Founder Central

Noam Wasserman, professor and author of The Founder's Dilemmas, comes to USC Marshall to launch his Founder Central initiative

September 14, 2017

Noam Wasserman joined the faculty of the USC Marshall School of Business as a professor of clinical entrepreneurship in the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies only last year. But already he’s had an outsized impact: creating new classes, expanding curriculum, establishing a series of daylong intensives based on his research that are nearly impossible to get into, and generally hoisting the Greif Center flag high above the Los Angeles entrepreneurial eco-system.

He’s also managed to finish the manuscript for his second book, which promises to bring his ground-breaking research further into the mainstream.

“Coming to L.A. was a chance to come back home,” said the Los Angeles native. “But also the Greif Center felt like an eco-system that could continue to take off. The combination of what would be going on personally, on campus, and then in the broader L.A. area was very exciting stuff.” - Noam Wasserman

Noam Wasserman, professor of clinical entrepreneurship at USC Marshall's Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, lectures to faculty about his research into the early decisions startup founders make that impact their companies as they grow.


It's the kind of pace that sounds exhausting, but it’s the way Wasserman does business. A renowned scholar and best-selling author, Wasserman chose to come to USC Marshall from Harvard Business School for the opportunity to grow the impact of his research and teaching, and to play a larger role in the vibrant and growing startup scene in the Los Angeles region.

“Coming to L.A. was a chance to come back home,” said the Los Angeles native. “But also the Greif Center felt like an eco-system that could continue to take off. The combination of what would be going on personally, on campus, and then in the broader L.A. area was very exciting stuff.”

The Founder's Dilemmas

The People Problem

founders_dilemmasSome 17 years ago, Wasserman, then a graduate student at Harvard Business School, discovered something else that excited him.

An entrepreneur himself before returning to school for his MBA, he’d been seeking information about what kinds of people should be involved in new ventures and why certain early personnel issues kept causing problems later down the road when the startups hit their growing pains.

“I was trying to understand what knowledge academia had gained about the people side of things, not just the product and financing sides on which academia had focused,” said Wasserman. “I found almost nothing out there beyond anecdotes and case studies. Nothing systematic had been done.

“At the time, it was the biggest missing piece in the entrepreneurial landscape, and the one most likely to separate success from failure,” he said. “I had to run with that.”

Building the Case

Run with it he did. The next year, while still working on his doctorate, he launched CompStudy, an annual survey of founders in the United States and Canada. By the time he joined the HBS faculty in 2003, he was already well underway with collecting a unique data set on the human side of founding companies. Within 10 years, he had built a massive set of data exploring founders, their earliest decisions, and the resulting outcomes for them and their startups. The data set now includes more than 15,000 founders and 30,000 total startup executives, making it the largest and richest dataset of its kind.

Coming to USC Marshall was a chance to grow Founder’s Dilemmas into Founder Central, an initiative that would extend Wasserman’s research out of the classroom and into the startup scene itself.

These data would fuel a meteoric academic career. Wasserman published his research in leading journals, including Organization Science, the Academy of Management Journal, Strategic Management Journal, and Management Science. He crafted two dozen HBS case studies and created a popular course called “The Founder’s Dilemmas,” which had 200-student wait lists and won the Academy of Management’s 2010 award for Innovation in Entrepreneurship Pedagogy, as well as an HBS faculty teaching award for Wasserman.

Course alumni have gone on to become near-household names, including Eli Portnoy of ThinkNear (the most successful exit from the Techstars incubator), Matt Salzberg, founder-CEO of the meal-kit delivery service Blue Apron (now a public company) and Anthony Tan of GrabTaxi, a dominant ride-hailing company in Southeast Asia.

Wasserman’s research culminated in a book, The Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls That Can Sink a Startup.

Published in 2012 by Princeton University Press, The Founder’s Dilemmas is that rare academic book that reads like a page-turner. The book quickly rose to the top of must-reads for academics and founders. In 2014 it won the Entrepreneurship Practice Award from the Academy of Management, and at this point has spent more than half a decade as a Competition & Strategy top 10 bestseller on Amazon.

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The Journey to USC Marshall and the Greif Center

Come West, Young Professor

founder central logoNot long after The Founder’s Dilemmas was released, Wasserman was invited to become a visiting professor at Stanford University’s School of Engineering. Stanford is arguably ground zero for Silicon Valley startups, and Wasserman (who holds undergraduate degrees in engineering from the University of Pennsylvania’s engineering school and in business from the Wharton School), took what he called his “deepest dive” into the west coast startup culture, educating engineers about the founding-team decisions they would face.

Enter the Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at USC.

We're always on the lookout for individuals who are extraordinarily talented and extraordinarily nice, even when they’re not on the job market, and even when we're not recruiting,” said Elissa Grossman, associate professor of clinical entrepreneurship, who together with Helena Yli-Renko, director of the Greif Center and holder of the Orfalea Director’s Chair in Entrepreneurship, approached Wasserman about moving the Founder’s Dilemmas program to USC. “We were hopeful that Noam might be interested in a position.”

