Course Overview for “Founders’ Dilemmas”

Educating founders about the upcoming decisions and challenges they will face

Last week was HBS Graduation Week, marking the official end of the debut semester for my “Founders’ Dilemmas” course. I had a great semester with a terrific group of very sharp students (who generously bestowed on the course the 2009 HBS Teaching Award). In honor of those bold, risk-taking students who were willing to bet on a new course, I’m going to devote my June posts to outlining the course’s structure and content and to delving into the case studies I developed for it. In addition to their being useful for educating the future founders in my classroom, I have also found that these case studies are useful for educating current and future founders who are already off campus.

Below is the official course overview. The bottom half describes each of the course’s four “modules.” Each of my next four posts will describe the cases in those modules. In the meantime, I would love to get any comments or feedback on the high-level structure or any of the rest of the content!

Founders’ Dilemmas: Money and Power in Entrepreneurial Ventures
Associate Professor Noam Wasserman
20 sessions + Paper


For students who plan to become involved in new ventures now or at some point in their careers. This involvement can occur in any of the following ways:

  1. As founders of a new venture
  2. As early hires, early advisors, or board members in new ventures
  3. As potential investors (e.g., VCs), customers, partners, or acquirers of new ventures

This course was designed to help these potential founders, hires, and investors prepare for the decisions they will face both before and during their involvement with new ventures.


This course examines the early decisions that have important long-term consequences for founders and their ventures. Potential consequences include losing control of their ventures, breaking up of the founding team due to tensions between founders, and jeopardizing the financial gains from their hard work and innovative ideas. The course’s goal is to help students be much more informed about those long-term consequences before they make the early choices that can lead to them. The course also arms students with tools and frameworks with which to assess potential outcomes and avoid common mistakes.

We will focus on “people” issues (i.e., the key challenges faced when deciding when and how to involve other people in the venture) and on “universal” issues (i.e., those issues faced by founders regardless of the industry, geographical location, or period of time in which they are founding their ventures). The cases emphasize high-potential ventures (as opposed to “mom-and-pop shops”), where the choices we examine have the most impact on the future success or failure of the venture.


The course is comprised of four major modules:

  1. When to Found
    Should I start a company now, or work elsewhere first? What are the pros and cons of different career paths vis-à-vis my ability to successfully start and run a new venture?
  2. Building the Team (Co-founders and Hires)
    Should I be a solo founder, or should I try to attract co-founders? If I attract co-founders, who should they be (e.g., my good friends?); how should we split the roles; and, how should we split the equity? Once I start hiring non-founders, should I hire “right” or “right now” employees?
  3. Beyond the Team (Investors and Other Outside Resource Providers)
    What are the tradeoffs involved in attracting outside resources? How will my decisions affect my ability to keep control of my venture and also build its value? How should my motivations for becoming a founder affect the choices I make?
  4. Achieving the Entrepreneurial Ideal
    How have some founders managed to build valuable ventures while still maintaining control of them? What general lessons can we learn from these founders about the decisions we should make at the outset and throughout the building of our ventures?

Most classes are structured around cases, but we will also feature video clips, a negotiation exercise, a panel discussion, and guest appearances from case protagonists to enhance the classroom experience.

  1. Congratulations Noam on the teaching award!

    The course looks very interesting–and not just for existing and future founders. In my opinion, the material is equally relevant for those who are in the business of funding companies and entrepreneurs. This includes venture capitalists (current and future) as well as Angel investors. After all, they too have to deal with many of the “dilemmas” the course addresses.

    These are seldom easy situations so examining founder issues in different contexts can be an incredibly helpful exercise for this set of stakeholders.

  2. Looking forward to reading more.

  3. Congratulations Noam. Look forward to seeing more….


  4. This looks great. Your students are lucky to have you as a mentor. I look forward to sharing these lessons learned with my readers! Thanks for sharing,


  5. I bet your students fell honored to taught by you if the do not then they should, why did you never open your own company, you sound like you could do anything.

  6. I'm not surprised a bit to see you receive such an honor. Congrats.

    I'm not only looking forward to seeing more on this course, but I'm looking forward to contributing here via comments as I'm right in the middle of founding a company now!

    So hurry!! ;)

  7. Thanks for your very helpful post. I am highly inspire to know about the foundling.
    Best of luck to you. and Have a nice time
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  8. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. Any way I'll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you post again soon.

  9. You know, new research regarding the qualities required for successful entrepreneurship is ongoing, with work from the Kauffman Foundation forming the statistical basis for much of it.

  10. That is indeed true, “academic writer” — it's been great to see the recent upswing in solid entrepreneurship research!

  11. Thank you Professor, case studies are ideal as a learning structure and I will look forward to reading more from you.

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  12. I heared about “2009 HBS Teaching Award” what will be on next year?

  13. Very great post. I simply stumbled upon your blog and wanted to mention that I’ve truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing in your rss feed and I hope you write again soon!

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