Friday, June 6, 2008

Is it the Horse or Jockey?

It seems appropriate to have this discussion as Kent Desormeaux grabs Big Brown's reins and goes after the Triple Crown tomorrow at Belmont...There is an age old debate in the venture business on whether it is better to bet on the horse (business/market) or the jockey (management team/founders). Hans Hvide at the University of Aberdeen Business School just published a paper, "The Horse or the Jockey? Evidence from Nascent Firms where a Founder Dies" in an attempt to quantitatively answer this question.

Hvide analyzed 6,800 companies that started between 1996 and 2003 in Norway. Out of the 12,500 founders of these firms, 181 (1.7%) die at some point between starting up the firm and the end of 2005 (Hvide 6). This leaves a relatively small sample. And there were certainly many other founders that were figuratively "shot" by their board rather than literally kicking the bucket or left on their own to pursue other opportunities.

As you might guess, the results were inconclusive. The 6-year firm survival rate was 60% for dead founders and 61% for live founders, while the average Operating Return on Assets was 6% for dead founders vs. 8% for live founders, but neither are statistically significant (Hvilde 15). Some conclusions were that the founders role is more important in the very early stage in the creation of the horse and as the visionary and as the company moves beyond this stage, becomes replaceable. This obviously depends on the "horsepower" of the founder, but speaks to the differing skill sets required in starting vs. growing the company. Of course, this would be obvious to anyone who has been in the start-up ecosystem for any length of time

This led me to think through some anecdotal examples of the companies that I have invested in or been on the management team that have had successful outcomes. In most of these cases, the founder relinquished the CEO role within the first 18 months following institutional funding, but remained in a critical technical or visionary role, often as the company's external evangelist. In the cases where the founder has remained as CEO, this has not been their first start-up.

I typically advise the founders of my companies to be open to being replaced as CEO and to remember that a company can have a number of CEO's over it's lifespan, but not founders and that is the best title to have on your business card. Of course, that doesn't mean being sent off to Siberia. Upon taking the CEO role at a venture backed start-up, one of my friends got this word of advice from the VC investor, "Your CEO now. Do whatever you want with the founders". Basically, I invested in them, but they are your problem now.

Back to the Triple Crown and wishing Big Brown and Kent Desormeaux success tomorrow. I'm not a big horse racing fan, but do remember the glory days of the 1970's when we had 3 triple crown winners in 5 years, including Secretariat who was the first horse to claim the triple crown since Citation 25 years earlier. Who would have known we would have to wait at least 30 years for another. I'm still a little sad at having to turn down an invitation to see Secretariat run at the Preakness, but it happened to fall on the same day as my brother's Bar Mitzvah.