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A case against the maverick unicorn founder

Recently, the founder of a very well-funded startup got angry on a call because he heard a colleague drink water. His comment – “If what I’m saying is less important to you than drinking water, we shouldn’t even have this call”. Stop for a moment & let this behaviour sink in. Unreal.

Over the past few years, we’ve really glorified the ‘maverick’-ness of successful founders in India. It is widely believed that it takes a unique vision & an aggressive, win-at-all-cost mindset for a founder to achieve big wins. However, this gospel has percolated extremely bad culture at a number of unicorns/soonicorns. We’ve all heard stories of some leading founders who are known to instantly explode on their team, run a foul mouth, always blame others for failures & have zero empathy.

Explicitly or implicitly, this behaviour is not just tolerated by the wider ecosystem, but often admired as the founder “gets shit done”. I’ve heard some of them say, “Nothing gets done if I don’t yell”. So the result are aggressive, pushy, low-empathy, disrespectful leaders who believe they’re always right. They also believe that this is the only way & do not see the need to change.

Well, I’ll say this in some unacceptable words. Fuck you.

Pardon the language, I’m just trying to speak in their language & also writing this with some anguish & anger. An aggressive culture is not a necessary condition for high performance.

But who’s keeping a check on this behaviour? Many employees of these large startups will be founders soon and this culture trickles down & spreads like a virus. Yet hardly any large VC fund, who arguably have the means & the whip, institutes 360-degree feedback on the founders. Neither is leadership coaching strongly advocated, nor are areas of development identified & improvement tracked. The Board Decks limit themselves to business metrics and strategy. Customer NPS scores are measured but if some team members are depressed, the Board hears that they were not good enough anyway. The ecosystem loves to talk about mental health of founders, but never talks about how founder actions impact mental health of their team.

So, then it’s up to us seed-stage investors to nip this unruly behaviour in the bud. We may not be able to spot it pre-investment, but can definitely do something about it post-investment. Not fully sure how, but I have some ideas. Happy to hear more.

A cynic may say it would hurt investment returns. Well, I’m willing to take that risk, but I strongly bet you’re wrong.

In summary & in the spirit of being the change one wants to see, if you’re an early-stage founder who believes that being aggressive & pushy is the only way, and that culture/ happiness are not what startups can accommodate: Kindly do not pitch me. I won’t back this behaviour anymore.

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