Melodramatic Bullshit

I was going to write a different post this morning, but I came across this post by Matt Haughey titled Ev’s assholishness is greatly exaggerated and, after reading it, sat for a few minutes and thought about it. Go read it now and come back.

Welcome back. I’m not an investor in Twitter directly (I am indirectly in a tiny amount through several of the VC funds I’m an investor in) but I’m an enormous Twitter fan and user. I also wasn’t an investor in Odeo so, as the cliche goes, I don’t have a dog in the hunt. But I have a few friends who were so I have second hand knowledge about the dynamics around the Odeo to Twitter evolution.

When I read (well – skimmed) the latest round of noise about “how founders behave”, possibly stoked by Paul Allen’s new book on the origins of Microsoft along with his 60 Minutes appearance, I was annoyed, but I couldn’t figure out exactly why. I had a long conversation with a friend about this when I was Seattle on Tuesday and still couldn’t figure out why I was annoyed.

Matt, who I don’t know, nailed it. As he says in the last sentence of his post, [it’s] just melodramatic bullshit.

Creating companies is extremely hard. I’ve been involved in hundreds of them (I don’t know the number any more – 300, 400?) at this point and there is founder drama in many of them. And non-founder drama. And customer drama. And partner drama. And drama about the type of soda the company gives or doesn’t give away. The early days of any company – successful or not – are complex, messy, often bizarre, complicated, and unpredictable. Some things work out. Many don’t.

We’re in another strong up cycle of technology entrepreneurship. It’s awesome to see (and participate) in the next wave of the creation of some amazing companies. When I look back over the last 25 years and look at the companies that are less than 25 years old that impact my life every day, it’s a long list. I expect in 15 more years when I look back there will be plenty of new names on that list that are getting their start right now.

So, when the press grabs onto to the meme of “founders are assholes” or ex-founders who didn’t stay with the companies over time whine about their co-founders or when people who didn’t really have any involvement with the creation of a company sue for material ownership in the company because of absurd legal claims, it annoys me. It cheapens the incredibly hard and lonely work of a founder, creates tons of noise and distraction, but more importantly becomes a distraction for first time entrepreneurs who end up getting tangled up in the noise rather than focusing on their hard problems of starting and building their own company.

When I talk to TechStars founders about this stuff, I try to focus them on what matters (their business), especially when they are having issues with their co-founders (e.g. focus on addressing the issues head on; don’t worry about what the press is going to write about you.) When I hear the questions about “did that really happen” or “what do you think about that’ or “isn’t it amazing that X did that” or “do you think Y really deserves something” it reminds me how much all the noise creeps in.

I like to read People Magazine also, but I read it in the bathroom, where it belongs, as does much of this. It’s just melodramatic bullshit. Don’t get distracted by it.

  • “It’s just melodramatic bullshit. Don’t get distracted by it”

    You’re right. For anyone who wasn’t there, the story *becomes* the story. Base motivations make lots of us want to listen to this shit, much like the rubber-necking at an accident.

    Don’t slow down to look; you have more important things to do – like driving the damn car.

  • Rick Gonzales

    All companies have these issues as well as government entities. The key is to stay focused on the target. Unfortunately, its like high school again.

  • Phil

    Awesome entry Brad. Every word is 100% on target. Experience it every day. Thanks for writing it.

  • I’ve come to terms with the fact that some people are just drawn to creating, spreading, reveling in drama. No judgement against them, just a personality trait. I think the filter of business does it’s best to keep these people out of the spotlight as such traits will invariably impede a companies ascent.

    The press also loves drama, it’s in their DNA to tell compelling stories and the public is fond of taking down their heroes or people ‘above’ them on the socio-economic latter. So the more noise and distraction out there for founders, the greater the challenge, and the tighter the filter to succeed.

    But yeah at the end of the day, you just got to get what you NEED right in your head first, and everything else is best for the bathroom of your brain.

  • Jerry

    Sometimes it’s melodrama, sometimes it’s not. When a co-founder and lawyer try to dilute the other co-founder, there may be drama, buts it’s also real and serious. This is just one more reason why founders need to focus on their reality, not the generalities often written passed around in many blogs

  • Very true. This is great life advice for family and relationships. Some people are drawn to and even create the constant drama, I feel because it simply gives them something to do.

    This also filters down through your organization. What you are concerned with makes the team concerned with it as well. The drama/timesuck takes a multiplier effect that robs your company of time and productivity with focus away from your core business.

  • James Mitchell

    Brad’s advice is fine as long as you are not living it. If you’re on the Board and the two founders don’t get along, it probably bothers you. But if you are one of the two founders, it can be living hell. As Paul Graham says about startup founders, it’s like you’re married but you are not fucking.

