self importance in founders

I guess I knew there was a possibility that my last post about the Yahoo tech stack would draw some attention.  It was nice to get that stuff off my chest, and really nice to reconnect with some people I haven’t talked to in a while.  Most of the feedback I got was pretty positive.  But the most interesting thing about the negative feedback I got was that it wasn’t directed at the content of the post, but rather the way I wrote it.  The best example is a comment from Business Insider’s republishing of the post:

Wow, what an arrogant sh$t-talker. He’s got some points, but the self importance really kills this…”

I guess it would be cooler to pretend I didn’t read the comments, but of course I did.  I thought about it a bit and maybe they have a point.  I was trying to avoid sounding too arrogant in the post, but I guess there is a certain self importance to publishing my opinions on the whole thing.

Some fine individual defended me in response:

"To the person talking about self importance - you have to have some when you have built a billion dollar company."

I think they have a point too.  Enough of a point that it made me want to write another post, about the critical importance of a certain degree of arrogance in founder/CEO’s.

When I invest in an early stage company I am looking for a certain arrogance from the founder.  Not a crippling arrogance, not an “I won’t listen to alternative point of views” type…but a good solid foundation of “I think I know what the heck I’m talking about and I’m going to stick to it even in the face of a lot of resistance.”

When I was starting Right Media, popular opinion was that ad exchanges had been tried and had failed and that this attempt would fail as well.  I, and other like minded people on the Right Media team chose to go ahead anyway, because we thought we knew something everyone else didn’t.  We thought our alternative vision of the world was better than what existed.  We thought we were right and the naysayers (most people) were wrong.  We felt our opinions were more IMPORTANT than the opinions than others.  Self importance.

I have trouble thinking of a successful entrepreneur who doesn’t possess a certain self-importance.  

We’ve all seen it in the more public figures:

Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Page and Brin, Ellison, Benioff, Cuban, Sorrell, Andreeson, Horowitz, Pincus, Branson, and on and on.  Can you name a successful founder CEO who isn’t a little bit (or maybe a lot) self-important?  

The irony is that this trait manifests most clearly BEFORE we’ve been proven right:

Was Zuckerberg perceived as more arrogant when he turned down 1B from Yahoo while Facebook was in its infancy, or today when he’s about to take it public for close to 100B?

Was Jobs more arrogant when he was fired from Apple, or when it became the most valuable company in the world?  (ok, maybe this one’s a toss up.)

Chances are you know founders who aren’t household names who share this characteristic.  I know a bunch.  They’re the leaders of the most successful, most disruptive and highest potential companies I know of.  They are the leaders of the next generation of companies that will change the world we live in.  And every single one of them has a level of self importance.  Without it, they will not succeed.  They will waffle.  They will bow to public opinion. They will seek consensus in the face of difficult decisions.  They will fear failure and accountability in a way that is devastating, and paralyzing.  There are moments in every founder’s life when they have to decide what’s more important, their own judgement or other’s, and while they may not always be right, the best of them will usually go with their gut.

I don’t know what is more self important that that.

I’m not saying we should be excused for being arrogant assholes (as we sometimes are).  Sometimes we will be wrong, and we’re not usually wired to handle that well.  We will learn tough lessons, humility, and hopefully we will emerge from that a little softer around the edges, a little less abrasive.  But in the end, I will continue to encourage other founders to retain enough of that self importance to keep believing they can change the world.