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Is it time to call time on calling yourself founder?

What’s your favourite job title? On LinkedIn, John F. Conway opts to call himself Chief Visioneer Officer, which seems a little cheesy until you notice his company is Visioneers (which may be a larger crime). LinkedIn is also home to plenty of chief dream officers and heads of happiness, although the latter often seem to office pets who didn’t get much say in the matter.

Do these, or indeed other, more conventional job titles, matter? Shouldn’t we have moved beyond this unhealthy obsession with hierarchical labelling? Can’t we allow people to describe themselves how they like? Well yes and no. Job titles perform important social functions. They are markers of identity, achievement and ego. They’re a valuable, if unreliable and maddeningly inconsistent, shorthand allowing us to signal to others who we are, what we do and what we have achieved. And yes, to some extent how we do so offers some insights into our ego.

Is it time to ditch the founder?

This gets us to the increasingly vexed issue of the use of the title “founder”. Is the increased use of this term a positive or negative trend? Should we have just stuck with using entrepreneur? Or replaced it with something more functional? The current crop of hero, high-tech business creators almost exclusively refer to themselves as “founders”. So, there must be something going for it. The F word has come to symbolise more than just a business owner, but someone creating a business to scale. An entrepreneur opens a shop, a founder establishes a disruptive global retail business, built around transformational technology.

This debate was brought into focus by a recent article in Management Today, in which Waypoint’s Otto Stevens declared the term founder may be doing those that use it “more harm than good”.

His argument is that founder is a passive term, referencing a moment in the past, and causes confusion because it doesn’t explain what that person is responsible for today. Everyone is usually clear what a CEO is responsible for. And other board functions are even more clearly delineated. Stevens goes on: “In some cases, it can be symptomatic of a dysfunctional organisation where there's a certain lack of clarity about the founder’s role. It can affect client relationships when they want cut-through thinking and don’t care who founded the business that’s meant to be providing it.”

Stevens is concerned that using founder is confusing in terms of who you are and what you do, and is sacrificing clarity on these points in order to satisfy the ego. And his point on organisational clarity is important. It matters that everyone knows what they are doing, what they are responsible for and who else is accountable for what. It is far from ideal to have the prospect of a founder suddenly swooping in to make big decisions on issues that senior directors thought they had in hand.

While there is an ego element involved in the use of founder, that’s the same in all job descriptions and is understandable. In the words of one CEO, “any idiot can be a CEO, but not everyone can found and scale a business”.

In terms of identity, use founder says you are someone who has created something. As that something scales and its success grows, so the connected sense of achievement of being the one who gave it life, also grows. Any lack of clarity as to what a founder does in an organisation does need to be resolved – for internal and external stakeholders alike – but that can be achieved through sensible policies and processes. Job titles matter for lots of people and lots of reasons, but they don’t operate in isolation.

If you have given it thought and want to refer to yourself as founder than feel free. After all, even if anyone can be one, not everyone wants to be called CEO, let alone chief vision officer, or head of tomorrow for that matter.