Is your business your identity?

I saw this tweet and it made me want to smash the “reply” button and disagree. But then I resisted – it needed more words, more thought.

As with most topics, and controversial points: it's nuanced and it depends.

Businesses grow up to inherit traits from their leaders – good and bad

From everything I can see, startups (and all companies) naturally adopt the culture and behaviours of the people running them.

Whether it’s the aggressive, winner-takes-all approach of Uber (and Travis Kalanick), the hungry, fast moving, detail obsessed approach of Stripe (and the Collison brothers), or the decisive, crazy, design-obsessive approach of Apple (and Steve) – I struggle to think of a company that isn’t an extension of the identity of the people in charge of it.

That’s not to say that the company can’t adapt or adjust to address the shortcomings of the founders. In fact, it has to to succeed. We all have flaws – and the bigger the business, the more publicly known those founder flaws are.

I find this all the time at GoSquared – as I’ve grown up, I’ve tried to increasingly make myself aware of my strengths and my weaknesses. I try to ensure we hire for people that fill the vast gaps in my own skill set, and I try to ensure I keep my mouth shut on topics where I really don’t consider myself an expert.

Your identity doesn't need to map 1:1 with your business

The reason I struggle with this tweet, is that it’s a two-way statement – it’s stating your startup = your identity. I find it much easier to agree that one’s startup is heavily influenced by the founder’s identity. I find it much harder to agree that a startup defines the founder’s identity.

GoSquared defining my own identity has honestly been its own small challenge for most of my adult life.

It's been a challenge in small ways and large – for example, my first Twitter account was not "@jamesjgill" it was "@GoSquared" – the very personification of GoSquared and myself on social media back in the day were the same thing. It was this decision to not start a personal Twitter account earlier that almost certainly caused me to miss the opportunity of being "@jamesgill" on Twitter, damnit!

It’s always hard for me to have a conversation with a friend before the question of “how’s GoSquared going?” cropping up within the first 5 minutes. Work is always a logical topic to talk about when catching up with a friend, but I find that answering this question, as a founder who has only ever worked in one place for my entire career, is a deeper question.

It’s a question of “how are you finding work?”, sure, but also “how has this career path you’ve chosen worked out so far?”, and “how is the company that you and your team put your heart and soul into – how’s that performing?” – it’s a question I can rarely do justice with a single sentence of “it’s going great!”

It wasn’t until 2019 (oh remember that year? What a lovely, global-pandemic-free year!) when I tackled perhaps my biggest challenge outside of GoSquared – running the marathon – that I realised how much more to me there is than GoSquared.

Having a huge goal – both in terms of fitness and fundraising – totally changed my thinking of “who I am”.

GoSquared means the world to me, and I work day and night to make it as successful as I possibly can, but when someone asks me how I am doing, the answer involves many more factors than GoSquared(!) – it involves my family, my partner, my friends, my fitness, my ambitions, my mental state, my home, and also GoSquared.

So to anyone out there who’s started, or thinking of starting a business – your business will be an extension of your identity. But your identity is not solely defined by any one thing in your life.

Your business is your business – it’s a huge part of your life (if you want it to be!) but it is not all that defines you.

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