Instagram, WhatsApp And Tesla: Does It Matter If Founders Run Tech Companies?

By Owen Thomas
San Francisco Chronicle

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As columnist Owen Thomas points out, “Steve Jobs’ turnaround of Apple served as a powerful example of a company that lost its way without a founder and regained it when he returned, as did Mark Zuckerberg’s stewardship, from trouble to triumph and back again, over and over, of Facebook.”

San Francisco Chronicle

Silicon Valley has been arguing for days over the matter of founders — or rather, whether founders matter.

It started Monday when news broke that Instagram’s co-founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, were leaving Facebook, the company that bought the photo-sharing app six years ago.

This prompted instant hand-wringing: Would Instagram lose its way without its founders? Who would keep it on track?

Who would stand up to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg? How could anyone match the moral authority of a founder?

I was thinking about these questions the next day, as Marc Benioff, a co-founder of Salesforce, prowled the stage at Dreamforce, his company’s annual software conference that draws more than 170,000 people to downtown San Francisco.

Under his watch, the company has grown to more than $10 billion in annual revenue and a value of more than $120 billion. And he’s given away hundreds of millions of dollars of his own wealth, on top of Salesforce’s corporate giving.

Are his business feats what give him the moral authority to capture people’s attention — or the fact that he’s been running the company since its beginning? Are those two inextricably intertwined?

The debate got nastier when Forbes published a tell-all interview with WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton on Wednesday.

Acton sold his messaging app to Facebook in 2014 for $22 billion; he’s now worth $3.6 billion. He left Facebook last year, then shocked many by tweeting “It is time. #deletefacebook” in March.

By Acton’s account, when he went from founder of WhatsApp to Facebook employee, he lost power over his creation.

Facebook pushed him to put ads in the app and allow businesses to pay to send messages to customers, moves he resisted. His co-founder, Jan Koum, who got a seat on Facebook’s board of directors, quit the company and the board in April.

Facebook executive David Marcus shot back in a public note, disputing Acton’s account and calling him “passive-aggressive” and “low-class.”

For an industry where such disputes normally simmer in text-message threads and internal chat rooms, it was an extraordinary airing of laundry.

Amid these arguments, my mind flashed back to another moment at a tech conference six years ago, just a few months after Facebook paid $1.2 billion for Instagram.

Jack Dorsey was then the co-founder of both Twitter and Square, but CEO only of the latter, and as such something of an expert on the confounding subject of founders.

He suggested that we should think of people like Marissa Mayer, then the CEO of Yahoo, as a founder.

Dorsey’s examples may not have stood up well over time, but we should still consider his argument that you don’t have to be a founder to act like one. (Ask Elon Musk, who has been playing the part of Tesla founder for years.)

What matters, Dorsey said, is that at crucial points — at “founding moments,” as he put it — you play the part.

In the 1990s, investors looked to replace founders with professional managers as soon as possible. Think of Jim Barksdale taking over for Marc Andreessen at Netscape, or Meg Whitman for Pierre Omidyar at eBay.

That changed after the dot-com bust, because Web 2.0 made companies cheaper to start and expand, giving venture capitalists less sway. And entrepreneurs-turned-investors like Andreessen declared a preference for “founder-led companies.”

Steve Jobs’ turnaround of Apple served as a powerful example of a company that lost its way without a founder and regained it when he returned, as did Mark Zuckerberg’s stewardship, from trouble to triumph and back again, over and over, of Facebook.

I’m not convinced that founders have a special ability. They can fail, and many do: Think Parker Conrad at Zenefits or Elizabeth Holmes at Theranos. And there are some professional managers who have racked up successes. LinkedIn struggled when co-founder Reid Hoffman was in charge. It flourished under non-founder CEO Jeff Weiner, who sold it for $26 billion to Microsoft.

Or, well, Tesla. Musk was not the automaker’s founder, though he gave it the money that got it off the ground. (He forced Tesla’s actual founders out many years ago.) Now, in his fight with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which sued him for fraud Thursday, he’s acting like a founder, looking to keep absolute control over the company.
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(Including the right to make goofy tweets, it seems.)

Will Instagram or WhatsApp founder without their founders? People seem to take that for granted.

I find the historical evidence unconvincing. If Facebook puts someone in who acts like they own the joint — and convinces employees of the same — the startup jewels in Mark Zuckerberg’s crown will still glitter.

If a Zuckerberg crony just warms Systrom’s chair at Instagram or litters WhatsApp with ads, then we’ll see the tarnish.

On Tuesday, at the Dreamforce conference, after talking for a while about trust and equality (and Salesforce’s soaring revenue), Benioff brought co-founder Parker Harris on stage. Harris is known for his outlandish Dreamforce costumes, but this time he was wearing an Italian suit — an homage to Italian clothier Brunello Cucinelli, a Salesforce customer.

“I’m wearing my Brunello costume,” Harris said.

Maybe the founder thing is a suit you put on — a role, not a birthright. And maybe we should all be looking more closely at the person inside the costume.

This column was adapted from Tech Chronicle, a thrice-weekly newsletter from Owen Thomas, The Chronicle’s business editor, and the rest of the tech team.

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