Founders' Dilemmas - Harvard Business School MBA Program

Founders' Dilemmas

Course Number 1676

Associate Professor Noam T. Wasserman
Senior Lecturer Jeffrey F. Rayport
Fall; Q1Q2; 3 credits
28 Sessions
Paper

Career Focus

This course is for students who plan to become involved in new ventures, now or at mid-career. This involvement can occur in any of the following ways:

  1. As founders of a new venture
  2. As early hires, early advisors, or board members in new ventures
  3. As potential investors (e.g., VCs), customers, partners, or acquirers of new ventures

The course is designed to help these potential founders, hires, and investors prepare for the decisions they will face both before and during their involvement with new ventures.

Educational Objectives

Founders' Dilemmas examines the early, often difficult, decisions that have important long-term consequences for founders and their ventures. Potential consequences include losing control of their ventures, breaking up of the founding team due to tensions between founders, and jeopardizing the financial gains from their hard work and innovative ideas. The course's goal is to help students be much more informed about those long-term consequences before they make early choices that can lead to them.

We will focus on "people" issues (i.e., the key challenges faced when deciding when and how to involve other people in the venture) and on "universal" issues (i.e., those issues faced by founders regardless of the industry, geographical location, or period of time in which they are founding their ventures). The cases emphasize high-potential ventures (as opposed to "mom-and-pop shops"), where the choices we examine have the most impact on the future success or failure of the venture.

Course Content and Organization

The course is comprised of four major modules:

  1. When to Found
    Should I start a company now, or work elsewhere first? What are the pros and cons of different career paths vis-a-vis my ability to successfully start and run a new venture?
  2. Building the Team
    Should I be a solo founder, or should I try to attract co-founders? If I attract co-founders, who should they be (e.g., my good friends?); how should we split the roles; and, how should we split the equity?
  3. Beyond the Team: Investors and Successors
    What are the tradeoffs involved in attracting outside money and talent? How will my decisions affect my ability to keep control of my venture and also build its value? How should my motivations for becoming a founder affect the choices I make?
  4. Achieving the Entrepreneurial Ideal
    How have some founders managed to build valuable ventures while still maintaining control of them? What general lessons can we learn from these founders about the decisions we should make at the outset and throughout the building of our ventures?

Most classes are structured around cases, but we will also feature video clips, a negotiation exercise, panel discussions, and guest appearances from case protagonists to enhance the classroom experience. Data are presented during the class discussions which represent 13 years of research on founders and their ventures.