Making the right decisions can be more emotional than you'd think

Harvard expert outlines the entrepreneur's dilemma between maintaining control and attracting outside finance.

Noam Wasserman (photo credit: Courtesy)
Noam Wasserman
(photo credit: Courtesy)
You're the founder of a new start-up company. You invented a new software tool, you've put in a few years assembling the technical, financial and legal aspects of the venture, and you're certain that the big cash is just around the corner. But right now, the company is tight on money, and the employees are impatient to get their paycheck, and last month's too. The investors see the spot that you're in and are willing to help out - but only by signing you to an agreement that will eat into your equity and attach strings to your every move. It's a do or die situation for the young company, and you're faced with a choice between risking the company or sacrificing your independence as CEO. It turns out that this is just the type of issue that many start-up founders face, one that Harvard Business School's Prof. Noam Wasserman describes as the "rich" vs "king" dilemma. The founder in our scenario can take the money from the venture capitalists - the "rich" option - or he can stay as "king" and keep the reins of the company firmly in his hands. Wasserman, a Harvard Business School MBA graduate himself, who chose academia over a business career, was in Israel last week to describe his research into the rich vs king dilemma in a lecture at the Jerusalem College of Technology. An easygoing Orthodox father of seven (and passionate Little League Baseball coach), he described, to a student audience getting ready to take their first entrepreneurial steps, how a business world supposedly dominated by pecuniary interests can actually involve many emotionally involved decisions. Wasserman's research, involving thousands of hi-tech companies, shows that these sorts of decisions are almost certain to come up at some point in a company's life. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post after his lecture, he said many company founders will take the path of "king," even if it means severely impeding the firm's growth. Often the people who come up with ideas for software, life sciences or any new technology, do not have the skills necessary to see the company through as it matures. But these "kings" are sometimes not ready to relinquish their power and equity in the company, and can hold back the company from being fully profitable. After all, the company represents their dream, their "baby," and they are interested in seeing it through the way they envisioned it. In the fast-growth world of hi-tech, that can seriously hamper a company's growth. Wasserman says the question can't be framed as a black-and-white issue. The trade-off between personal control and the company's value has to do with the founder's personal attitude toward the rich/king dilemma. Wasserman gives the example of Wiley Technology, a hi-tech firm that eventually was sold to Computer Associates for $400 million. One would assume that Wiley's founder would be pretty satisfied with that figure, but it turns out that he actually expressed misgivings about the way the company's future panned out. The founder had to gradually cede control of the company to the investors who put up the money to grow it, eventually being forced to step aside so that a more experienced CEO could take over. Those decisions certainly led to the company's phenomenal success, but left the founder feeling left out of the picture. In fact, he later founded another company, and was much more conservative about bringing in outside help to build it. Staying on through thick and thin could be a legitimate route - but anyone pursuing such a direction should be conscious of having made that choice, says Wasserman. After all, studies show that entrepreneurs generally make less money than their equivalent counterparts in mature businesses, so the thrill of making their own decisions must play a part in their career goals. Wasserman says the key to finding real achievement is to identify one's true motivations, and make the decisions best suited to fulfill those dreams. "Founders who make choices that are consistent with their motivations and goals (for example, a "king"-motivated founder who doesn't give up a lot of equity and decision-making control to co-founders, non-founder hires or investors; or a "rich"-motivated founder who does give up equity and control to attract excellent co-founders, hires and investors) should have a much better chance of achieving their goals." The key, concludes Wasserman, is to understand who you are and what motivates you, and to make sure that your decisions are appropriate to those motivations.