Are You Experiencing The Technical Founder Paradox?

Is your internal growth aligning with your external growth?

Something all too common

As small businesses grow from a small team of core employees into a company with dozens or hundreds of employees, the skills and responsibilities required from the founders and leadership grow in tandem. As a founder, the skills and capabilities that make you successful in leading a company with 10 employees and 50 customers are very different than the skills and capabilities required to be successful with 100 employees and 5000 customers. The challenge it can be difficult to pinpoint when that shift happens. Success and growth can come from many avenues and whether it is slow and continuous or hitting in bursts, if, as founders, we are not able to pause and reflect, we can naturally fall into an all too common trap. We need to ask ourselves if we are equipped to handle our current growth?

The Technical Founder Paradox

This leads us to an interesting phenomenon, that we at Roman 3 have seen play out in a lot of small and medium businesses, something we call The Technical Founder Paradox. This is a term that is used to describe the problems that come up in the natural lifecycle of many small and medium businesses. When the depth of knowledge and skills that were required to launch the business, achieve growth on a small scale, gain that initial market penetration, and capture market share, will actually end up becoming a roadblock that keeps the company from being able to push through that next hurdle and continue to grow in scale.

We define The Technical Founder Paradox as what happens when the skills, abilities, and mindset of the founders, which were crucial to starting and growing the business, are what stand in the way of the business’ sustainability and scalability.

First a little clarity

I want to first provide some clarity around a simple confusion that can arise because we call it The Technical Founder Paradox. We’re not referring to just tech founders or highly technical companies. This phenomenon can happen in virtually any company that is working toward scalability. Typically the founder or founding team are experts with great technical skills and understanding in their industry or sector. Whether they are in auto sales, mental health treatment, transportation, economic development, engineering, or anything else. Their skills and knowledge are required to work “in” the business, to hit early growth milestones that utilize their current skills and expertise. This is the norm for 95% of businesses out there. But where The Technical Founder Paradox can creep in is when their role in the company shifts away from working “in” the business and moves toward them needing to work “on” the business. The skills and knowledge that got them this far are not the skills and knowledge they will need going forward.

The struggles happen when they stay in that technical comfort zone, and are not able to evolve with the needs placed on them by their own success. This can create a situation where these very successful leaders become uncomfortable and unconfident in their own jobs, and in their own companies. Unfortunately, this often leads them to make common leadership mistakes like micromanagement, lashing out at employees, getting to “into the weeds”, blocking new innovations, avoiding ripe market opportunities, feeling stressed and burnt-out, etc.

Their success becomes the very downfall of the company’s scalability and sustainability.

What does it look like? An Example

Lets look at a real life example of this.  We had the privilege of working with a drone manufacturing company. The company was founded by a group of 5 friends (all engineers) straight out of university with a simple goal, improve the adoption of drone technology in agriculture and aquaculture. Since they all had a deep technical understanding of their product how it fixed existing problems in their target market, the early growth of the company was swift. 

Fast forward about 5 years and the company that started out as 5 technical founders had ballooned into almost 80 fulltime staff from administrative, marketing, operations, production, field work, and more.

The problem? Not one of the founders, who comprised the entire senior leadership team, had direct experience in the domains they were now responsible for, nor did they have firsthand experience leading teams of people who weren’t engineers. 

The founders fell into this all too common trap where the skills that allowed them to create a much needed product and see so much success very quickly in the lifecycle of their business, were now causing huge problems with turnover of key positions, conflict between the leadership team, and a lack of accountability and lack of leadership to their direct reports.

Warning signs

If you are concerned that this might be happening in your company, here are some simple signs to keep an eye out for:

  • Are you seeing issues with employee or customer retention?
  • Do you have lopsided growth? Where the parts of the business in the founder’s comfort zones are thriving, but everything else is faltering?
  • Is your business development starting to stagnate?
  • Does the founder or founder team dislike their jobs or feel overwhelmed and underprepared?

So what can we do about it?

Well, there are basically three options.

  1. As founders. we can upskill ourselves to be able to develop the new and required skills and have a larger breadth of knowledge, rather than a technical depth of knowledge.
  2. We can start to bring in the people with the required skills and knowledge into our leadership team. Start to build a strength-based team so we have the expertise and required capabilities to perform the functions of a scaling business.
  3. We can step back and find our niche within the company. We could carve out a job for ourselves and just do the parts of the work that we really enjoy. This would leave the day-to-day leadership to other people who have the skills to deliver the higher level growth and scalability.

Hopefully, this short article has given you something to reflect on. For more information on The Technical Founder Paradox please check out a podcast episode about it that goes live on June 19th, 2024

By James Schofield