No matter how many times it's been debunked, the myth of the iconic founder comes back with a vengeance. It goes something like this: a brilliant, ambitious tech wiz — clearly born to be an entrepreneur and predictably male — has a light-bulb moment. He drops out of college and bets everything on a startup, which ends up changing the world while generating massive wealth.
The problem with this story — the all-American narrative of scrappy individualism — is that it's not entirely consistent with reality. According to David Touve, senior director of ventures at UVA Darden's Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, it perpetuates a distorted view of what it takes to launch a startup and what the typical entrepreneur is like. "The media," says Touve, "spreads and amplifies those extreme founder stories, and aspiring entrepreneurs accept them as true. Unfortunately, acting out those myths usually leads would-be founders down the wrong path."
Having examined the genesis stories around tech's biggest breakthroughs, Touve dispels the common misconception that entrepreneurs are born, not made. He also suggests that there are four archetypes of the iconic founder: the genius, the guru, the gambler, and the gunslinger.
The idea behind this myth is that innovation is the province of creative genius, and that breakthrough ideas are born — fully formed — in a flash of insight of someone brilliant, like Einstein or Edison. "Such founders," says Touve, "are assumed to be more intelligent than everyone else. They anticipate the future and then wait for everyone else to catch up. Think Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin."
In real life, the process of transforming an idea into a profitable product or service is messy and unpredictable. "Most fast-growing startups emerge from an approach similar to basic science," says Touve. "A hypothesis, a rough prototype, then a test, followed by results that inform each subsequent iteration."
Second is the guru myth, which holds that successful entrepreneurs, like Steve Jobs, instinctively understand what the world wants. "They just know what products people will like," says Touve. "Great product development or decision-making is innate to them, and the future is something they intuit better than everyone else."
Yet this approach, according to Touve, fails more often than it succeeds. "Breakthrough products," he says, "usually have simple beginnings, with a final version being the result of listening to hundreds of potential customers. Most people don't realize how much testing Apple actually does. Commercial failures, like the Lisa or iTunes Ping, are simply forgotten."
The third myth rests on the assumption that entrepreneurs are risk takers. "It's this belief," says Touve, "that successful founders are gamblers who are willing to bet more than anyone else." However, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Expert founders know how to reach the market with minimum expenditure of resources and risk only what they can afford to lose, as Darden Professor Saras Sarasvathy, a renowned scholar of entrepreneurship, has found.1 "Most of the value founders create," says Touve, "is actually through 'de-risking' the venture, confirming — or denying — core assumptions before investing significant time and money into each stage of the venture."
Take Uber. Its co-founders Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick didn't just quit their jobs and risk everything to build their ridesharing service. Camp was still CEO of StumbleUpon when he launched a prototype for UberCab as a side hustle. He and Kalanick later tested the service using only three cars.2
Finally, there's the gunslinger myth, which echoes the Western outlaw. "The Gunslinger works alone, makes decisions alone, shoots first, and asks questions later," says Touve. Elon Musk, who stands at the helm of several tech firms, including Tesla, fits the profile. He's known for shooting from the hip, especially on Twitter.
The gunslinger myth can make those who don't play well with others take up entrepreneurship for all the wrong reasons, such as being their own boss. The truth is, founders are at the mercy of customers, shareholders, and financial regulators, as Musk found out last year. His erratic tweets about wanting to take Tesla private triggered an investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.3
Silicon Valley is saturated with myths that overplay the role of the founder. Tech giants such as Apple, Amazon, and Alphabet weren't created by a lone genius working in a vacuum. They all benefited from external innovations such as the Internet, developed in part by government-funded research.
According to Scott Shane, professor of entrepreneurial studies at Case Western Reserve University, and author of The Illusions of Entrepreneurship, all those media-fueled misconceptions can be outright harmful. As Shane writes in his book, "Myths about entrepreneurship imply that many things that actually matter for success really don't matter. . . . Believing the myths might keep you from doing the things that you need to do to succeed."4
The reality is that no matter how visionary they may be, seasoned entrepreneurs know that they can't do it alone. Patrick Collison, the co-founder and CEO of Stripe, a San-Francisco based payments startup valued at more than $22 billion, said it best: "I'm the CEO, and the buck stops here on every decision we make. But everything we do, that is not my work. If it is, then it's a small part and an increasingly small part."5
1. Saras D. Sarasvathy, "What Makes Entrepreneurs Entrepreneurial?" Technical Note ENT-0065, 13 September 2005.
2. Stephen M. Baldwin, "Uber Hero: The Canadian Computer Savant Behind the Ride-Sharing Phenomenon," Globe and Mail, 28 April 2016.
3. Brent Goldfarb and David A. Kirsch, "Tesla," The Washington Post, 2 September 2019.
4. Scott A. Shane, The Illusions of Entrepreneurship: The Costly Myths That Entrepreneurs, Investors, and Policy Makers Live By (Yale University Press, 2010), p.5.
5. Murad Ahmed, "Middle Managers Who are a Start-ups Unsung Heroes," Financial Times, 7 April 2015.
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