Startup

The Rise of the Founders’ Cult

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I grew up in a time where filters, data and everything that is accessible with a push of a button was not yet invented. Computers ran on floppy disks and the only game available to play on them was solitaire. Fax machines were still in use and CDs were considered high tech. Looking back at that time feels like the age of my grandparents with their record player and black and white television. After having through so many tech advancements from cassettes to CDs, and now streaming, it appears that with simple living, people made much more informed decisions and smarter choices.

A few years back, during the startup boom, everybody and their cousins was a “Founder”. What’s funny is that the concept of a startup is nothing new. Only the word is. For centuries and millenias, people have started their own businesses and were entrepreneurs in their own right. The only difference is instead of having VCs and investment banks backing these companies, most businesses took out bank loans and used their profits to scale up, expand, and replicated their business.

Having worked in several startups myself, I can share by firsthand experience that being part of a startup felt like being on Christopher Columbus’ ship, heading towards a new land, and unchartered territories. Every day was filled with excitement, every town hall was a revelation into those uncharted paths and every time the CEO of the company made it onto a certain list, it felt like we were changing the world. But were we truly changing the world or was it a mirage of seeing the world through rose-colored glass?

Don’t get me wrong, there have been several instrumental startups that have impacted millions of lives, including mine, and have completely revolutionized the world. Take for example, GoJek, the pride, and joy of my country. The Zeus of all startups here. GoJek single-handedly revolutionized the way people traveled, ordered food, and delivered items. GoJek was the first ride-hailing platform in the country which utilized the existing market of motorcycle taxis and then transformed itself into the first SuperApp pioneer in Southeast Asia. It has since become a decacorn and expanded to Singapore, Vietnam, and Thailand and has recently reached IPO. Not bad from a startup that started with ten employees. Its founder Nadiem Makarim has now become our Minister of Education and is in charge of educating the next generation in our country to be tech-savvy and tech-ready.

Founders such as Nadiem Makarim are few and far in between. Not every day can a product transform a nation and change people’s lives. Other founders who have changed the world forever have become household names such as Jack Ma, Jeff Bezos, Sara Blakely, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin. Yes, these founders deserve a cult following and demigod status for their foresight in being able to see a vision that none of us saw right in front of our eyes. Most worked from their garage and were able to produce solutions or products that are unparalleled until today.

With success, comes fame and fortune. And thanks to the rise of social media, we can now see what fame and fortune bring. We see the yachts, the caviars, the Gucci, and the Versace. And thanks to social media, today, founders no longer put their products or solutions in the forefront as they did before. Today’s founders want to be larger-than-life personalities, they want to be a supernova. To be seen everywhere across continents and nations, trailblazing their way to tomorrow. Founders of startups today want the perception of success without actually achieving success. As someone who works in communications, I can tell from my many years of experience that if a product is good, it will sell itself. Even in today’s Insta filled world, word of mouth is still the best promotion for any brand or product. When a founder says “I want a strong personal branding”, that’s definitely a red flag.

True founders and disruptors don’t need strong personal branding because they live, breathe and eat their products. The only branding they want is for their product, the only recognition they want is for their business.

The best example of this would be Khalifa Saleh Al-Haroon, the founder of ILoveQatar.net who I’ve been following since 2008. He is the mastermind behind the concept of bringing Qatar, its people, and its culture to the world. He started ILoveQatar in 2008, long before David Beckham visited the country as the Ambassador for the upcoming FIFA world cup, before Qatar bought Harrods, and prior to Qatar Airways becoming a household name.

Khalifa wanted to solve one problem and one problem alone, he wanted the world to know that his country existed. On top of that, he also wanted the world to know that its people are friendly, educated and most importantly set the record straight on any misconceptions the world had about Qatar. Khalifa single-handedly put Qatar on everyone’s radar and on the digital social map. As with all visionaries, Khalifa didn’t stop there, he then founded RaqamiTv, which is a channel that provides tech info to the Arabic audience with local content and perspective. RaqamiTv currently has over 290 million views. Khalifa doesn’t go around promoting himself in the hopes of nurturing a cult following and becoming a household name. Whenever he appears on anything he promotes his businesses and body of works. His endgame is to change the world, and he’s well on his way to doing just that.

This reminds me of the time I visited Doha a few years ago and the immigration officer asked me what the purpose of my visit was, I told him that I wanted to “See Katara, the Museum of Islamic Art and Souq Waqif. I also want to try Karak Tea and eat some Machboos”. The immigration officer proceeded to ask how I knew about all these things and I simply said “From Khalifa / Mr. Q in ILoveQatar, have you heard of it?” the officer replied “Yes” and smiled. Not only did Mr.Q and ILoveQatar were able to connect two strangers from opposite sides of the world together but it became a topic of discussion, it became a point of connection. And that is what a true disruptor and startup founder does, they change people’s lives and connect people.

