Disrupt: Founders are not perfect, but it’s okay

  • Being human, weaknesses in entrepreneurs exist but can be overcome by developing right attitudes
  • Humility, right self-estimation, advice from trusted outsiders are keys to balancing a founder’s perspective as a leader

Disrupt: Founders are not perfect, but it’s okay

FOUNDERS are often credited as being the force behind their own creation, largely because of their vision and passion, and rightly so -- but being human, their weaknesses can also hinder their companies' success, a panel of entrepreneurs said yesterday (May 15).
These weaknesses include the inability of founders to recognise their own flaws, having too much pride, thinking that they’re smarter than the rest of the team, and imprinting too much of their personality on the companies they started.
Speaking at the special DNA-TeAM Disrupt panel discussion commemorating Digital News Asia's first anniversary, which had the topic 'Are you your startup’s own worst enemy,' JobStreet.com chief executive officer (CEO) and founder Mark Chang said that being a startup is already difficult in itself, as there are no easy models from which to learn.
“A lot of things are new [to an entrepreneur]; that is the nature of entrepreneurship,” said Chang (pic above, second from right). “[Because of this], a founder must realise that no one is smarter in the organisation when it comes to the business and a founder should [therefore] not pretend to be smarter than anyone else.
“A lot of times, humility will help along the way because if a founder admits he doesn’t know things, the entire team can contribute and the organisation can start listening to others. Only then will the company be able to see improvements, going forward,” he said.
Chang runs the highly successful Jobstreet.com online recruitment portal, which breached the RM1 billion (US$320 million) mark in market capitalisation on April 26.
Another red flag is when the founder imprints his personality too much on his company, thereby making it difficult to separate the founder’s character from the company, Chang noted. This makes it hard for employees to contribute meaningfully to the organisation, he added.
“[As founders] we have to recognise that we are not tagged to the companies we run, be it our titles or positions,” he explained. “Once we realise this, then we can start to do real work.”
Fellow panellist Roshan Thiran, (pic above, second from left), founder and CEO of Leaderonomics, a leadership social enterprise, concurred with Chang, noting that as the head of an organisation, he too finds himself sometimes imprinting too much of his personality on how he runs his organisation.
Because of his earlier training and career at General Electric (GE), which was very driven to make change happen fast, Roshan said he was "a 'bulldozer,' and I admit that that’s how I get things done. But in one of the assignments I was involved in at GE, where I was bulldozing through, someone fed back to me that I was just bulldozing too much and causing the people under me to complain.
“This person, who is now my co-founder at Leaderonomics, made me realise that after a long time of doing so, people get tired of this [bulldozing]. I’m very thankful that she reins me in and helped me become a calmer guy today.”
Roshan pointed out that another stumbling block for an entrepreneur could be pride, noting that sometimes the need to prove someone wrong gets in the way of business.
“Sometimes I’m doing stuff that may not be right for the business just to prove detractors wrong, and my partner is there again to give me feedback and tell me the impact of my actions on my people.”
For Karamjit Singh (pic above, far right), founder of Digital News Asia (DNA), facing up to his own weaknesses was the most important lesson in his journey as the CEO of this nascent tech news portal, which first went live on May 14 last year.
“When I started out, I told my fellow co-founders I don’t know if I can work as hard as what DNA requires,” he candidly admitted. “[But] if your team believes in your vision, you have to be honest with your weaknesses in front of them and admit to them that this is who you are.”
“This fear that I have helps to keep me in check and forces me not to slip back.”

Signs of a founder slipping 

When asked by the panel moderator Malek Ali (pic above, far left) – himself an entrepreneur and founder of Malaysia’s first business radio station, BFM  – what the telltale signs are that a founding CEO could be holding back the growth of his own company, Roshan said growth or the lack thereof was a main one.

“To me, a startup should experience exponential growth in its early stage. If growth stagnates, then the founding CEO may not be the right guy to run the business. For example, a company may grow to revenues of RM3 million to RM5 million but can't scale up to RM25 million.
“Scalability is a skill that not many people have, and if the founding CEO can’t do this, it may be time for him to go,” Roshan said.
He said that tension between members in the leadership team was another sign that the founder may not be suitable to lead the company further.
Echoing this view was Dr V. Sivapalan, founder of entrepreneurship coach organisation Proficeo, who as a member of the audience, noted that if a CEO and his senior management don’t see eye to eye, then that company will not go very far.
“I’ve seen this before [in my coaching] when a CEO wants to go in one direction while the management team wants to go in another,” Sivapalan said during the Q&A session. “But sometimes, the CEO does not realise that he is wrong because he thinks he’s always right, as the founder.
“In cases like these, I find it helpful to get someone from outside the company whom both the founder and management trust, to talk things over and point things out . I’ve helped companies like this before.”
Sivapalan also said that very often in Asian organisations, the paternalistic mentality gets in the way of growth. He noted that this is the reason why there are founding CEOs who would like to hold on to the CEO role until they die or retire.
“This is the reason why in Malaysia there are a lot of small companies where everyone is the CEO. But I think companies would do much better if they just merged and some of these CEOs just gave up their titles. Because they don’t do this, they [will] remain small and insignificant and they won’t grow so well. We need to change this thinking.”
Defining success
To a question from the floor on what was the difference between being stubborn and being persistent, Goh Ai Ching, (pic above, centre) co-founder and CEO of Piktochart, said she believes there isn’t very much difference between the two.
“From my point of view, being stubborn and persistent is almost the same thing and I say this because Piktochart has done too many unconventional things. For example, we decided to be headquartered in Penang [in northern Malaysia] although our customers are from the United States.
“So we’re stubborn in a way in how we manage things in the company, but whether or not being stubborn is bad depends on whether a CEO thinks he’s right because he’s holding on to a vision or whether he’s right but hurting the company by doing so. We have to be stubborn with our own vision, but not at the expense of hurting the company,” she said.
When asked what was the panel’s take on how they would define success in their respective businesses, Goh acknowledged that while Piktochart is very driven by numbers such as customer acquisitions and revenue, the company also wants its people to be the best at what they do.
“We are also very connected with our users and we know them and we care about impacting their lives, and we want our infographics and presentations to change lives,” she added.
“For us, I feel we are already successful, not so much financially but in the message that there is enough in the ecosystem to support a tech news portal,” said DNA’s Karamjit
“As for our ambitions, we want to do well and expand to Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. And perhaps someone will approach us to have a piece of the most credible tech media in South-East Asia, and the financial rewards will then come in.”
Roshan said, “For us, we have a 15-year plan which is aimed at transforming the hearts and value systems of kids in this country. Our success will be defined by whether the next generation will have this lifetime transformation.”
For Chang, it was simple and unchanged from his company's inception: “JobStreet’s success will be defined by how many people we help find jobs.”

To watch the video, click here (Part I) and here (Part II).

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