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Monday, December 19, 2016

Founders do it better

Successors to successful founders rarely do as well, according to two Bain consultants who’ve studied the topic.

The headline in Monday’s WSJ made it clear:
The Company Founder’s Special Sauce
No one leads a firm as effectively as the person who started it.
Dec. 18, 2016 5:03 p.m. ET

‘The Founder,” a new film starring Michael Keaton, tells the story of McDonald’s Corporation founder Ray Kroc as he turns a few small restaurants into a ubiquitous international chain. It’s a tale of founder-driven corporate growth—something that has become too rare today. This breed of entrepreneurial spirit makes for a good story, but it’s also crucial for the economy.

Research we published in July finds that of all newly registered businesses in the U.S., only about one in 500 will reach a size of at least $100 million in revenue. A mere one in 17,000 will attain $500 million in revenue and sustain a decade of profitable growth. Despite their rarity, these successful firms are a bedrock of the U.S. economy.

A study out earlier this year from Bain & Company, where we work, shows that over the past 15 years founder-led companies delivered shareholder returns that are three times higher than those of other S&P 500 companies.

Such performance can sometimes continue long after a founder leaves. We analyzed examples of sustained success at 7,500 companies in 43 countries, visiting many in person, to determine what made them stand out. Great founders imbue their companies with three measurable traits that make up what we dubbed “the founder’s mentality.”
Those three traits: insurgency (i.e. disruptive innovation), obsessive focus on customers, and permeating the vision of the founder throughout the entire organization.

I have not had a chance to read their research, but it rings true. I did my dissertation on Apple, once led by Steve Jobs — perhaps the most unique founder of the 20th century; in America, only Henry Ford, Tom Watson Sr., Hewlett & Packard and maybe Howard Hughes come close.

Jobs was driven to make “insanely great” products, to the point of being a tyrant (slightly more human after he had kids). Since his death five years ago, they’ve had mediocre leadership and nothing they have done has come close (something us shareholders must lament).

One caveat: while I lionize great founders — and aspire to be a good founder once again — there is an important confound. Firms have their best people, best ideas, greatest disruption and greatest impact during their initial growth phases; a second round of growth and disruption (as in the Jobs II era, 1997-2011) is virtually unheard of. Big companies don’t grow as much as small ones, nor is the CEO (of any stripe) able to have the same impact. (And unlike Jobs, most tech founders have their greatest impact in this initial period, not running the stable successful mature company).

Still, nothing I’ve seen this year does as good a job summarizing the great debt society owes to those who roll the dice, take great chances and endure years of high-stress intensity to create a new company. The decline in US startups is troubling not only for economic growth, but for the lost opportunities for employees, customers and complementors as well.