Noam T. Wasserman

Associate Professor of Business Administration

Noam Wasserman is a professor at Harvard Business School.  For more than a decade, his research has focused on founders’ early decisions that can make or break the startup and its team. At HBS, he developed and teaches an MBA elective, “Founders’ Dilemmas,” for which he was awarded the HBS Faculty Teaching Award and the Academy of Management’s 2010 Innovation in Pedagogy Award.  In 2011, the course was also named one of the top entrepreneurship courses in the country by Inc. magazine.

His book, The Founder's Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup, was published in 2012 by Princeton University Press.  Within two weeks, it had become Amazon's #1 book on the Management bestseller list, #1 in New Business Enterprises, and #2 in Popular Economics.  Publisher's Weekly called it "seminal," "captivating," and "required reading."  The New York Journal of Books called it "the single-most indispensable guide for founders of startups."  In his review, venture capitalist Brad Feld said, “There are plenty of books lots with stories, anecdotes, and suggestions, but none that are particularly systematic about going through all of the issues. Noam’s book is the first I’ve read – and he totally nails it.”  Other reviews can be found here.  Among its awards, the Academy of Management named it one of the Top Five Business Books of the Year, it received the Axiom-Silver Award for Best Business Books of 2012 (Entrepreneurship category) from the Independent Publishers Association, and Startup Weekend named it Top Startup Book of 2012.

Both The Founder’s Dilemmas (the book) and Founders’ Dilemmas (the course) provide a roadmap for founders about the most common pitfalls they will face.  The book and course integrate Noam’s research results, quantitative data collected over the last decade from 10,000 founders, case studies, and conceptual frameworks.  Since 2000, he has been the lead researcher on the annual CompStudy survey of technology and life-sciences startups, which has become the most comprehensive survey of compensation for top management at private companies in the U.S. (and is now expanding to include China, India, Israel, and England).  Noam is one of three members of the core faculty of the Kauffman Foundation’s Global Scholars program, and he has delivered numerous keynote addresses to meetings of the Young Presidents Organization (YPO) and Entrepreneurs Organization (EO), venture capital retreats, startup incubators, entrepreneurship conferences, and other groups.

Noam’s research has been published in Harvard Business Review (his 2008 article on “The Founder’s Dilemma” became an HBS Publishing best seller), the Academy of Management Journal (2006), Organization Science (2003, 2008), the Best Paper Proceedings of the Academy of Management (2004, 2006), and other publications.  He won Harvard’s George S. Dively award for dissertation research and the Aage Sorensen Memorial Award for sociological research, and for four straight years won the Outstanding Reviewer award from the Academy of Management (Business Policy and Strategy division).

Noam received his PhD from Harvard University in 2002, and received an MBA (with High Distinction) from Harvard Business School in 1999, graduating as a Baker Scholar.  Despite being voted “Most Likely to Become a CEO” by his MBA section, Noam decided to pursue academia as a career and to enter the PhD program (thereby giving up on ever becoming a CEO!). Before coming to Harvard, he was a Principal and Practice Manager at a management-consulting firm near Washington, D.C., where he founded and led the Groupware Practice. He also worked as a venture capitalist at a firm in Boston. He received a BSE (magna cum laude) in Computer Science and Engineering from Penn, and a BSEcon (magna cum laude) in Corporate Finance and Strategic Management from Wharton. He lives in Brookline, MA, with his wife and eight children, loves coaching Little League, and completed Shas in 1997-2005 with the 11th Daf Yomi cycle.

  1. The Founder's Dilemmas


    Often downplayed in the excitement of starting up a new business venture is one of the most important decisions entrepreneurs will face: should they go it alone, or bring in cofounders, hires, and investors to help build the business? More than just financial rewards are at stake. Friendships and relationships can suffer. Bad decisions at the inception of a promising venture lay the foundations for its eventual ruin. The Founder's Dilemmas is the first book to examine the early decisions by entrepreneurs that can make or break a startup and its team.

    Drawing on a decade of research, Noam Wasserman reveals the common pitfalls founders face and how to avoid them. He looks at whether it is a good idea to cofound with friends or relatives, how and when to split the equity within the founding team, and how to recognize when a successful founder-CEO should exit or be fired. Wasserman explains how to anticipate, avoid, or recover from disastrous mistakes that can splinter a founding team, strip founders of control, and leave founders without a financial payoff for their hard work and innovative ideas. He highlights the need at each step to strike a careful balance between controlling the startup and attracting the best resources to grow it, and demonstrates why the easy short-term choice is often the most perilous in the long term.

    The Founder's Dilemmas draws on the inside stories of founders like Evan Williams of Twitter and Tim Westergren of Pandora, while mining quantitative data on almost ten thousand founders.

    People problems are the leading cause of failure in startups. This book offers solutions.

  2. NoamWasserman.com

    Noam's research focuses on the early, often difficult decisions founders face that can make or break their startups.  This site includes his long-time research blog, resources tied to his Founders' Dilemmas course and his book (The Founder's Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup), and a self-evaluation survey about founding inclinations.
  3. Surviving Success: When Founders Must Go

    At some point, a start-up's founder usually cedes CEO responsibilities to a seasoned manager. But what roles does the founder assume next? Professor Noam Wasserman discusses a recent case study and what students learn from it in the classroom.
  4. Are Company Founders Underpaid?

    Company founders have a tough time convincing their boards to increase compensation, says HBS professor Noam Wasserman, who discusses his research into "founder frustration" areas.