Every entrepreneur has a “founder story.” Because these narratives come to define our identities and animate our waking (and sleeping) hours, we founders tend to get overly attached to them. This is particularly true in Silicon Valley, where founder stories are the stuff of legend—and mild obsession.
Many of us, though, arrive at a moment when we recognize that a dramatic plot twist may be in order. Maybe our product or service isn’t quite resonating the way we expected, or with the audiences we initially had in mind. Or maybe we discover we can have far greater impact than we thought possible if we take a sharp pivot—shaking up our business model, realigning our stakeholders and rewriting our guiding narrative.
Even when these realizations are ultimately welcome news—because they point to new opportunities or untapped markets, for example—the lure of the founding story is so powerful that the prospect of changing it can be difficult, even painful. This was my own experience and, looking back, what I learned.
Falling in love with my founder story
My inspiration for Zum came eight years ago when, as a product manager at eBay, I noticed how often minor transportation-related crises on the home front were distracting me and my fellow working parents: Someone’s child needed a ride home from school, or to an afternoon activity, or from a playdate.
In so many other ways, the world was at our fingertips. We could order lunch, shop for groceries or hail a cab with a few swipes on our phones—yet the process of getting our children around town hadn’t changed since my own mother struggled with this very challenge decades ago, back in India. Struck by this disconnect, I set out to create a safe, flexible, tech-enabled ride-sharing service for kids.
Before we were even out of the pilot project phase, word of mouth took off. Everywhere I went, parents peppered me with questions and showered me with gratitude.
People were falling in love with my founder story and the challenges I wanted to conquer. I was one of them.
Rewriting the narrative
After a key conversation about scalability with an early investor, I began reaching out to public school districts. Schools, it turned out, were desperate to replace outdated transportation systems based around “one-size-fits-all” yellow diesel buses that too often drove around half-empty. Not only were districts fed up with an opaque, headache-inducing system governed by pen-and-paper logistics, but they had substantial budgets to pay for a solution.
The more I learned, the clearer it became: Student transportation was a gargantuan societal and environmental problem, hiding in plain sight. By modernizing the yellow school bus system, we could improve life for millions of parents and children. Even the Biden administration has taken a stance, announcing a $1 billion grant to school districts to buy electric buses.
The Zum of today, backed by industry-leading investors like Sequoia and Softbank, is fully devoted to our mission of transforming student transportation: the largest mass transit system in the U.S., serving 27 million students at a cost of $28 billion a year. But while our decision to radically upscale our ambition—by partnering with school districts instead of serving parents directly—seems obvious in hindsight, it didn’t at the time.
Founder narratives, it turns out, can be blinding.
My six-step process
Even as it became clear that my company’s storyline needed to change, getting there wasn’t easy. Here’s my six-step process for founders in similar predicaments:
1. View the opportunity with fresh eyes. As a founder, it can be hard to be objective about these decisions. At critical junctures, I like to imagine that I’m coming into the picture as a brand new CEO. Looking with fresh eyes, what would I change, redesign or scrap?
2. Manage your emotions. A founding story can be dangerous; it clouds one’s vision. I realized that before I could sell my reframed narrative to the world, I needed to manage my own emotions and wholeheartedly come to terms with our new direction.
3. Develop conviction. Once you accept that, based on new analysis and reflection, your vision and narrative need to evolve, embrace the new one with renewed gusto. Lean into it until you develop the conviction you need to bring others aboard.
4. Engage your stakeholders. Your employees, early customers and investors are also wrapped up in your founder story. Our own shift from a B2C to B2B model changed how the product was evolving and how teams were structured. One exercise that helped us navigate this disruption was focusing on the core elements connecting both models. Whether we were working with parents or schools, our key customers remained the same: the students.
5. Brace yourself for breakups. As in any big shakeup, some may feel upset. There were people who had invested with us in part because they were so excited about the direct-to-consumer model, and in some cases we ended up parting ways. That’s OK. It’s part of life.
6. Write, write and rewrite. Your founder story may continue to evolve. Personally, I find it helpful to keep a running document where I chart the course of the company and continue to make sense of our mission.
As entrepreneurs, it’s our job to seek uncertainty. Ambiguity and uncertainty challenge us, allowing us to make new discoveries and identify opportunities for growth.
Changing your “founder story” is a monumental move that will inevitably involve periods of uncertainty. Give it the attention it deserves, though, and you may find yourself with an even more powerful narrative to tell.