Founders

Thanks for Everything, Now Get Out! When Founders Get Fired.

Thanks for Everything, Now Get Out! When Founders Get Fired.
Image credit: Ben Grey | Flickr
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We all know the scene: Donald Trump waggles his finger and points at one of the pseudo-celebrities on his “Celebrity Apprentice” reality TV show then utters those harsh words, “You’re fired!”

It makes for good television, but despite the fact that it’s all done for entertainment and to help some charities, I think the moment must hurt badly for those who come under the gun.

This painful scene has played out in the lives of many founders. They start their companies from scratch, working like dogs, then bring in investors who eventually decide that they aren’t the right people to take the business to the next level.

It happened to Jobs, it can happen to you

That smarts, but it’s happened to people as talented as Steve Jobs, who was forced out of Apple after he tried to get then-CEO John Sculley removed. His case proved that revenge is a dish best served cold when he ended up back in the driver’s seat several years later.

Groupon founder Andrew Mason found himself ousted in February 2013, the day after his company reported a bigger-than-expected quarterly loss. The loss caused investors to doubt the entire business model on which Groupon was founded. However, Mason may have had the last laugh when he issued a memo to employees announcing his departure that read, “After 4 1/2 intense and wonderful years as CEO of Groupon, I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family. Just kidding – I was fired today.”

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Mason lost his job while Groupon was in the throes of establishing itself as a bona fide commercial entity; it was a young company. Sometimes leaders who have been at the helm for many years find themselves on the outs. That was the case with George Zimmer, who was the TV commercial face (“You’re going to like the way you look. I guarantee it!”) of The Men’s Warehouse for what seemed like a lifetime.

Not ready for prime time?

But whether in the formative years or when a company is mature, the basic reason founders are ousted is usually the same: Investors have no confidence in their ability to take the company to the next level. That could be establishing initial viability or profitability, or implementing changes required to compete in a changing marketplace.

I don’t know if anyone keeps statistics on this, but it seems to be a common phenomenon in today’s tech-dominated startups. Here’s an Ousted Founder Hall of Shame:

  • Noah Glass, Twitter
  • Jerry Yang, Yahoo!
  • Martin Eberhard, Tesla
  • Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, Research in Motion (BlackBerry)
  • Eduardo Saverin, Facebook co-founder

Some go on to later success, as with Steve Jobs, but quite a few seem to be one-hit wonders, who are able to take a load of cash and live comfortably while they dabble in this and that.

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One key to not finding yourself fired from your own company is to do everything you can to stem off a surprise. Frankly, if business is going poorly you should never be surprised. If internal political machinations catch you unaware, you haven’t created the bonds and communication lines necessary to maintain control through rough times.

Seeing the bigger picture

But, as we leave this topic today let’s look at the issue from a wider perspective, and leave behind the smaller moves that might save a founder’s job for a season.

Power, once held, is a difficult thing to release. After George Washington won the Revolutionary War, he was the most powerful man in our nascent country. Surprisingly, Washington announced that he would leave public life. When England’s King George III heard that Washington planned to retire, the king reportedly said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Knowing the limits of one’s ability and understanding when it is best for the organization to have another assume power is perhaps the greatest quality any leader can possess. And it’s a rare talent indeed.

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