…there have been several instrumental startups that have impacted millions of lives, including mine, and have completely revolutionized the world…

Have you ever noticed that founders who are larger-than-life personalities with strong personal branding and a cult following don’t have a revolutionary product? Best examples of this are Elizabeth Holmes and Adam Neumann. Were they not larger-than-life personalities? They knew the right words to say, when to say them and how to make people feel but at the end of the day, it was all smoke and mirrors. WeWork turned out to be WeCrashed and had a meteoric fall from being valuated at USD 47 Billion to nearly filing a chapter 11 bankruptcy. As for Elizabeth Holmes, looking back I can’t help but wonder how would a college dropout be at the forefront of science and medicine? Are these not subjects that need extensive research and education? Both things Elizabeth Holmes was definitely not equipped with and she ended up being found guilty of four counts of fraud. Yet everybody danced to the tune of Neumann and Holmes’ beat because of their charm, persona, and how they presented themselves.

For the true disruptors such as Bezos and Jack Ma, they became well known only after their businesses had impacted the lives of the people around the world. But for founders such as Neumann and Holmes, their personalities serve as smoke and mirrors to cover up what was missing all along. A solid product.

Looking back at history, the true greatest disruptors of our time emphasized their products and the solutions that they brought more than the image of themselves. Colonel Sanders, Henry Heinz, and the Monaghan brothers, all had inventions and ideas that truly revolutionized our daily lives. They didn’t have billboards promoting interviews or featured front-page articles. They let their products speak for themselves.

With all the problems the world is facing today, can we as a society continue down the path of glorifying founders and individuals, or have we reached a turning point to turn back the clock and focus on ideas and solutions that will indeed disrupt the status quo?

Today’s generation is obsessed with being part of a “community”, “tribe” and “ecosystem”, words that were never used daily when I was growing up unless we were studying biology, history, or geography. Part of being able to invent and have brilliant ideas is by focusing on issues that need solving. How can anyone focus when they are constantly surrounded by their “community”? When everyone is putting more energy into how they are perceived rather than what they are accomplishing? Every Gen Z I know wants to be part of a community, to receive validation, to be Insta famous, and to have followers.

Whatever happened to creating in silence, being forged in solitude, and creating breakthroughs in fortitude? Jeff Bezos created Amazon in his garage, with no community, no tribes, just him, four walls, and time. Colonel Sanders created a world-renowned fried chicken recipe alone in his kitchen, accompanied by only his spice racks.

What today’s generation doesn’t seem to understand is that founders should not be social butterflies in the beginning. True disruptors and founders don’t start as celebrities, but rather as problem solvers who are trying to figure out a way to solve issues that is in their community. And the biggest resource any founder needs to hatch that next billion-dollar idea is time and silence.

Everyone wants to be the next Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos and almost everybody seems to forget that at the end of the day, the tried and tested resources are still being fought for. Governments are still fighting over non-renewable energies, the earth is still burning and countries are still bombing each other.

If everyone wants to be the next Bezos, who will be the next Zelensky? Traditional careers such as joining the army, foreign service, and teaching are considered archaic by today’s standards. Everybody wants to be a startup founder, everybody wants to learn how to code, but nobody wants to ensure that the world is a better place.

Everybody is concerned about food security, but nobody wants to be a farmer. There are still serious issues that need to be dealt with worldwide such as tackling the remaining 1,67 million deadly unknown viruses in the world. Let us also not forget that physical security is still an issue for everyone in this world, there are still tyrants walking on this earth who are looking to invade their neighboring countries and there are still sweatshops making fashionable sought-after goods being used by the world’s population.

These issues have been around since my childhood and are still problematic today. Humanity still needs diplomats, architects, painters, and sculptors. That is the essence of us as humans, to work together and make it a better place. And yet, the more I see what the younger generation aspires to, the more I wonder what will the fate of humanity be? Nearly every child now wants to be a gamer, a YouTuber, or an influencer.

True disruptors and founders don’t start as celebrities, but rather as problem solvers who are trying to figure out a way to solve issues that is in their community.

What happened to all the children who wanted to be doctors, nurses, pilots, astronauts, and Presidents? Have we all become them? What does our future look like when every single child wants to be a startup founder and the next Jeff Bezos with a trillion-dollar yacht and six-pack abs without actually creating the next Amazon?

Isn’t it time we change our priorities and stop putting these tech founders on pedestals only to bring them down at a later date like an expired birthday cake? Instead of wanting photo ops and doing viral videos of our vacations, should we not raise a future generation to solve the world’s problems? There is nothing wrong with aspiring to be the next Dr. Fauci, or the next Larry King. Impact and change can be made in different ways, not exclusively by being a disruptor and startup founder.

Creating impact is a ripple effect. Even the small things that we do, will multiply and create change in the world. Being kind is the first thing that we all need to be experts in. The world is in dire need of empathy, compassion, and kindness.

Let us normalize normalcy, and get back to what we were and have always been. Let’s not be personalities, brands, or public figures with a cult following, but let’s be humans first and foremost. Looking out for each other and make the world a better place in whatever our life calling may be.

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