Just because you founded a startup doesn’t mean that you’ll get to stay at the helm of it forever.Nor should you always want to.
We recently spoke with Al Campa who will forever be known as the founder of Jaspersoft, a company that makes a super popular open-source analytics tool. Jaspersoft was founded in 2001 and is still cranking. Campa retains a stake but he no longer works there. He’s now CEO of a startup he didn’t found, Reachable.
In 2007, Jaspersoft appointed a new CEO, Brian Gentile, and Campa left.
“After five-plus years we brought in a new CEO to scale up the business and I couldn’t really find a good role for me to get excited about. So I stayed about a year and then moved on,” he says. He didn’t even retain a board position, although he says that he’s still informally involved and talks to Gentile regularly.
He called the change “an emotional thing” which was “tough for a lot of people.”
He didn’t point fingers but did warn that when those VCs take board seats at your company, they aren’t just friendly advisors. They might decide to replace you.
“A lot of VCs have blogged about the concept of bringing in new CEO to run something where a founder took it to a certain point and how that has very low chance of success,” Campa says. A founder is “intimately involved in everything,” he says. “They know where all the bodies are buried, they hired every person on board. The new person—they don’t know anything. It’s almost like giving your kids to someone else and watching them try to raise them.”
If you didn’t negotiate your place when you took the VC cash, you might be in for a rude surprise. Campa points out that this happened to the best of them, including Steve Jobs, who was famously fired from Apple in 1985. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg might have had a similar fate, if he hadn’t gotten advice from Sean Parker, who had been forced out of his startup, Plaxo. Parker told Zuckerberg to make sure that keeping his role as CEO was part of any investor deal. On the other hand, just because you founded a company doesn’t mean you are the right person to run it as it grows, Campa says.
At 50 people, you can stay involved in every detail. At 500 employees, you can’t. Your company may need someone who has experience taking a company public, or who can push it into new markets, or who simply knows how to manage a large company.
It could be better for all to walk away, says Campa: “You see this all the time. A founder brings in someone new to run things, but doesn’t really let them run things.”
That will be a disaster that will always affect you.
“This is your baby and it follows you around no matter where you go. If it’s a big success, you’re a hero and if it’s a disaster, you’re a loser.”