I read a recent Harvard Business School blog post titled “Startups Can’t Revolve Around Their Founders If They want to Succeed“. The authors make a general argument that founders are the biggest obstacles to long-term startup growth, citing a new research paper (paywall, sorry) that hypothesizes:
For a given startup, the value of the startup varies inversely with the degree of control retained by founders.
From a statistical analysis of over 6,000 startups, the paper (and article) argue (roughly) that founders with board control, the CEO position, or both, can “harm the firm’s prospects, reducing pre-money valuation by up to 22%.”
While “founder scale-up” problems are real management issues that can put significant stress and strain on any startup team (I’ve lived it), the argument has a significant flaw: it’s based on an unweighted startup data set. If Uber’s value creation (for all stakeholders) is considered equal to Fred’s Wrecking, Storage and App Development, I’m skeptical we can conclude anything really useful.
For example, a full half of the top ten US companies had or have founder leadership to significant significant scale: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon. These five alone companies represent $1.5 trillion of value — over 8% of the total value of all public US companies! And all of the top US companies founded within ~30 years are/were founder led.
Furthermore, while I’m quite skeptical of private “unicorn” valuations, all but one at the top of that list have founder CEOs: Uber, Airbnb, Palantir, Snapchat, SpaceX, Pinterest, Dropbox, WeWork, Theranos, Lyft, and Stripe.
So, here’s a completely different hypothesis:
Most startup value creation, by a wide margin, accrues to founder-led companies. (esp. in technology)
Stated differently: would you rather have a portfolio with 7 out of 10 companies successful, or a portfolio with Facebook?