    The only real problem I have had with business partners in the past is work ethic. I am not smart enough to finish a highly complex project while working 50 or 60 hours a week, I have to work 80 or 90 hours a week. The problem is that some previous partners have not felt the same way. They want to work 40 or 50 hours a week. The bullshit they give me is, “I work smart, not hard.” The facts were they were not working smarter than me, they were just working a lot less than me. So what was supposed to be a 50-50 partnership — each side contributing about 50 percent with each side receiving 50 percent turned into a 70-30 partner. Not only did I feel screwed, I often felt overwhelmed because I had too much to do and in some cases deadlines were being missed because of his casual approach to work.

    Now I have a saying: Judge input, not output. I am really good at judging talent. If the guys I pick to work with are willing to put in the hours, the results are usually extraordinary. It’s pinning down the hours that one needs to do, up front.

    • James Mitchell

      In terms of startup founders, Mark Zuckerberg is in a league by himself. Bill Gates or Steve Jobs may or may not be assholes, but I don’t think they are fundamentally unethical people. Zuckerberg simply has no ethical bearings, he is a pathological scam artist. It’s hard to find a business partner he has not screwed or try to screw.

  • The reality today is that startup founders are getting to a pop-star icon position.
    A decade ago, no one cared about founders, but now, they are all the SHI**. it’s human nature.

    nonetheless, I totally agree with you.

  • aahhhahah.. that last paragraph is great.

    unfortunately, people aren’t rational and this shit happens.

    i’m lucky i work with smart engineers who don’t care for drama.

  • Money, ego and greed are what destroy companies from the inside out and this is usually all that the public will get see about a company. Starting a business and running a company is a lot harder than what the press covers with their overnight success stories of a few companies, neglecting all the other ones that took years to build.

    I love the entrepreneurial world and working with start-ups for this exact reason; you get to see the inner workings of the companies, metaphorically what’s “under the hood,” that no one outside will ever know. At the end of the day, you need to take any press on this melodramatic bullshit with a grain of salt, because they just want your eyeballs for $$$.

  • The passion that allows you to push yourself in any field has an emotional baggage that humans cannot seem to “reason” away easily. I’ve learned that a “battle hardened” team in business means a core group with enough trust and respect for each other that the melodramatic bullshit gets flushed down the toilet quickly.

  • The Twins Were Rowing Boats

  • zach

    Brad, thanks for the post. Already had the occasion to use in a live situation. Saved me some writing time!

  • When one lives the drama — it may not be fun. However in retrospect all partner-involved drama is simply a mere drama and noise. Advice to entrepreneurs: Grow up and move on.

  • Postmaster

    As much as I call people on melodramatic bullshit when I see it, I really hate to say that it does serve a purpose.

    Unless the company in question is being run by a totalitarian dictator that micromanages the hierarchy at a nanoscopic level, there’s got to be some social triage that helps slot people into roles, uncovers incompetence or people in sub-optimal roles, or basic efficiency optimization. These are subjective, soft judgement quantities. This is the type of place that politics/melodrama/shooting-the-shit act as the oil in the gears.

    BUT: everything in moderation. A decent leader is at the very least aware of the goings on and at best, quietly managing the whole dance to the company’s benefit. Also, much of this may not apparently apply to teams which have already meshed in previous companies but this ‘oil’ is a must when dealing with people (co-workers, partners, customers, etc) and to try to eliminate it wholesale will be to your peril.

  • great post brad. thanks for writing it.

    ev is an amazing person and a fantastic entrepreneur. he took over as twitter ceo when there was less than 25 employees and grew it to well over 300. i think there was about 3M accounts total at the time and two years later there was nearly 200M accounts. i’m forever grateful for his leadership throughout an intense period of the company.

    also, one other thing to point out. I did a bunch of due diligence before i invested in twitter in 2008. i spoke to several odeo investors and all of them felt like Ev treated them honorably — without exception.

  • Anonymous

    Makes first time entrepreneurs wonder if the old adage that you NEED to have a co-founder even more questionable. Many of these founders not only fight barbarians at their gates (competitors) but barbarians in their midst (other co-founders).

    It makes me extremely wary of recruiting a co-founder. Find the wrong one and BOOM, you’re toast.

  • I agree with this whole story re startup melodrama. Early stage co’s are messy and beautiful. Almost like newborns :). They come out screaming, covered in stuff and slowly but surely they take form. Just like parenting, raising startups is something that becomes more and more fulfilling as the journey goes on.