Why do so many founders in high-tech startups fail to successfully go through the corporate transitions and come out as winners at the end?
A good example is the story of SiGe Semiconductor. Founded by John Roberts with 2 other cofounders back in 1996 and ultimately acquired by Skyworks in 2011 for $210M, the company went through several reincarnations with three waves of investors either wiped out or severely diluted. Close to $150M was poured into the company and thus the ultimate outcome was a modest success, primarily benefitting the last-round investors. Even though the founder, who was forced out around 1999, had a good vision, laid down a solid foundation and lifted the company off the ground, at the conclusion he ended up with nothing or next-to-nothing. Why?
Why do Boards struggle with managing the dynamics of the typically conflicting interests between the VC investors, founders and management, often resulting in the failure of their ventures? The histories of most high-tech startups are full of colorful stories of fascinating ups and downs of the relationships between these three groups of players as they go through the evolving startup life cycle. Those relationships often go from the seduction stage, through a reasonably calm but rather brief marriage, only to end up in bloody separation and divorce battles. What could be done to make it a bit more civilized and productive?
And why are so many CEO careers often brutally interrupted, paused or derailed in the most often stormy and highly stressful world of high-tech ventures? In the world of high-tech startups, the CEO job, even though often glamorized, is actually one of the most fragile on the planet. Apart from the occasional glory when things go well, most of the time they are the lightning rods for anything that may go wrong with the venture. Since typically high-tech startups are high risk ventures, guess who gets severely beaten and pays the highest emotional toll most of the time? Looking around at the careers of early-stage company CEOs in the Ottawa Valley such as: Jim Derbyshire, Rick White, Jim Roche, George Cwynar, Paul Slaby, Kevin Rankin, and many others, one could generally observe a large turnover rate with a half-lifetime of 2-3 years and a pause of 1-2 years before they land a new gig. Isn’t this a terrible waste of top talent? Why is this?
The key to understanding and dealing with these issues is to realize that startups, just like human beings, go through a predictable life cycle consisting of infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and maturity/exit. Each of these stages has its specific characteristics and requirements which necessitate different talents and qualifications to navigate through it. We could typically distinguish a Founders Team, Growth Team and Exit Team. Between these major stages of the life cycle, the company and the people involved go through a transition. In general, these are typically Entrepreneurial Transition, Growth Transition and Maturity Transition.
The problem arises when the key players in these transitions (founders, investors, CEOs) are not prepared for what is about to happen and drift blindly into the white waters ahead of them. Navigating corporate transitions in the seas of ambition, passion, and conflicting interests is a skill that could be developed. And since these transitions often carry a heavy emotional toll, you cannot afford to be naïve about it but rather you must plan ahead and put in place protective measures against being screwed.