It is no secret that being a startup founder is a difficult job.
Not only are you responsible for the startup itself, but you also have a responsibility to your team and investors (if you are fortunate enough to have any).
Founders face threats every day.
Essentially, that is what entrepreneurship is all about.
Something always goes wrong or could go wrong.
Yet, the greatest and most insidious threat is one that few founders wish to acknowledge.
It isn’t the burn rate.
It isn’t the competition.
It isn’t the product-market fit.
It is conformity.
Conformity looms like a shadow over founders. It grows when the pressures of running a startup become overwhelming.
Individual innovation slowly erodes, especially when startups fail to gain traction.
But what is founder conformity? How can founders recognize it? And more importantly, how can founders overcome it?
This is exactly what I discuss below.
What is conformity?
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”George Bernard Shaw
Conformity is defined as “compliance with standards, rules, or laws.”
Founders are the antithesis of this.
At least they used to be.
The greatest founders are nonconformists who start companies that not only don’t comply with the status quo but also challenge it.
Rather than following orders, they give them.
Instead of working in traditional office settings, their offices include everything from nap rooms to game rooms.
Instead of following the business path set by society, these founders forge their own path.
Now, founder conformity seems to have taken over the business world.
What is founder conformity?
We are taught to conform from childhood.
Over the years, founders have begun to engage in a new type of conformity; founder conformity.
Founders started acting the same, talking the same, and following the same trail.
If you spend enough time in the startup world (with enough founders), groupthink begins to creep in.
Why is this?
Because we all want to belong.
We want to bask in the sunlight of praise. We want to be well-liked and well-thought-of. We want to be the toast of the town.
Our social media should be filled with awards and honors.
Being a founder is no different. In fact, being a founder only enhances our desire to belong.
Because being a founder is a lonely position.
You will have little (if any) support.
People will not care for you or your idea, even if it may offer them the biggest benefit to their lives.
Instead, they prefer the existing, and sometimes substandard, options.
They belittle that which requires genuine effort and ignore the better choices right in front of their face.
And YOU are in front of their face.
Your grand idea.
Your inner dream.
Your startup that could change the world.
Despite what you know and what you offer; despite what is in your power to truly change and benefit others; despite your wealth of talent and promise, you must bear the inevitable responses of the masses – those who care nothing for you or your dreams.
No one wants to be the first subscriber, follower, investor, customer, or supporter of something new — especially if it is unproven.
People will not come to your aid. Instead, they will criticize, doubt, and ignore whatever you offer.
So what does a founder do? Where do they go?
Straight into the open arms of other founders — and into conformity.
- Slack channels catering to startup founders.
- Incubators and accelerators.
- Private founder networks that offer resources, events, and company.
As founders join these channels and networks, they expose themselves to conformity.
They don’t comprehend that the entrepreneurs they attempt to emulate didn’t use the above tools and methods.
For example, when other founders attempt to access a specific accelerator, you may try to join too.
Not because you have a particular need to do so but because everyone else is signing up.
Founders also discuss and recommend certain books.
But rather than choose a book that explicitly benefits your situation, you tag along and read the same books.
Suddenly, free-thinking and communication are replaced by popular startup jargon; MRR, ARR, CAC, and MVP become your common tongue.
Before you know it, you find yourself appearing at the same workshops, receiving the same requests (angel investors, anyone?), watching the same speeches, and attending paid retreats for “brainstorming and networking.”
As a founder, you must not allow this to happen.
You have a unique background, a unique mind, and a unique startup idea.
Focus on them.
Avoid the need to conform.
Have the courage to network but remain committed to your startup, original thoughts, and singular ideas.
You don’t need to talk like everyone else or copy others to achieve success.
“The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it’s conformity.”Rollo May
Avoiding herd mentality
“No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.”Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
One of the chief risks of conformity is that you sacrifice the finest part of yourself in order to meld into the crowd.
I have spoken with founders from around the world, and (whether they knew it or not) they all conformed; they acted the same, pitched the same, and asked the same questions.
- Can you find me an angel investor?
- Will you invest?
- Let’s hop on a call to talk further.
- Can you get my deck to the right people?
- Can you make an introduction to this accelerator?
But these are normal business requests, right?
Instead of working on their craft and asking for feedback on their product, website, or business offering, they want what everyone else wants.
They no longer seek feedback that might be detrimental — but ultimately, helpful.
They’d rather skip the painful process of rebuilding, recoding, and rebranding and immediately jump to the next stage.
However, no investor or accelerator will accept them unless they are truly ready.
If that is the case, then why do so many founders do this?
Because conformity and belonging to the herd offer safety.
This ‘safety-in-numbers’ mentality removes the feedback loop that provides guidance and assistance.
Nobody wants to criticize a member of their own group, their own cohort, or their own workshop.
Rather, we are all the next Steve Jobs.
We are all building the next Google.
We will all be billionaires.
And this must stop.
As startup founders, you have a responsibility to create the best product or service on the market, without the fluff and delusions of grandeur.
You know how much work is involved.
You know what you want to build.
Don’t try to be the next Steve Jobs or build the next Google. Be the next you and build your own unique business.
Focus on what sets your heart on fire and what provides fuel to your passion.
This is what separates you from the herd of founders with the same terrible decks, the same value propositions, and the same mentality to conform.
You must never conform and give in.
A self-chosen path is lonely but rewarding.
Schopenhauer was correct when he wrote: “We forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to be like other people.”
That three-fourths is what makes up the best part of you; the part that should be defended with all your might and not given up to please others.
We are miserly with our possessions and money, but when it comes to ourselves, we gladly give.
We don’t even bother to put up a defense. Instead, we dull our light so we’re safely welcomed, and with open arms.
Do not make this trade. It is never worth it, and the price is always too high.
Ultimately, your responsibility as a founder is first and foremost to yourself.
Command yourself to press forward, regardless of what others say.
Demand to go your own way, even at the cost of your peers and your so-called “support network” of founders.
Continue to put one foot in front of the other, never reversing course, only stopping to take a break and reflect.
It is then, and only then, you will realize how far you have come.
You will find yourself at heights that were once impossible to envision.
More importantly, you will see that the conforming masses have remained in place.
And despite all their talk, advice, acceptance, and compliments, they won’t even notice you are gone.
Be that one person
“Never forget that you are one of a kind.
Never forget that if there weren’t any need for you in all your uniqueness to be on this earth, you wouldn’t be here in the first place.
And never forget, no matter how overwhelming life’s challenges and problems seem to be, that one person can make a difference in the world. In fact, it is always because of one person that all the changes that matter in the world come about. So be that one person.”Buckminster Fuller