Wasserman accepted an opportunity to give a research talk at the Greif Center. And it was here that the first of many discussions about a permanent move to USC was sparked.

A Bigger Sandbox

As far as Wasserman was concerned, it would also be a chance to think more broadly and involve more people in a program that he had largely been running on his own. It was a chance to grow Founder’s Dilemmas into Founder Central, an initiative that would extend his research out of the classroom and into the startup scene itself.

He spent the 2015/2016 academic year as a visiting professor, establishing connections with USC students and Greif faculty. In partnership with Jeremy Dann, founder of the Greif Center Case Collection, he gave a course for Marshall faculty about writing case studies, and he taught a four-part workshop to faculty in teaching case studies that has now become an annual workshop.

He also went on a listening tour of key players across the L.A. business eco-system, including serial entrepreneurs, the city’s Entrepreneur in Residence, venture capitalists, and the heads of startup incubators.

“The Greif Center felt like an eco-system that could continue to take off.” – Noam Wasserman

When he officially joined the USC Marshall faculty in August 2016, “We hit the ground running.”

Since then, Wasserman has created for USC three versions of his Founder’s Dilemmas course, including the first-ever version for undergraduates.

The demand was apparent, as was the immediate applicability for the students—35 percent of the undergraduates in his course were in the process of founding a startup.  In his part-time MBA section, a full 53 percent were living the material every day, he said. Students from across the university lined up for the class.

“The undergrad section was a delightful mixing ground,” he said. “Forty percent of the students were from Marshall, 20 percent from other areas of the university, such as biology and the Leventhal School of Accounting, and 40 percent were from the Iovine and Young Academy.” The USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation provides an undergraduate degree program focused on nurturing and developing original thought.

He is also expanding the Greif curriculum, including laying the groundwork for a new course on entrepreneurial history, in collaboration with Daniel Wadhwani, an entrepreneurial historian who will be joining Marshall as a visiting professor later this year.

Also in the works: Plans to add more material about the legal and ethical dilemmas faced by founders.

“We’ll be able to bring on faculty who can speak to these issues with deep expertise and develop a generation of much broader-thinking founders,” he said.

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Bootcamp for Founders

The Founder Central Bootcamp

Wasserman’s work (and energy) has extended well beyond campus. Two weeks after joining the Marshall faculty, he began offering daylong immersion courses – “bootcamps” – for founders and investors. The first, in collaboration with the Techstars-Disney startup incubator, was held off campus, and introduced angel investors to concepts around evaluating and mentoring startups, as well as selecting a founding team. Despite no publicity, the event received 110 applicants for 30 spaces, although that was expanded to 45 given the demand.

This initiative is about doing what I love to do, only bigger. The Greif Center and Founder Central offer everything a founder should be learning, in the best way we can teach them about it.” – Noam Wasserman

The first Founder Central bootcamp aimed at founders came in November 2016. It targeted 30 high-potential founders based in the Los Angeles area. The course was repeated in April 2017 and included participants from as far away as San Francisco and San Diego.

Brian Conyer, Jeff Loo and Jihye Shin are behind GIBLIB, a digital platform that will help train and educate the next generation of surgeons. (Photo/Susan Joh)

Attending the bootcamp “was the first time since its inception that my co-founder and I were able to reflect on our personal perspectives, goals, and roles in our startup,” said Brian Conyer, founder-CEO of GIBLIB, an online library of the surgical videos and medical lectures. “We identified key areas of alignment and misalignment, developed a plan-of-action to build a deeper professional relationship, and refined our vision as leaders of the startup.”

Sarah Weingust, former bootcamp participant and founder-CEO of HostelPass, which offers prepaid accommodation at the best hostels in Europe, also appreciated guidance around establishing a strong business partnership for her company.

“If I had had the opportunity to take the Founder’s Bootcamp before choosing my partner for HostelPass, I know we could have avoided having some contentious conversations when we needed to be strongest together,” she said. “The course allowed us to strengthen our partnership by teaching the importance of understanding one another’s intentions for the company, discussing our respective weaknesses in our roles, and our ability to complement (rather than copy) each other's skills.”

According to Conyer, “Founder’s Bootcamp should be mandatory for every founding team serious about building a stronger company.”

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The Next Book -- Life as a Startup?

In the meantime, Wasserman recently gave his publisher, Stanford University Press, the manuscript for his next book, a guide to using Founder’s Dilemmas best practices in contexts outside the startup setting.

“In 2010 I met with a student who said that although he was never going to found a business, my course had changed his marriage,” Wasserman recounted. “I was surprised to hear that. But he was essentially grabbing me by the lapels to say, ‘This goes way beyond founding! It applies to life!’”

Wasserman realized then that the best practices he teaches founders can also be applied to career decisions, extend to working in large companies—even apply to founding a new relationship.  “My student wasn’t founding a startup, but founding a family,” he said. “He was seeing all sorts of ways to apply the concepts.”

Bringing the best practices of founders to wider audiences is essentially why Wasserman moved to USC. “This initiative is about doing what I love to do, only bigger,” he said. “The Greif Center and Founder Central offer everything a founder should be learning, in the best way we can teach them about it.”

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