founder2 (ODO)

1 A person who establishes an institution or settlement.
    ‘he was the founder of modern Costa Rica’

An article on SO has the author's name followed by "Co-Founder (Former)". I am not quite sure if someone could cease to be a "founder," for whatever reasons. (emphasis mine)

The earlier post "What's a title for a founder no longer with a company? asks for an alternative while stressing on the fact that "a founder is always a founder."

I suspect most of the hits on Google search are either related to non-native speakers' writings or incidental proximity of the words rather than an intentional use of the phrase.

One may dissociate oneself from something after having founded it. Can someone cease to be a "founder"?

  • 1
    Not sure what you mean by “ceasing to be a founder”. Once you have found a company, an institution, etc, your role as a founder is over and you may, possibly, take on other roles to run the company.
    – user 66974
    Jul 17, 2018 at 7:58
  • 1
    I'm not sure what isn't covered by a combination of the dictionary definition and logic. You can't change what happened and hence you can't change who established something. What exactly are you looking for here as an answer?
    – AndyT
    Jul 17, 2018 at 9:12
  • 2
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this question appears to be about logic rather than about language.
    – AndyT
    Jul 17, 2018 at 9:13
  • 1
    An article on SO… Please supply the link to said article. I'm pretty amazed no one has yet asked. Is this something to do with Jeff Atwood?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 17, 2018 at 16:28
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – MetaEd
    Jul 18, 2018 at 22:35

7 Answers 7


I am sorry. It does not make sense. A founder is a founder, dead or alive, even 300 years later.

  • 2
    English language usage very much disagrees with you. It's often said that somebody "was the founder of something". Jul 17, 2018 at 17:41
  • 11
    @DJClayworth Only of that person is no longer alive very though, so that the "was" make them being dead clear. "Famous McPerson, the founder of this school, died in 1831." The founder status remains even after dying.
    – Orphevs
    Jul 17, 2018 at 17:54
  • 1
    Relevant Mitch Hedberg quote: "I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to too." Jul 17, 2018 at 18:01
  • 4
    @DJClayworth They contributed to the act of founding whatever, that happened in the past. Given this, it's not unusual to refer to them having founded whatever it is in the past tense. Jul 17, 2018 at 21:32
  • 1
    @DJClayworth: The key focus there is "somebody was" (i.e. they no longer are). The key focus is not "was the founder" (i.e. they have since ceased to be the founder). Also, pedantically, past tense does not inherently contradict the present. As per Mitch Hedberg's famous quote: "I used to do drugs. I still do. But I used to, too."
    – Flater
    Jul 18, 2018 at 9:58

Right, you can’t cease being a founder of something, but you can cease your affiliation with the organization you founded, which is what is being conveyed with “co-founder (former)”. The person being referenced is a co-founder, but a former employee of the company he founded.

  • 5
    Adding the "former" is a nice way of saying "Yes, I helped start this thing, but don't blame me for how it is going now." Jul 17, 2018 at 15:44
  • 1
    @Keeta or a concise and euphemistic way of describing how much of a trainwreck someone was. "Even though he founded the company and owns 40% of it, we kicked him out." Jul 17, 2018 at 15:46
  • 1
    I agree with this. It's a shorthand, slightly ambiguous way of saying "Co-founder and former owner/employee"
    – Robotnik
    Jul 18, 2018 at 1:25

No. What's done is done and the term "founder" is describing that sort of state.

A founder could repent having founded something. An institution could repudiate the connection to a founder. Reports could change understanding of the founding and who was responsible.

None of these actually undoes the founding or who the founders were, though that last one could well lead to a state where a person was formerly thought to be the/a founder and no longer is.


The question in the title is a clickbait, no one ceases to be a founder of an establishment, institution or company, even if that company collapses. And as @Wera's answer clearly states

A founder is a founder, dead or alive, even 300 years later

The real English language question is whether someone can be described as a “former founder”. And the answer to that question is: Yes, if it part of a predicate compound

Articles by Jeff Atwood

Co-Founder (Former)

If one of the two founders of Stack Overflow is called Jeff Atwood and chooses to describe himself as co-founder (former), it appears that the reference was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, which is in keeping with the software developer's sense of humor.

One word that best describes how I work: I'm going to assume that an animated GIF counts as one word. Here you go.

Life Hacker Q&A

In a tweet, dated 1 February 2018, Atwood wrote

I have not worked at Stack Overflow in any capacity since 2012, but I occasionally dip my toe into meta.stackoverflow.com and I am so inspired by the way the community collectively carries the vision forward

On his Twitter profile, the former CEO of StackOverflow does not disassociate himself from the company, on the contrary, he describes himself as

“Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of stackoverflow.com and discourse.org .…”

The Ngram chart below shows, however, that the expression "former founder" is not so rare as one might initially suspect

enter image description here

Citations from Google Books, in no specific order

  1. For a good part of 2007, the former founder-owner-CEO and his (potential) ideas remaining a frequent topic and reference point

  2. Complaint of Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation, as conservator for savings and loan association, alleging fraud on part of former founder and principal shareholder of association pleaded fraud…

  3. There was Alexander D'Arbeloff, the former founder, chairman, and CEO of ARD affiliate Teradyne, who is today a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, and the honorary Chairman of the MIT Corporation, the university's governing...

