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3 lessons for start-up founders from Wikileaks

The world is caught up in the Wikileaks story right now.  Whether it be the salacious details of the sex crimes founder Julian Assange is charged with, the all-out cyberwar being waged by Wikileaks supporters against targets like Mastercard, or the actual content of the leaks themselves, every day is another day that Wikileaks is at the top of the news.

Whatever you think of Wikileaks actions, there are are good lessons in their experience that all founders can benefit from.  Here are three:

  1. Remember that you have a team. Micro-managing founders who have to participate in every decision in the organization quickly become bottlenecks to growth.  This illness is so common that it even has a name – “Founderitis”.  In Wikileaks case, Assange reportedly vettes every document before release personally.  The company has apparently not accepted any new material for several months now as it is still working to digest 250,000 diplomatic cables.  When the CEO becomes a bottleneck to growth, then you’ve got founderitis, and you need to do something to cure the problem.  Ironically, incarcerating Assange may be the best medicine for Wikileaks.
  2. Avoid overblown rhetoric. When dealing with the press, overblown rhetoric creates one of two problems – it destroys an organization’s credibility when the claims made are unbelievable, or the rhetorical device alters the story so dramatically that the organization loses control of the messaging.  Consider the case of Wikileaks encrypted dumps, and Assange’s threat to release the encryption keys.  He has made those statements in the past, and they’ve mostly been ignored.  His lawyer recently described the release of of those keys as the detonation of a thermonuclear data bomb.  At that point the press latched onto the story, and despite Julian Assange’s attempts to position himself as a credible journalists’ source, he instead became a mad-man with a bomb. He lost control of the story of Wikileaks and the material being leaked and Wikileaks may never recover from this characterization.
  3. Infrastructure matters. Many organizations are crushed when demand for their services exceeds the capacity they can deliver.  In this, Wikileaks has been a great example for us all.  As key components of infrastructure have failed or been deliberately taken down by a host they have been able to continue to operate by moving to backups.  All start-ups need a disaster plan.

Like many startups, Wikileaks displays immense technical prowess, accompanied by a curious naiveté about how to manage their business, or their reputation in the outside world. Take a cue from Wikileaks.  Emulate what they’ve done well, and avoid repeating their mistakes.

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