We still expect every startup founder’s story to play out like Greek mythology

This hero narrative is a myth.
This hero narrative is a myth.
Image: Reuters/Yannis Behrakis
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The startup founder has become our cultural hero: he reckons with the status quo, disrupts entrenched systems, and overcomes all odds to fundamentally alter how we experience the world.

We expect our startup founders to fit into this archetype, which is usually male and white. We also expect their narratives reflect the arc of the “Hero’s Journey” as illustrated in Greek mythology: one follows a call to adventure, endures trials and tribulations, and eventually emerges victorious. When a founder’s story doesn’t follow this formula, we rewrite it so that it does.

Such is the case of uBeam, a startup that is developing wireless charging technology, led by young female founder Meredith Perry.

Last week, much-hyped uBeam came under fire after a former engineer questioned whether uBeam can ever ship the technology it has promised. He compared it to Theranos, the health tech startup that is currently being investigated by the US Securities and Exchange Commission. uBeam has received around $25 million in funding since 2012 and has yet to deliver its technology to the world; Theranos is on the line for its healthcare technology, blood tests, which are already in use. Fortune pointed out that both the founders of uBeam and Theranos are young, female and blonde—but other than that, there are few similarities between the companies. The quick association between the two reflects a lazy correlation.

On Friday (May 13) one of uBeam’s investors, Mark Suster, wrote a blog post in defense of Perry and the company. He acknowledged that uBeam has played to the press, as many well-funded startups do:

“Has the company received enormous press? Sure. Has Meredith at times been prone to promising revolution or hubris? Of course. I think she would even acknowledge this, but having a grand vision is vastly different from making fraudulent claims.”

He also discussed how Perry falls outside the usual founder archetype. “Were she a shy, pimply, awkward male engineer with a pocket protector she would fit an archetype that would make sense to observers,” he wrote. “But she’s not.”

Only a year ago Fortune called uBeam founder Meredith Perry the next Elon Musk. The polarity and quick rise and fall of startups has become the norm, such has been the case with companies like Zenefits and Zirtual.

Aaron Zamost, now head of communications at Square, describes “Silicon Valley time,” which mirrors the hero’s journey (summarized here):

  1. there is a call to adventure and an early excitement around a founder/product
  2. the public crowns the company as a disruptor through its ability to change the world and the startup experiences rapid growth
  3. this leads to greater scrutiny and questioning over eventual unmet expectations
  4. the founder/company goes into a “dark night,” which often involves key employee departures and puts the company’s product on the line and its ethics in question
  5. for those that survive the dark night, there’s rebirth. The company experiences a comeback, and the journey starts anew.

That’s the typical journey for those who make it through.

Playing to the media and fitting into an archetype has become par for the course for any startup founder. Companies are only as good as their stories. The public narrative is what attracts talent and investors. However, it can also be constricting: A forced narrative leaves less room to improvise, which is essential for a startup’s success.

Suster noted that even if uBeam fails to deliver its product as promised, he would fund Perry’s next venture. uBeam’s fate is yet to be determined, but it has progressed further than many startups ever do. The only way to test whether a technology or service actually works is to give it a really good shot.