Startup founders and joiners: Henry Sauermann, associate professor in the Scheller College of Business at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Photo by Gary Meek)Technology 

Startup Founders Need Joiners for Success

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By Kate S.

Tech startup founders often take great risks to launch new ventures, which earns them a lot of attention. But what about the people who join forces with these founders to develop and commercialize innovative new products and services? Being a founder is not the only way to get involved in entrepreneurship, and founders need so-called joiners to be successful.

A new research project is taking a closer look at these ‘joiners’, and the findings show that, while they resemble founders in their willingness to take risks and their desire for the freedom of a startup, there are some key differences. For example, joiners are less interested in management and more interested in roles such as research and development, making them more like the people who go to work for established companies.

“Sometimes you can have a single founder who handles the full range of activities for a startup, but especially in technology you need additional people to research and develop the products,” says Henry Sauermann, an associate professor in the Scheller College of Business at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “There are many people who are interested in working for startups but who don’t want to be founders.”

Sauermann and Michael Roach, an assistant professor in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University, investigated the entrepreneurial interests of 4,200 Ph.D. candidates in STEM fields. Nearly half (46 percent) of these scientists and engineers reported an interest in joining a startup as an employee, compared to only 11 percent who said they expected to found their own companies.

The researchers surveyed these Ph.D. candidates about their willingness to accept risk, desire for autonomy, interest in commercializing new technology, and willingness to take on managerial tasks. They also explored the levels of interest in entrepreneurship and in the roles of founder and joiner.

Startup founders and joiners: Michael Roach, assistant professor in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University (Photo courtesy of Cornell University)
Michael Roach, assistant professor in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University (Photo courtesy of Cornell University)

“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, including people who want to work in startups but don’t want to be founders themselves,” Roach explains.

Understanding how the personal preferences of scientists and engineers fit into their entrepreneurial interests may help them find the best application of their hard-won knowledge and skills. Increasingly, startups provide an attractive career path for Ph.D. graduates who may not find academic research attractive, or may experience difficulty in finding positions in academia, but who still want to be involved in research and commercialization activities, Roach said.

What Can STEM Ph.D. Programs Do for Startup Joiners?

“Most university programs designed to foster entrepreneurship — such as courses, workshops and incubators — focus on training people to be a founder,” Roach says. “But founders make up a small share of the entrepreneurial workforce, and we do very little to train the larger share of people who will work in startups as employees rather than founders. For example, many programs focus on how to write business plans and secure funding, while less attention is paid to how to work effectively in a small startup team.”

The high degree of interest in entrepreneurship among science and engineering Ph.D. candidates surprised the researchers, who expected the soon-to-be-graduates to prefer a safer career path in established companies.

“A surprising number of people from this group found entrepreneurship attractive,” Sauermann says. “This may mean we don’t have as much of a problem getting people interested in startups as is widely believed. It may be more a question of how the transition from the Ph.D. training to the startup world happens.”

The paper is based on a 2010 study of Ph.D. candidates about to graduate from 39 different colleges and universities in the United States. The research team is currently following the group to see how their careers develop.

Startup Founder or Joiner?

While exposure to an entrepreneurial environment may increase an individual’s willingness to work in a startup, it doesn’t seem to boost their interest in being a founder.

“Not everybody has to start their own company,” Sauermann says. “You can also make a difference for the world by joining a founder.”

The research behind these findings is supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the Georgia Research Alliance. Its goal is to examine the educational experiences and career paths of Ph.D. scientists and engineers.

Research highlights are published this week in the journal Science. A more comprehensive companion article will be published in the journal Management Science.

Top Photo: Henry Sauermann, associate professor in the Scheller College of Business at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Photo by Gary Meek)

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