Founder Optimism

I’ve been following the recent news about Nikola Corp. founder and former chairman Trevor Milton. He’s been charged with misleading investors. I have no views on his guilt or innocence, but his situation reminded me of conversations I’ve had with founders.

Many early founders are optimistic about their companies. To survive, they have to be. The chips are stacked against them. If founders focus on the million things that could go wrong, it’s hard to motivate teams to run through walls. So, many of them see the glass as half full and focus on what could go right. I like this approach. It’s what teams need to do the impossible.

But . . . though optimism is great, there’s a line that founders shouldn’t cross. They should be clear about what has happened versus what they’re planning for. Saying you’ve hired a rock star CTO is different than saying a CTO will come on board shortly when you conclude final negotiations. One’s a done deal. The other’s an expectation. Founders can get themselves in hot water if they position something as having already been concluded when it hasn’t. Even if it’s highly likely it will happen soon. Maybe it won’t. Maybe Murphy’s Law will kick in. Or maybe the founder’s view of what’s “highly likely” is skewed by his rose-colored glasses.

Founders should be optimistic but also clear with all stakeholders. Optimism without transparency will erode trust over time. If a team doesn’t trust its leader, it’s doomed.