Victus Spiritus


Even Rockstar Founders are Frightened by Failure

07 May 2010

I have wondered for sometime why successful founders like Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Bill Gates don't repeatedly build incredible organizations. The psychology behind staying with one organization made much more sense after reading a brief article this morning. The following excerpt from The Facebook Effect by David Kirkpatrick shares a revealing look inside the mind of a very popular founder:

Michael Wolf (president of Viacom's MTV): "Why don't you just sell to us?" he asked. "You'd be very wealthy."

Mark Zuckerberg: "You just saw my apartment. I don't really need any money. And anyway, I don't think I'm ever going to have an idea this good again."

Pay particular attention to that last comment by Mark. He really doesn't (or at least he didn't) believe he'll have an idea as good as Facebook again in his life. I'd wager his next idea will not only be as good as Facebook, it will be better. But we may never see it. Maybe Mark's next startup will tank, but then his third will transform the world in a profound way. But those are risks he may not have the time or willingness to pursue. Or perhaps Mark Zuckerberg is incredibly talented at emulating other peoples ideas and executing faster*, so repeated startups may not suit him. It's easy for me to arm chair quarterback these theories, but the reality of startup life is grueling and nerve wracking.

Mr. Zuckerberg is deeply tied into Facebook's corporate nuances. Growing that corporation fast and healthy eats up all his clock cycles and attention. My hunch is that he's tied up with corporate partnerships, strategy, and upper management meetings around the clock plus travel time. He's probably got a slide deck generating team or simply shows live development sites. How many mega growth company CEOs get time to chase after windmill's for their next pet side project? Zero.

I haven't even locked on to a single viral pattern yet, so it's silly of me to expect anyone to want to repeat the startup process. The greatest wealth that is created by rock star founders is when their companies are young and flexible. It's in this raw phase where the path to a functioning business framework is discovered and developed. There's an exception to every trend, and Steve Jobs is it. His return to Apple was followed by a meteroic market value explosion, as he took the bull by it's horns, and revolutionized a mature company.

Big Corporations are Chained by Momentum and Consumer Expectations

I'm curious what the world misses out on by having such capable creators tied up in big business minutiae. Once a startup pattern blossoms to capture the attention of the world it's dynamic features become locked into expectations and standards, and the real wealth creative abilities of it's founders become limited. What's the next big innovation for Facebook, an embedded video chat client or a shared video watching capability that's branded NBC? Even Google struggles under it's own legacy systems to create new transformative and self disruptive technology. And for the new tech that's crafted at Google (Wave, Buzz, other Google Labs stuff), how much do Sergey or Larry get to have a hands on role in sparking revolutionary new systems? Changing the Google logo and some subtle search changes was big news, how's that for transformative? The premiere web tech company is restrained to incremental modifications by it's cash cow, our eyes. Our ability to tolerate changes to their search interface is Google's innovation event horizon.

*= on emulation and execution, I'm not knocking these attributes, they're essential in building businesses