  4. James Gustave "Gus" Speth, former founder and president of the World Resources Institute, a research center on environmental issues, and a former founder and staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council

  5. In fact, the TI's strategy, perfected by Peter Eigen, former founder president of the organization and defector from the World Bank, encouraged the construction of “coalitions” between state, private sector, and civil society…

  6. Dean Leffingwell is a renowned software development methodologist, author, and software team coach. He is the former founder and CEO of Requisite, Inc., makers of RequisitePro, and a former vice president at Rational Software, where he was responsible for the commercialization of RUP.

All of the citations above are perfectly grammatical and make semantic sense. The expression "former founder" is used in compound predicates

The predicate is the part of the sentence that makes a statement about the subject. The predicate usually tells us what the subject is doing or what is happening to the subject.
A compound predicate tells us two (or more) things about the same subject (without repeating the subject).

  • 6
    Interesting that all of these examples have meanings like "former (founder and president)", rather than "(former founder) and president". I'm not saying you can't describe someone just as as "former founder", but none of these examples does. Jul 18, 2018 at 9:39
  • @SteveJessop which is why I said that "former founder" is used in compound predicates. I don't understand your objection.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jul 18, 2018 at 9:42
  • 4
    No objection. Just pointing out that the question is about whether one can be a former founder, not merely the juxtaposition of those two words. Jul 18, 2018 at 9:48

It's true that a founder doesn't stop being a founder because she stops being involved in the company. However that doesn't mean the use of the past tense combined with the word 'founder' is is ungrammatical or illogical.

Most straightforwardly, in English usage a person ceases to be a founder when they die (they cease to be anything else too). One almost always uses the past tense when talking about acts of a person who is now dead (except that they 'are dead' etc.). If we search for statements about Romulus, the phrase "was the founder of Rome" gets hundreds of thousands of hits, and "is the founder of Rome" gets a handful. Wikipedia says of him that:

"Romulus was the founder of Rome".

It's also true that saying somebody "was" something does not automatically mean that they are no longer that thing. We can say that:

Alice was the CEO of the company when the takeover happened

and that does not say anything about whether Alice still is the CEO.

TLDR: Saying somebody "was" the founder is perfectly grammatical and logical.

  • 1
    Using the past tense is not the same thing as using former. Also, see the answer by Mari-Lou.
    – Kris
    Jul 18, 2018 at 5:58
  • "One almost always uses the past tense when talking about acts of a person who is now dead" -- although this general rule is confounded by use of the historical present. Jul 18, 2018 at 9:51

Sort of yes - The body can refuse to acknowledge that someone was a founder and attempt to distance themselves from the person in question.

This is more often than not because of a scandal and the group no longer wishes to be associated with that person; and they do not have enough control of the body to stop it happening. For example a child rights group might decide to distance itself from a founder who was found to have abused children.

While the person will always be a founder technically, they might not be a founder officially.


What you quote doesn't say he's a former founder, it says he's a former "Co-Founder".

The capitalised term "Founder" is frequently used as a formal title within a company (often in combination with some other job title, sometimes not). Holding that title suggests (although doesn't strictly imply) a senior and influential role in the organisation, regardless of its literal meaning. The use of titles within companies or other organisations may or may not bear any relation to their accuracy as an English description.

So, once someone has jointly founded something, we can always say that they are a co-founder of it. It doesn't follow that their formal title remains "Co-Founder", and it's fairly routine that when someone leaves an organisation they disclaim any formal title within it.

I don't know whether or not Jeff Atwood actually ever had StackExchange business cards with "Co-Founder" on them, but the meaning of writing "Co-Founder (Former)" is that the title "Co-Founder" is no longer appropriate, since he has no influence in the organisation. Describing him as a "co-founder", meaning someone who jointly established the organisation, isn't the relevant meaning here.

  • "The use of titles within companies or other organisations may or may not bear any relation to their accuracy as an English description." -- "English description" draws from real life and keeps pace with it.
    – Kris
    Jul 18, 2018 at 10:45
  • A "former co-founder" is also a "former founder," if there's such a thing in the first place.
    – Kris
    Jul 18, 2018 at 10:46
  • True, but a former Co-Founder, i.e. somebody who formerly held the title Co-Founder, is not (necessarily) a former Founder, i.e. somebody who formerly held the title Founder. Every co-founder is a founder, but not every Co-Founder is a Founder. Titles do not precisely retain the meanings of the words they're made of. Dec 1, 2018 at 12:49
  • Hence, as I say in my answer, you can't cease to be a co-founder, but you can cease to be a Co-Founder. And Jeff Atwood has ceased to be a Co-Founder, either literally or figuratively according to whether what he wrote actually was his title, or is just him using an imagined title to describe his former role. Dec 1, 2018 at 12:54

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