison that is best avoided. How does any newcomer stack up against the founding hero? Horribly. I, for one simple reason, would never lock horns with an icon: the image of a founder is inevitably distorted in a favorable direction over time.
In a related vein, trying to form links with founders won't succeed with employees unless the ties are authentic. If, as a professional manager, you don't remember the "good old days," ask someone to tell you what they were like and extrapolate from his or her telling of the founder's myth. Paying homage to the saga by applying it with proper attribution will earn respect.
Which brings us to the key to successful use of founders' myths by outsiders: Be humble. "Help me build a myth" is a far better tactic than "Watch me resurrect the myth Dave and Bill built."
When you enter the world of the entrepreneur, show that you know that war stories from nonentrepreneurial battles are irrelevant by throwing your history out the door. That "discarding of the past," by the way, is what entrepreneurs do when they enter those dank, dimly lit, smelly old garages and create wondrous products. By showing the proper awe and admiration for the entrepreneurial process, skilled outsiders can help sustain the founders' quality work without risking the dangers inherent in exploiting the myths that the founders forged.
Dr. Steven Berglas is a clinical psychologist and management consultant on the faculty of the Harold Price Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at UCLA's Anderson School of Management and of Harvard Medical School's Department of Psychiatry.
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