February 22, 2021

Founders, stop chasing after the limelight — just build your damn product

Fame-seeking founders aren’t just annoying, they’re also potentially damaging to Europe’s startup ecosystem.

Elena Mazhuha

4 min read

I get contacted by ‘limelight-seeking’ founders at least once per month. They’re easy to spot: they usually have tons of articles in the media; an active Medium blog with articles like ‘How to read 100+ books a year and be a successful CEO’; participate in panel discussions; regularly win pitch competitions and fill up several pages of Google search.

But when I see their startup's financial results and user metrics, I want to become one of the first testers of Elon Musk's spaceship and leave this planet screaming in despair.

How to spot a limelight chaser

If you work in tech, you definitely know such people:

  • They often found multiple startups in a row that make a lot of fuss and content and end up going nowhere. The lifetime of each ‘startup’ may be as short as six months. But sometimes it may last years, during which the founders ‘pivot’ multiple times, spend time attending conferences and talking to "large clients" and "famous VCs". Needless to say, these talks never end up in anything substantial.
  • Limelight-chasing founders actively give interviews or keynotes and get a lot of media coverage from the first day after the launch. They announce each startup on social media and rant about it like they have just invented immortality.
  • These founders tend to write about reading 100+ books per year and listening to multiple startup podcasts daily. They also write summaries of everything they’ve read or listened to, sometimes in real-time mode. And now, when we all have finally got that invite to Clubhouse, we can see notifications about these people joining one room after another. Sometimes, it looks like they don’t work or sleep at all.
  • On a call with VCs, when asked about having no decent traction after a year of struggle, they start a long monologue about the grandeur of their plans and ideas, billion-dollar markets and how they are in talks with famous funds and corporates. Needless to say, these talks never turn into anything substantial.
  • Their scaling strategy is obscure and sounds like "we will grow the growth, increase our income, and become a unicorn". No comments here.
  • Often, limelight founders work on the startup part-time. There is nothing bad about being a part-time founder at the hypothesis stage. Everyone has some side gigs they want to try out to see what happens next. But why in the world do some people with a poorly tested hypothesis proclaim themselves founders and start talking to VCs?

Meanwhile, the actual founders work on the product 24/7, borrow money from friends and relatives to find traction, fight for their first clients, and have no time for multiple interviews, Clubhouse rooms and panel discussions on how to "be a successful CEO and manage people".


But… why does it matter?

This culture, promoted by fame-craving founders, is not just annoying; it also harms the tech industry, promoting an unrealistic image of your average startup founder, scaring away new angel investors and creating no added value or business knowledge in the market.

First of all, limelight-seeking founders create an impression that startups are about fun and burning investors' money, but not about business. Then, other people, attracted by this idea, get into tech, make a lot of noise, and leave disappointed, achieving nothing good. To make matters worse, they cannot even teach any important lessons learned via a killer Twitter thread.

Fame-hungry founders scare away angel investors who are just starting out.

Secondly, fame-hungry founders scare away angel investors who are just starting out. New angels often start investing in these loudest startups, before they build a sufficient tech network and go through enough pitches to discern high-potential deals from crap. The loudest early-stage startups often fail, new investors lose money and leave disappointed, thinking that every startup is a cash-burning fraud.

And finally, these founders create a bad image of the countries they represent. Due to their huge PR efforts, they often manage to get covered in international media. Eventually, they become the face of tech for the country they originate from. And when they fail, everyone who has ever heard of them thinks: "Ugh, if even such a great startup failed from that country, the other must suck, too."

PR is a great thing for an early-stage startup if it brings organic audience or good leads. But if it doesn’t, you should stop chasing after the limelight and work on your product first.

Elena Mazhuha

The first employee at Flyer One Ventures. At F1V, I source Seed/Series A deals. Led 15+ investments in Awesomic, 99math, Hacker Noon, MUNCHER, Deskree, AllRight, PromoRepublic, Field Materials, Scalestack, Prodly etc. Built and led PR team at Flyer One Ventures. Ex-TA Ventures, ex-Citibank, ex-EY.