What Product Leaders Can Learn from Founder-Led Growth

This month, we’re focusing on all things Product Leadership. Keep an eye out for events, podcasts, blogs, and more!

When you think of Amazon, what comes to mind? You probably picture the logo, and you might also think of the last thing you ordered, or the package you’re still waiting for. You almost certainly think of founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, the richest man on earth.

When you think of Tesla, you might think about how cool your neighbor’s new car is. Or you might think about the last insane thing Elon Musk tweeted about.

Can anyone think about Apple for too long without remembering Steve Jobs, who remains a kind of Godfather of Consumer Tech even ten years after his death?

Some founders are inextricably linked to their companies, and actually serve as very influential growth-drivers. When a company’s founder becomes a household name, so does the company, bringing more and more customers into the fold. It’s hard to forget about an organization when the CEO appears in the news practically every day. Bezos, Branson, and Musk are even engaging in a 21st century space race!

Founder-led companies are not an unknown phenomenon, and there’s actually a fair amount of research into why they’re more successful than other companies.

A recent study by professors at Purdue found that companies whose founders were still acting as CEO, or involved on the Board of Directors, are more innovative and enjoy more long term success than those who don’t. On average, companies in the S&P 500 with the founder still in charge generate 31% more patents and are seen more as future-builders.

In the aftermath of 2020, Reuters found that founder-led companies were recovering better from the crisis, with higher profit growth post-lockdown.

What is Founder-Led Growth?

So while founder-led companies are a well known and well-researched phenomenon, not many people are talking about founder-led growth (FLG). Founder-Led Growth involves having the company’s founder be the public face of the company. The public persona of the founder is used to drive sales, either through their social media activity, their appearance on podcasts and documentaries, or their presentations at conferences.

Think about how Jobs became known for presenting the latest Apple product with “One more thing…” or how Musk drummed up excitement for Cybertruck. With just one tweet, presales when through the roof! When a founder becomes a household name, so does their company.

Attributes of a Growth Founder

Not all founders are made equal, and the same can be said about growth founders. But in general, we can expect a similar thread of attributes in the founders driving FLG at their companies…

Visionary

This is perhaps the most important attribute of a growth founder. In fact without vision, there can be no growth. A growth founder doesn’t just have a vision for where their own company is going. They’re knowledgeable in many aspects related to their niche.

Bill Gates doesn’t just talk about computers and operating systems. He’s also a well respected thought leader on environmentalism, social impact, and countless other subjects.

Articulate

You might be the smartest person on earth, but if you’re not very good at expressing your ideas, no one is going to know that but you. A growth founder not only has the right mindset and vision to take their company to the top, they also have the verbal prowess to sell themselves and their company.

Think of people like Gary Veynerchuck and Arianna Huffington, whose sayings and soundbites are well loved by business people of all disciplines. For a founder to be memorable, the things they say have to be memorable too.

Risk-taking

Sometimes, founders fail. And that’s perfectly normal. It’s not failure that stops someone from being a growth founder, but being able to get back up again. After all, Steve Jobs was fired from the company he founded, and later went to lead into total consumer tech dominance!

This doesn’t mean that growth founders take every risk. It means that they have good enough instincts and business acumen to know which risks are worth taking, and not being afraid to go for them.

Founder-Led Growth vs Product-Led Growth…Can They Live in Harmony?

man in black crew neck shirt holding white printer paper

It’s no secret that around here that Product-Led Growth (PLG) is king! With PLG, the product is placed front and center, and is used as the primary driver of customer acquisition.

The issue with FLG is that not every founder-led company is going to be able to manage it. Whereas any company with a product can (and should, in our opinion) be implementing a PLG strategy. FLG is incredibly hard to replicate, as it relies on your founder being famous within your niche. They need to be willing and able to put the effort into building their personal brand and expanding their network.

If your founder has a network that they can leverage, or a personality that people in your industry seem drawn to, your product can reap the benefits.

Let’s say you have a PLG strategy in place, with a freemium model that your target customers are starting to adopt pretty rapidly. And you have a founder (maybe the founder is actually you!) who is starting to build up their presence on LinkedIn. They’ve spent the last few years in Silicon Valley building up their network.

If your founder’s presence grows in the right places, you can actually start growing your sponsors, partners, collaborators, and potential customers. Once people get to know your founder, they’ll be driven towards your product, where they’ll meet your PLG strategy.

So using FLG and PLG together isn’t about replacing one funnel with another. It’s about combining the two to supercharge your growth strategy.

Is There Room for a New Kind of Founder?

When looking at the pantheon of founders who act as the public face of their companies, it’s quite noticeable that a specific type of person dominates the playing field. Where are all the women and POC?

It’s no secret that white men fill most of the boardrooms of the western tech industry, and a lack of diversity is something the industry has been dealing with for some time. However, 2020 saw a renewed commitment to and awareness of the need for better representation in all kinds of companies.

We know for a fact that the Product world is populated by amazing people of all types and backgrounds, with many at the forefront of founder-led companies. Hopefully soon we’ll see a new kind of founder grabbing headlines with just a tweet, or being the first entrepreneur to land on Mars.

What Can Product Managers Learn From This?

It’s unlikely that, as a Product Manager, you’ll be turning around to your founder/CEO and ordering them to start appearing on more podcasts. So what can Product People learn from FLG?

It’s actually a lesson on the importance of personal branding. If you want people to pay attention to what you’re saying, and the direction you’re trying to guide them in, you need a personal brand.

Does this mean you need to be building rocket ships and racing Elon Musk to the fringes of the galaxy? Not exactly.

For Product Managers, it shows the power of influence. Of being a person that people want to follow. It shows how powerful a force it can be when a founder is a fierce advocate for their own product. If you’re enthusiastic, if you take risks, tell stories, and share a vision, you can make big things happen.

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