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I Am Not My Company Is Not Me

Startups are roller coasters, with euphoric highs and harrowing lows. Amper Music, the AI Music company I co-founded in 2014 and led as CEO until our acquisition by Shutterstock in 2020, was no different. Early-stage investors will often emphasize that among the many criteria they evaluate in considering a venture investment, the team is (one of) the most important. Investors want to know if the team, come hell or high water, will persevere. As David S. Rose shared with one of my Columbia Business School classes in 2016, as an investor, he wanted to know that his founders would never give up as long as there was “blood flowing through their veins!” (side note: I’m sure David doesn’t remember saying this, but the memory is seared into my brain and had an outsized effect on my approach to "founderhood"). 

I took this advice to heart and worked nearly every waking hour, seven days a week, so that I would never be judged to have fallen short of my investors’ expectations. Through the first few years of this undying commitment to Amper, a terrible thing happened to my psyche, and I didn’t even realize it: I conflated my identity with that of my company's. People would ask me how I was doing, and I would respond “Amper is doing great” without the slightest awareness of the consequences of what I said. As I tied my identity to Amper’s, I was on top of the world when the company succeeded and dismal when it struggled. These were not just my reactions to Amper’s ups and downs, but rather they were me.  

One day, walking around our office in 2018, I experienced an “Aha!” moment. If my board fired me and lured Tim Cook away from Apple to run Amper instead, Tim would probably not weld together his and Amper’s identities. If Amper performed strongly under his leadership, well, way to go, Tim! But Amper’s inevitable low points wouldn’t be a reflection of Tim’s self-worth. He could be doing well or poorly, and the business could be thriving or struggling, and these two states were not circularly dependent. Perhaps that’s the main difference between a professional CEO and a founder CEO.  

To address my revelation, I unilaterally decided on behalf of Amper’s board to fire myself as Amper’s founder CEO and to then immediately hire myself as Amper’s professional CEO. (To be clear, this was a mental exercise, not an actual series of real-world events). In the wake of this firing and hiring, a transformative shift occurred in the dynamics of my role and, more significantly, in the essence of my well-being. By consciously uncoupling my identity from Amper's fortunes, I discovered an unexpected freedom. My mental health improved, stress diminished, and personal relationships blossomed. When asked how I was doing, my response transformed from a reflexive association with the company to an authentic acknowledgment of my personal state. This shift, from founder CEO to professional CEO, not only revitalized my approach to leadership but, more importantly, allowed me to reclaim and nurture the facets of life beyond the startup grind. So, here's to the invaluable lesson that one is not defined by their company, and the profound liberation that comes from realizing: I am not my company is not me.