On “founders”.

I’ve co-founded two startups. One in mobile apps for social organizing, the other in fintech.

^ That’s technically true, but actually kind of misleading.

Actually, the work I’ve done in other jobs is arguably much more important and interesting. Those startups I mentioned didn’t become wildly successful. But it sounds much cooler to “found” a thing than to “join as an employee”.

There was a time when I knew a lot of people who founded their own nonprofits. When I dug in deeper, though, I realized that they were the only employees of those nonprofits, and all their income came from one source — a larger nonprofit. So what exactly distinguished them from an employee, only paid in prestige instead of healthcare?

At this point, when I meet someone in SF with the title of “founder and CEO”, I immediately translate that into “sole employee, good chance they have no customers, I bet their startup dies in a months.”

That’s often not fair to them — but it feels more accurate than “oh my gosh, founder and CEO! So fancy! Swoon”

Now there’s a paper out about that phenomenon: Towards an Untrepreneurial Economy? The Entrepreneurship Industry and the Rise of the Veblenian Entrepreneur. It even cites my favorite economic philosopher, Thornstein Veblen. Can’t wait to read it.

Until then, here’s a small piece of career advice I’ve given people for the last 10 years — if you can, don’t be afraid to found companies. Expect you’ll fail. Failure is often desirable — it means you don’t have to commit years of your life to this thing any more. But our culture weirdly values being a “founder” of a thing that barely existed, even over being an amazing worker that saved a company from destruction.

Given that, are we so surprised that people take that advice?

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