The ‘Founder Effect’ was discovered by Ernst Mayr in 1942 (Wikipedia) as part of his seminal work on population genetics. It basically states that many of the traits that you might see in a given sub-population of individuals can be attributed to the genetics of the first individuals that inhabited the space (especially when the niche is isolated). This can help explain the sometimes quirky existence of traits that may appear to have no real value for the survival of the species (e.g. higher rate of polydactyly (extra toes and fingers) in Amish communities than that observed in the general American population).
What has this got to do with my startup?
Well just like the isolated communities mentioned above, the ‘genetic imprint’ of the founder of any company has especially strong effects in the early days of the company which may persist far into the future even when the founder(s) are long gone. The culture of the company, the personalities and formal structure of how things are accomplished come from the founder. Some of these factors are beneficial and in fact can be traced to the very reason behind a company’s success while most others disappear into oblivion. However, sometimes these quirks of the founder can largely lead to the eventual failure of the endeavor.
OK then, So What
There are both positive and negative stories told about companies that continue to be run by their founders as well as those that have replaced this team. Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company, Steve Jobs and Apple, Thomas Edison at what eventually became General Electric are just a few examples of founders that continued to lead their companies beyond what we would call an ‘exit event’. Each person left their ‘genetic’ imprint (good and bad) on the culture and how that the company thrived.
We would general say that each of these men was extremely successful but what can be lost in the admiration of the companies that they each established is what were the lost opportunities, the alternatives not tried, the products that never saw the light of day. Steve Jobs was famously known to have a tyrannical management style that equally pushed a slew of incredible technologies into the world and killed others, seemingly at a whim when they appeared to diverge from his own opinion of what was good or bad. We will never know how many terrific and life changing things will never see the light of day when they were killed based on his opinion. Edison was known to be equally intolerant to ideas that did not fit his vision for what he wanted (most famously he waged a marketing and commercial war to promote Direct Current (DC) over alternating current (AC) based on his own, it turns out flawed, view that DC was superior). In fact this, in spite of all of the success with which Edison and his company is associated, character attribute or ‘Founder Effect’ drove one of his most brilliant scientists, Nicola Tesla, straight into the arms of his greatest competitor, Westinghouse.
As we can see, there are benefits and limitations to companies that are run by founders.
Some of the benefits are:
- Passion and Vision : This can be the very force that keeps the company both focused and on track in the face of outside forces that threaten to derail the company from its mission. Raising money, building teams, facing skeptical customers etc. are a just a few of the things that put off lesser mortals.
- ‘My Way or the Highway’: Companies run by founders can introduce new innovations and develop whole new markets at a staggering pace. A lot of this can be traced back to the single-minded drive of the founder. He /she is not slowed down by gathering consensus at committee meetings as the company reaches important inflection points in its trajectory to success. Having one ‘top-dog’ founder calling the shots can cut through a lot of the indecision and delay that can come from direction by committee.
Some limitations are:
- ‘My Way or the Highway’: The down-side of this style of leadership is that when the founder is wrong, there may be no recourse to alternatives. Henry Ford was famous for stating “Our customers can have a car any color they like, as long as it is black”. This shortsighted view of the relationship between a company and its customers (the ultimate bosses) soon left Ford trailing General Motors for virtually most of the early history of the automobile industry.
- Making It Personal: Edison had a personal feud with Westinghouse and this led him to the ‘take no prisoners’ focus on winning the electricity wars. It can be argued that Edison and his company would have been far better off working together with Westinghouse than the time, money and effort that were wasted in trying to defeat the enemy. It can be hard for some founders to separate their own egos from what might be best for the company as a whole.
What’s a Founder to do?
Should a founder fight to stay on with his company as it succeeds or make an exit and allow the company to grow under new management? There is no right or wrong answer to this. Obviously you want to maximize the positives and minimize the negatives of the founder’s influence. If you are a founder, finding the time to take stock of your relationship to your company on a regular basis will allow you to achieve this. The following tips are provided to help you with this critical assessment.
- Has anyone told you ‘no’? You may think that you have created a culture of openness but if you have not been told ‘no’ by your team, then you may have an issue here. Remember, you can’t possibly be right about everything all the time and a good team should help you avoid mistakes. If you are not hearing ‘no’ occasionally, then you need to work on helping your team feel comfortable doing so.
- How are decisions made? As you flesh out your team, make sure that you keep ‘delegation’ in mind. This can be very difficult to do but you need to be thinking about brining on people that will take things ‘off your plate’ so that you can stay focused. By keeping this concept in mind as you hire, you will make sure that the people who join you will be those that you can trust with the very life of the company. If you already have your team, make sure that you are empowering them and that they are regularly making important decisions on their own for the company.
- How are good ideas, not central to the company’s mission, disposed of? One of the key attributes of a good Founder is to remain very focused on getting into the marketplace. Good teams will have lots of good ideas (new product ideas, new markets to enter, new applications for R&D to develop etc.) The key here is to be firm and respectful, but open-minded as well. If you do this right you can keep the company focused while still encouraging new thinking. Not an easy task. If you do take the time to master this, these once rejected good ideas could one dayrepresent your next great product in the market.
- Founder Effect | Wikipedia
- Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World by Jill Jonnes
- Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
- I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford by Richard Snow