Written by Chris West, Co-author, The Beermat Entrepreneur, Turn your Good Idea into a Great Business.
It’s one of the most difficult decisions that the top team in a successful start-up ever have to make. I hope you will never have to. But sometimes it becomes necessary.
I’m talking about getting rid of the company founder.
This could be seen as heresy. No doubt it is, to the founder. But the sad truth is that some entrepreneurial company founders are brilliant at going on to build lasting, corporate businesses, but others aren’t. In the second case, they become ever more of a burden on the rest of the team trying to grow the business. The restless energy and inspired decisiveness that helped you fly clear of the pack at the start can become egotism and impulsiveness later. The out-of-control founder starts grabbing random pieces of work and insists on doing it themselves. They form a praetorian guard of yes-people around them. They make erratic comments to the media…
What do you do?
First, you talk the matter through with your fellow top-team members (and investors if relevant), so that you end up speaking with one voice. If the business had a mentor, include them in the conversation too. This is another occasion when a mentor is worth his or her weight in gold.
Then you arrange to take the founder somewhere nice, sit down and talk the issue out. If you have a mentor, bring them along. Try and frame the issue along the lines of ‘you’ve done amazing stuff, but there’s a risk of all your work being undone if things carry on’.
Avoid personal criticism of the founder. It’s their actions you are criticizing. Up to a point, the founder will take it personally anyway, but the more you can dampen this, the better.
Have a clear exit route for them, one that enables them to save face (or even gain it). Have a plan for how you are going to buy them out, if that is what they wish (which it probably will be).
Don’t expect the experience to be painless. But as business people, you’ll know that sometimes you have to do things that hurt.
If you are a founder presented by such villainous treachery – pause and think. These ungrateful malcontents stabbing you in the back actually have the interest of the business at heart.
You will feel angry and hurt, but don’t let those things blind you. Don’t take any anger out on people, either – especially your family. Find time to cry, yell at a wall, smash something, unload on a friend (not at them). Hire a therapist and destroy their collection of pillows…
Accept that this is not an uncommon experience. Reframe it: any rule-follower can work in a corporate; it takes a special spark to found something new.
Once you have accepted the new order, negotiate. Not viciously, but firmly and clearly. If your mentor is part of the process, listen carefully to them. Whatever you do, don’t drag the business down in a fit of pique. You’re better than that.
Then go off and do something amazing you’ve always promised yourself but never had time for.
In the end, winning is about having created a great business, having created great wealth for yourself and your family, and having done so with dignity.