Is it good or bad to have a visionary founder?




The cult of the founder has existed for a very long time. But in recent years it appears to have spiralled. Do brands need to have a visionary figure at the centre? And are there any drawbacks for founders who outshine the brands they’re trying to build?

Turn on the television these days and it’s hard to get away from a Hollywood re-telling of a founder-gone-wrong. Look at WeCrashed, the Apple TV+ show about WeWork founder Adam Neumann’s management of the company’s finances and his spectacular fall from grace. Or think of the podcasts, movies and shows being spun around Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of medical start-up Theranos. She sold investors on a vision of revolutionising blood-testing, raising $724 million in the process, before it was revealed that her vision may not have been a reality.

Now, not all founders are the same. But wearing her black turtleneck, Holmes was modelling herself after another expert in creating founder mystique, Steve Jobs.

Jobs famously returned to Apple in 1997, 11 years after leaving. His second coming as CEO helped turn the company into the tech giant we know today. And as such, Jobs has contributed to the myth of the visionary founder. His exacting nature and reportedly bad temper were considered personality flaws, but also side-effects of his genius.

By virtue of their brilliance, founders are idiosyncratic and hence intriguing. Take Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s spiritualism and penchant for ice baths. Or Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk’s unfiltered comments. But when companies become too closely aligned to their founders, there is a risk – the perception that value comes from the individual rather than the product, service or staff calibre.

Tesla, for instance, became the fifth American company ever to be valued at $1 trillion in October 2021. But it quickly lost its bounce by December, with shares dropping 10%, and a valuation that now stands around $727 bn. Many analysts believe that Tesla’s value is still overinflated, with its devout followers more connected to Musk than the cars he sells. As the EV market becomes more competitive, it stands to reason that Tesla could suffer further devaluation. And now that Musk is in the process of buying Twitter and his attention elsewhere, could Tesla become just another car company?

After Steve Jobs’ death in 2011, there was much hand-wringing about the demise of Apple. But CEO Tim Cook proved people wrong, delivering stellar growth in the last decade and transforming Apple from a hardware to a services company through the likes of Apple Pay and the App Store. But Cook has also moved away from being the sole spokesperson for Apple in the way that Jobs was. At Keynote events, multiple people take to the stage to share Apple’s latest innovations. The company is no longer focused on the genius of a single person.

A magnetic founder can be the driving force behind a good idea. But if they’re the only reason people are tuning in, there maybe trouble ahead.

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