Rand Fishkin ran into an old friend recently at a wedding. Six or seven years ago, the friend had joined Salesforce, whose founder and CEO, Marc Benioff, is a powerful advocate for equality and various social causes. "My friend was, in a joyful way, more woke to those issues as well," Fishkin says. "He volunteers now with some charities. It is very cool to see Benioff's example has nudged him in this direction."

Like parents with very young children, founders imagine how their new companies will turn out. And like parents, they generally discover that their organizational offspring are a lot like them. Amazon's obsession with innovation and its toughness on employees, for example, are pure Jeff Bezos. Uber is digging out from the cultural traits inherited from founder Travis Kalanick. Irreverent, large-living Virgin is Richard Branson.

In his new book Lost and Founder: A Painfully Honest Field Guide to the Startup World, Fishkin explores--among other subjects--how entrepreneurs' strengths, weaknesses, characters, and beliefs shape their businesses. Moz, a search-engine company that Fishkin and his mother, Gillian Muessig, launched in 2004, is a case in point.

Both founders are marketing experts. As a result, Fishkin says, "for all Moz's history, our marketing was stronger than our product." Generous to a fault, Muessig and Fishkin created a culture where employees bend over backward to help people, generating appreciative client referrals in the process.

At the same time, the company has also stuck with business partners "long after it was proven that they weren't giving us the best service, product, or pricing because we wanted to support someone and hoped for improvement," Fishkin says. (Fishkin left Moz earlier this year to start an audience-intelligence platform called SparkToro.)

The mirror of truth

Sometimes it is a founder's strongly held belief that defines the organization. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, for example, "were extremely driven by this notion that your college education--what school you went to, the grades you got, the classes you took--were perfect predictors for whether you would work well at Google," Fishkin says. "As a result, Google developed something of a monoculture, and they have been spending the last six or seven years trying to fix that."

Such founder "baggage" is unavoidable, according to Fishkin. "Trying to build a business that doesn't reflect who you are is like asking an artist to create something with none of his technique" or aesthetic, he says. The problem is that founders don't recognize how much who they are affects what they build. Consequently, where weaknesses or character flaws exist, they don't compensate for them.

"Holding up a mirror that doesn't always make you look good" is hard but necessary, says Fishkin, who offers several techniques for pursuing self-knowledge. They include reflecting on what happens when you step in to help others solve a problem (does it actually get fixed or do you make things worse?), as well as analyzing your business plan to identify sections drafted with fewer details and less confidence (that's where you're wobbly, and those parts of the business will suffer). You should also simply ask people (your team, investors, customers) to speak candidly about your strengths and weaknesses. "If it confirms what you thought, great," Fishkin says. "But what you believe about yourself may be different from what is true."

Your flaws are their flaws

Deficiencies in the leader's skill set or understanding can have an enduring pernicious effect, which Fishkin calls "debt." Founders weak in management skills, for example, may create "organizational debt" characterized by dysfunctional teams, poor performance, and employee conflict.

Despite conventional wisdom, such debts are difficult to correct simply by hiring experts. Founders who are weak in some area may lack sufficient connections and expertise to identify strong candidates and struggle to bring them onboard, Fishkin says. He makes the case for co-founders with complementary strengths, who can prevent debt from accruing.

Mitigating character deficiencies like misogyny or lack of empathy, troubling traits like hair-trigger anger, or mental health issues like depression require significant introspection and commitment to change (Fishkin is a fan of therapy). Such founder flaws are easy to ignore or overlook when the company is riding a wave of success. But a weakness that afflicts the leader likely also afflicts the business, particularly when the business is young and small or the leader's personality is dominant.

The founder is always modeling, Fishkin says. So exhibiting model behavior is critical. Leaders have an opportunity to infuse cultures with qualities like empathy, curiosity, and open-mindedness just by being empathetic, curious, and open-minded themselves. It's all about being intentional. "I would urge founders and CEOs to invest in their mental and emotional health," Fishkin says. "Being conscious of those things can have a huge influence on your team."

Published on: Jul 12, 2018