SaaS Startups

Beware the Necrotic Touch of Zombie Ex-Founders

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Jason Lemkin

“I was scared. Not of being dead, that I could not comprehend, to be nothing was impossible to grasp and therefore nothing really to be scared of, but [of] the very instant when you know that now comes what you have always feared, and you suddenly realise that every chance of being the person you really wanted to be, is gone for ever, and the one you were, is the one those around you will remember.”

— From Pet Petterson’s  I Curse the River of Time

There are a lot of great people in Silicon Valley, perhaps their greatest greatness of all, is that if they have the bandwidth, and they truly can — they will help you.  Somehow, Silicon Valley enables mentoring on a wider, if not deeper scale, than almost anywhere I could imagine.  If you have a great idea, the germ of a great company — great people really will help you.  For free.  For the love of helping you do something great.

The biggest exception is what I call The Zombie Ex-Founder.  This is a person who made a lot of money on their medium or high(ish) profile start-up a few years (or more) back.  But that start-up nevertheless failed even though they made a bunch of money.  Their start-up went away, or was acquired into nothingness, or absorbed into another brand and died, and … that was it for them.  And they know it, but can’t let on, or even fully admit it to themselves.  They know they will die and go to the graves and never do anything better.  So their 24k cufflink insecurity makes them insufferable.

These zombies aren’t the ones that are happily retired, content to take their kids to school or work on the house.

No these zombies are still acting alive, still acting like they are doing something.  A pretend founder, a pretend VC, a pretend something.  But they know, nothing they ever do will never compare to what once was, but now, no longer, or never again, will be.  It is gone forever for them.

These zombies, I tell you, will suck the life out of you:

  • They’ll cleverly and obliquely tell you why your start-up s*cks, not directly, but with subtle and deeply painful digs.
  • They’ll make you feel stupid, with their insufferable penetrating insights, told again and again and again.
  • They’ll make you feel small, quietly noting your start-up didn’t scale as fast as their great success.
  • They’ll make you feel like they are a little too good for you.  Not a lot, just subtly, a little too good for you, given their amazing success.
  • They are the fairest of fairweather friends.  They only want to affiliate with the hottest success of the moment.

Somehow, these days, I seem to see a lot of these guys.  I feel dirty after I spend time with them.

I run.

Published on September 18, 2012
  • I’m with you. Just remember not to become one…

  • Wow. You’re scaring me man. Is this going to happen to me? 😉

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  • Dennis Ray Wingo

    I had one of those a few years ago. He had made his cash out when his company was acquired by a major player, but the major player killed the product line shortly after the acquisition. He came to me wanting to learn about space. I had just put well over $100k back into my business to continue product and he claimed he knew the investor community, knew how they thought, and could help get capital by “november”. This was in July. Then November turned to March. He said something odd to me one day. He said that he felt weird not being the smartest guy in the room anymore and that in his previous company had always been the smartest guy. A couple of weeks later he told me that it would be impossible to raise funds for my company and then he disappeared.

    Since then I have signed major patent deals, obtained some good contracts to help build our team and have done projects that have gained us international recognition.

    I hate zombies…

  • Very true. Really an issue of psychology – ex-founder zombies are self-focused and unhappy.

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