Avoiding Founder Failure: A few insights and tips relevant to think tanks

23 April 2012

I came across this list of tips for avoiding founder failure that I think may be relevant to many think tanks. Last month I visited the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy in Serbia and among the many interesting things I found was that, unlike many other think tanks, its founders stepped down at the right time -not too soon nor too late.

Here are the insights and tips from Dharmesh Shah (slightly edited by me so do go to the original for the full list):

  • It is normal for founder-CEO to be fired rather than voluntarily step down.This is unlikely in think tanks but it is more likely that their tenure will simply be untenable.
  • Founders of think tanks in developing countries are often pioneers (sometimes responsible for setting up the first think tanks in the country) and feel like Lewis and Clark: Rough idea of where to go, but don’t see a clear road ahead or upcoming pitfalls.
  • Unfortunate but true: If entrepreneurship is a battle, most casualties stem from friendly fire or self-inflicted wounds. Most funders are not managers and will inevitably struggle to become one. They should not be afraid to delegate this to others.
  • 65% of startups fail due to problems within the management team. So think tanks take notice. The composition of the management team is very important. Should it include only the most senior staff or should it involve others with key roles such as communications and HR even if they do not have seniority within the centre? What should be the balance between researchers, communicators, and managers? These are not easy questions to answer and for that they should be carefully considered and decisions should be open for review.
  • Each additional social relationship within the founding team increases the likelihood of cofounder departure by 30%. This is interesting particularly since many think tanks are set up by people who know each other and share a common history. What is the  right familiarity balance?
  • Related to this: Friend/family cofounders are often the least likely to tackle the elephants in the room (Relationships, Roles, Rewards) Carefully construct firewalls and discuss worst-case scenarios.
  • Founders often fail to realize when they are about to make a fateful decision. Often they cannot see the world changing around them because the forces that drove them to set up the think tank in the first place feel very present and the effort involved in its initial development consumes all their attention. Decisions hence are made without considering their potential impact in what is a new world. Founders should remember that the policy community in which they work will have changed by the very fact that they set up the think tank.
  • Examine the motivations of your potential cofounder to see if they are compatible with your own motivations. This is relevant for decisions related to cofounders as well as for the composition of the board. Who are the right people for a think tank board? Diversity is good but at least they should all have similar motivations.
  • Motivational compatibility does not guarantee success, but incompatibility is asking for trouble.
  • Neglect the 3 Rs (Relationships, Roles, Rewards) at your peril. Misaligned 3Rs cause tension, dissension, and blow ups.


  • Firing yourself as founder-CEO enables you to remain more involved with your startup after you’re replaced. This is what happened at BCSP and continues to happen to this day. How many think tank directors are considering this path? And how many plan to continue to be involved?