Firm Founders May Be More Innovative Than Professional Managers

(p. B11) In tech, there is often a visionary premium and it is at least somewhat justified. Tracking public companies’ performance over 25 years, Bain & Co. found the companies that best maintained profitable growth over the long term were disproportionately those at which the founder was still running the business, was still involved or where the founders’ operational focus was still in place. Based on an analysis of S&P 500 companies done in 2014, Bain found that founder-led companies generated over three times the indexed total shareholder return of other companies in the preceding 15 years. One wonders how much the study is affected by survivorship bias, though—those who flopped early aren’t in the sample.

Founders certainly are bolder. A 2016 study out of the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University found that founder CEOs are more likely to take their companies in a new technological direction, providing evidence that innovations of founder CEO-managed firms create more financial value than the innovations of professional CEO-managed firms.

Apple, which languished as a computer company in the years after its co-founder Steve Jobs was ousted, offers a twist on this phenomenon. Mr. Jobs returned as a savior. Among other things, he changed the company’s name from Apple Computer Inc. to Apple Inc., signaling an expansion of focus to a legacy that now includes the likes of the iPod, iPhone, Apple TV and more.

. . .

Mr. Dorsey’s major shortcoming at Twitter actually was a lack of such bold innovation. Activist investors who began calling for his departure years before it came have long pushed for faster product development and bigger revenue and user targets. They also took issue with the fact that Mr. Dorsey split his time as the chief of two publicly traded companies. When questioned at a shareholder meeting about his split time, Mr. Dorsey responded that it wasn’t a function of time, but of prioritization. During his second stint as chief executive over the course of more than six years, Twitter’s stock rose just one-fifth as much as the S&P 500.

Perhaps he prioritized his payments company, which is around 20 times as valuable today than it was in late 2015 when it went public. There are many current examples of tech companies still excelling with a founder or co-founder at the top. Nvidia and Shopify, which have returned more than 80,000% and nearly 6,000% to shareholders, respectively, since their public debuts, come to mind.

For the full commentary, see:

Laura Forman. “HEARD ON THE STREET; Many Tech Founders Can’t Stay Too Long.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, December 7, 2021): B11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Dec. 6, 2021, and has the title “HEARD ON THE STREET; Should Investors Ride Tech Founders to the Moon?”)

I cannot find evidence that the Krannert School of Management paper mentioned above has been published. An abstract appeared as:

Lee, Joon Mahn, Jongsoo Jays Kim, and Bae Joonhyung. “Are Founder CEOs Better Innovators? Evidence from S&P 500 Firms.” Academy of Management Annual Meeting Proceedings 2016.

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