It wasn't so long ago that successful companies tended to be big, faceless entities. Now, we are squarely in the age of the founder--filled with new upstarts and older direct to consumer (DTC) companies like beauty brand Glossier that offer an exciting proposition for customers who want to know who is behind their products and to connect with brands on a deeper, more human level.
But while being a human-centered, founder-led company like Glossier comes with a host of branding, storytelling, and strategic benefits, it also has some unique downsides, as founder Emily Weiss discovered firsthand after a 2020 workplace scandal and a more recent second round of layoffs. Founders are people--smart, inventive, and passionate people who have the strength of character and mission to scale an idea into a successful business. But when a company is intimately intertwined with an individual, the blindspots of that single person can easily become the blindspots of the brand.
To her credit, Weiss addressed these failures publicly and offered some concrete steps to improve. But if you hope to avoid the missteps associated with starting and growing your company, a little introspection can go a long way toward avoiding some common pitfalls.
Be penny-wise, not pound foolish.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks you can face is realizing how much actually goes into creating a successful brand. Intention is not enough. Despite best efforts, resources are taxed more easily than you'd imagine. And once you are under the gun, it often leads you to wrongly cut two crucial elements--money and time.
That's not to say that brands can't be successfully launched or run within a budget and time frame, but it's more common for businesses to face some challenges. There are always supply chain or other issues that can set things back several months, many times out of your control. In those times, if you decide "We don't really need this part of the process" or "I need to launch now" to save money and time, inevitably there will be issues later on, and one step forward leads to two steps back.
Your willpower, drive, and ability to "move fast and break things" are no replacement for a steady hand. Instead, carefully look at the case studies of brands that have launched and grown successfully over the past few years and come up with a flexible plan that allows for the challenges that will definitely emerge. Never rush a good thing. After all, it's no longer about being first to market or having the most unique story. The most successful brands are working on omni-channel brand building 24/7 and really investing to make it happen.
Be passionate, not emotional.
Many of the emotional roadblocks you face as an individual will also appear on your founding journey. The same places you get stuck in life, you will get stuck in your brand-- fear, doubt, impulsiveness, etc. Having worked with founders a great deal, there are certain emotional patterns that inevitably appear, especially in the first year or so. Questions like "Why am I doing this?," "Is this really going to work?," and "Am I crazy?" always rear their ugly head--especially right before a launch date.
Knowing how to separate your personal anxieties and preferences from what is best for the brand or being able to differentiate between your voice and the voice of the brand is crucial. It's easy to get stuck in being too involved in the process of building a brand, so much so that it becomes less about serving a brand and more about serving yourself. It's important to be involved in making smart choices and decisions, but it's also important to let things have a bit of breathing room so that a brand can be created and grow.
So, you should get comfortable outsourcing things that you aren't good at -- something that can be hard to admit. It takes trusting that employees and partners have the expertise to help carry the load. In many ways, it's like remodeling your kitchen -- you may pick the countertops and the wood, but trust the architect to do what they do best and design it for what will not only look good, but also work.
Be a brand, not just a leader.
As a founder, you're not always right to be the face of a brand. But if you do go that route, you have to be a brand yourself -- an effort that takes the time to build a following and the same work that goes into being an influencer or content creator. We can't all have the Stanley Tucci effect.
Strong brands have a foundation of purpose, position, values, and product (what you make or do in the world), and then use these to inform their personality and storytelling. You should put yourself through this framework and be able to articulate these foundational pieces of your personal brand, and then use that to put forward your public-facing personas and narratives. It's not enough to be a good leader. If you plan to publicly position your company as founder-led or to use your story to help launch a brand, you need to look at social media, earned media, PR, and content you can put out into the world to grow your following and develop a public-facing persona.
Founder-led brands come with personality, authenticity, and uniqueness that make it easier to connect more deeply with their missions. But as you bring more products and services to the world, it's important that you not bring your personal flaws too. Rather than get stuck in your own blocks, your passions are better spent providing something that helps customers get past their blocks--resulting in a stronger brand along the way.