At Startups, It’s Not About The Founders But About The Owners

In tech we love to celebrate the role of FOUNDER. There’s a conference by that name. The increase in number of startups being formed isn’t just about market opportunity or lower costs of initial technology but also a cultural norm which tells any enterprising college grad that it’s not cool to work for someone else when you can start your own thing. And we stretch the term – what’s a “founding team” anyway (I’m guilty of this having put myself on the “founding team” of Linden Lab which is an amorphous distinction that just means to convey ‘I was there early’)?

However when we throw around the term we forget that it creates second class citizens out of the rest of the company. They’re merely employees, non-founders if you will. Culturally it’s more effective for companies to create a strong shared sense of opportunity, commitment and urgency. That’s why I believe we need to adopt a new term for ALL employees of startups: owners.
When you join a startup you’re doing it because you want to bet on yourself and the rest of the team. That you can building something valuable which didn’t exist before. Even with rising startup salaries the hope is that your equity will be the reward. Equity serves as an effective incentive because it is supposed to get you thinking about the company as a whole. You quite literally become a partial owner in the company.
Why then don’t we use the term more broadly in the workplace? When I look at a startup’s office, I don’t see founders and employees. I see owners. I see people who work every day not for their individual gain but because the whole needs to be greater than the sum of its parts. 
Founders start the damn thing – no small feat. Founders hold the long roadmap, the vision, the true north, in their heads and hearts – essential whether it’s year one or year 15 – just look at the impact Larry Page has had at Google. But the startups which stop thinking about founders vs nonfounders and focus on treating the entire team as owners are the ones which I suspect outperform over time.

Update 2/22: A few folks, including my friend Amit Patel (early Googler), remind me that if “ownership” just applies to owning stock options, well, it’s pretty hollow definition. Absolutely, the culture needs to be one where the team can help direct the future of the company, make a real impact, understand the mission of the organization, etc. These are all aspects of a healthy company IMHO.

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