One Big Thing: Founder Lessons

One Big Thing: Founder Lessons

Founders have been on my mind this week as big news unfolded about two of the biggest brands in the world, Instagram and Tesla. In both cases, it was all about the founders.

First, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, cofounders of IG,  announced they’re stepping away from their billion-user baby. And then Elon Musk,  Tesla’s founder, topped three months of floundering with a settlement with the SEC and the relinquishing of his chairmanship (he’ll stay on as CEO, and has to have a Twitter editor).

Systrom and Krieger, whom I met several times when I worked at The Met, are going out on top (to understand IG’s cultural connections, see this piece by NYT’s Daniel Victor). Musk is paying the price for the most expensive tweet in history (readers of this newsletter know that we highlighted a story advising Musk to quit Twitter two weeks before his notorious tweet).

What have we learned from the journeys of the founders of these two iconic companies?

  1. Get a cofounder. There are many factors that made IG successful, but none more than the fact that Systrom and Krieger had a real partnership. A cofounder is more than just a sounding board, he/she can be simultaneously consiglieri and mentor. Someone who can say “no,” someone who eases your burdens and expands your capacity. These are all the things missing from Musk’s world. Having someone who can say “no” to you matters.
  2. Temperament counts. Systrom and Krieger aren’t all about their egos. They are down-to-earth folks who know they’re changing the world but don’t need to tell you about it all the time. In every interaction I had with them, in-person, online, in NYC, at HQ, they never showed they were among the most successful entrepreneurs of our time. Musk is all ego and took the real-life Tony Stark comparisons seriously and literally. (Here’s a 15-minute art tour and IG tutorial I did on FB Live w/ Krieger in 2016)
  3. Watch what you do on social media. It would make sense that Systrom and Krieger are better at social than Musk. After all, they built a social network. But for years, Musk’s enablers – his board, his colleagues, his funders – all treated his social media usage as something different from what they were: official pronouncements representing a public company. Sure, his famously responding to customer complaints via Twitter was cool, but it wasn’t worth the price of the multiple, terrible ways he used Twitter. As I teach my clients who are C-suite execs (and everyone else): Every word matters. Everything you say has consequences. Take 5-10 minutes to craft your posts. Imagine if Musk had grasped any of those concepts.

Both IG and Tesla are going to be fine. But this week, IG lost a little of its soul while Tesla now has a chance to gain one in the months ahead.

Speaking of cofounders, a shoutout to my cofounder, Andrew Lih (@fuzheado). My teaching partner for a dozen years at Columbia, he is my digital mentor.  When we each found ourselves at crossroads last year, we jumped at the chance to work together. Our business, a new kind of digital and social agency, has an obvious name: Digimentors. BTW, the reason the business works isn’t just because we have great colleagues or because we say no to each other all the time. It’s also because we each have wonderfully supportive life partners who make this all possible: Roopa Unnikrishnan (@roopaonline) in my case and Mei Fong (@meifongwriter) in Andrew’s. They are also our cofounders.

– Sree  (writing this week from LAX, where I just landed after long flights from Dubai and Hyderabad. I was in India to keynote Amith Prabhu’s #Praxis7, one of the world’s largest gatherings of PR and communications pros. Am now in LA for two days to work with Sharon Waxman, founder of The Wrap and her big conference, #TheGrill2018. See highlights from this multicountry trip via this Twitter thread).

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A shoutout to the generous sponsors of my global social media tour, including GlobalTeacher PrizeBombay Shirt Company, and Hashtracking. To learn about sponsoring my tour, 25+ cities in 10+ countries: http://bit.ly/sreesponsordoc. And am grateful to work with many incredible clients in my new life, including PrathamUSA and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency

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