In praise of start-up ‘join­ers’

Rock star founders get all the glory, but a firm’s early em­ploy­ees are just as im­por­tant.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - DO­MINIC BA­SULTO

When it comes to think­ing about entrepreneurship, we may be get­ting only half the pic­ture.

As a so­ci­ety, we place so much em­pha­sis on the rock star founders of en­tre­pre­neur­ial start-ups that we of­ten for­get about the “join­ers” — all the other early em­ploy­ees at start-ups who help turn a great idea into a real, com­mer­cial­ized prod­uct. In short, we ob­sess over founders such as Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin or Larry Page, but we of­ten gloss over all the early join­ers who helped make Google or Ap­ple great. But that could change. A re­cent study from two busi­ness school pro­fes­sors, Henry Sauer­mann of Ge­or­gia Tech and Michael Roach of Cor­nell, an­a­lyzes for the first time join­ers as a dis­tinct type of en­tre­pre­neur­ial ac­tor. The clas­sic joiner, they say, is an early start-up em­ployee who doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily want to be a founder, but who rev­els in the risk, in­no­va­tion and au­ton­omy of a start-up en­vi­ron­ment.

Take Marissa Mayer, for ex­am­ple. As Michael Roach told me in a phone con­ver­sa­tion, in his classes on entrepreneurship at Cor­nell, he of­ten holds up Mayer as the pro­to­typ­i­cal ex­am­ple of a joiner. Grad­u­at­ing from Stan­ford with two de­grees, she had 14 of­fers — in­clud­ing from McKin­sey and Or­a­cle — but chose to join as em­ployee No. 20 at a young start-up

that she thought had only a 10% chance of suc­cess. That start-up turned out to be Google.

Join­ers may not have the ex­treme risk-seek­ing be­hav­ior of a rock star CEO founder, but they are more than will­ing to head up the key func­tional roles — es­pe­cially R&D — that make a start-up great. Just like the founder of any great start-up, they are mo­ti­vated more by fac­tors such as the de­sire to com­mer­cial­ize a great tech­nol­ogy rather than by any ex­pected fi­nan­cial gains (salary, bonuses, op­tions).

In short, the dif­fer­ences be­tween founders and join­ers may not be as great as we think. By fo­cus­ing only on founders, we miss the role that join­ers play in the big­ger pic­ture of Amer­i­can entrepreneurship.

“A key in­sight from our re­search is that many of the char­ac­ter­is­tics that we of­ten think of as unique to founders, such as a tol­er­ance for risk and the de­sire to bring new ideas to life, also gen­er­al­ize to the broader en­tre­pre­neur­ial work­force,” Roach said.

The re­search study from Roach and Sauer­mann, based on a sur­vey of 4,168 science and en­gi­neer­ing PhD can­di­dates at 39 of Amer­ica’s top re­search univer­si­ties, found that only 11% of re­spon­dents ex­pressed a de­sire to be a “founder,” while 46% ex­pressed in­ter­est in be­com­ing a “joiner.” That means that the pool of po­ten­tial join­ers out­num­bers po­ten­tial founders by 4 to 1.

More im­por­tant, it means that nearly half of all science and en­gi­neer­ing PhDs — peo­ple typ­i­cally thought of as pur­su­ing ca­reers in academia — are in­ter­ested in con­tribut­ing to Amer­ica’s en­tre­pre­neur­ial ecosys­tem as join- ers. They may not found start-ups, but they will grav­i­tate to­ward en­tre­pre­neur­ial com­pa­nies.

In ad­di­tion to mak­ing the dis­tinc­tion be­tween two types of en­tre­pre­neur­ial ac­tors — founders and join­ers — the study also helps to rec- on­cile two deeply con­flict­ing views of entrepreneurship.

As part of the sur­vey, the pro­fes­sors asked par­tic­i­pants to rate a num­ber of fac­tors — di­vided into “pref­er­ences” and “con­text” — that in­flu­enced their de­sire to join a start-up. You can think of a “pref­er­ence” as some­thing in­nate (e.g. a nat­u­ral de­sire to take risks) and “con­text” as some­thing within the en­vi­ron­ment that changes per­cep­tions (e.g. tak­ing a class with a pro­fes­sor who started a suc­cess­ful com­pany).

The clas­sic view of entrepreneurship, of course, is that en­trepreneurs are largely mo­ti­vated by pref­er­ences — a pref­er­ence for high risk, a pref­er­ence for au­ton­omy and a pref­er­ence for op­por­tu­ni­ties to com­mer­cial­ize a hot tech­nol­ogy. Think about some­one like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs. In other words, peo­ple who of­ten show up on the front pages of mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers as rock star en­trepreneurs.

But there’s another view of entrepreneurship: Most of the peo­ple who be­come en­trepreneurs or work at en­tre­pre­neur­ial com­pa­nies are largely mo­ti­vated by con­text. If stu­dents are sur­rounded by the pres­ence of fac­ulty ad­vi­sors with ex­pe­ri­ence in launch­ing their own star­tups or an aca­demic cul­ture that cel­e­brates entrepreneurship, they will even­tu­ally de­cide to try their hand at start­ing a com­pany. If you study at Stan­ford or work in Sil­i­con Val­ley, for ex­am­ple, your con­text is that ev­ery­one around you is start­ing a com­pany, so you might as well start one too.

That’s where join­ers play such an im­por­tant role. What the pro­fes­sors found in the study is that join­ers are much more sus­cep­ti­ble to con­text than founders. They al­ready have a risk-seek­ing pref­er­ence, and once they are ex­posed to the right con­text, they are of­ten inspired to en­gage in en­tre­pre­neur­ial ven­tures.

In other words, a bright kid who goes off to Har­vard to study science or en­gi­neer­ing may not want to fol­low in the foot­steps of Bill Gates or Mark Zucker­berg (both Har­vard dropouts), but he or she is more than will­ing to work at a cool start-up as a joiner upon grad­u­a­tion. Just check out how many Har­vard grads are work­ing in Sil­i­con Val­ley these days. As the pro­fes­sors point out in the con­clu­sion of a longer pa­per that ap­peared in Man­age­ment Science, “Join­ers are en­tre­pre­neur­ial in ways pre­vi­ously not con­sid­ered.”

‘Many of the char­ac­ter­is­tics that we of­ten think of as unique to founders … also gen­er­al­ize to the broader en­tre­pre­neur­ial work­force.’

— Michael Roach,

Cor­nell busi­ness pro­fes­sor

Do­minic Ba­sulto is a fu­tur­ist and blog­ger based in New York City and a reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to the Washington Post.

Mar­cio Jose Sanchez As­so­ci­ated Press

MARISSA MAYER, above in 2009 as a Google ex­ec­u­tive, is a pro­to­typ­i­cal “joiner” — an early start-up worker who helps turn a great idea into a real prod­uct.

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