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Hey Silicon Valley, joiners are just as important as founders

It’s time for Silicon Valley to shine a spotlight on “joiners” such as Marissa Mayer, who was employee No. 20 at Google and helped make the company an innovation giant. (Julie Jacobson/AP)
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When it comes to thinking about entrepreneurship, we may only be getting 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.

Marissa Mayer, for example. As Michael Roach told me in a phone conversation, in his classes on entrepreneurship at Cornell, he often holds up Marissa Mayer as the prototypical example of a joiner. Graduating from Stanford with two degrees, she had 14 different 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 percent 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, including people who want to work in start-ups but don’t want to be founders themselves,” Roach said.

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

More importantly, it means that nearly half of all science and engineering PhDs – people we typically think of as pursuing careers in academia rather than entrepreneurship – are interested in contributing to America’s entrepreneurial ecosystem as joiners. They may not go on to found start-ups, but they will gravitate towards entrepreneurial companies.

In addition to making the distinction between two different types of entrepreneurial actors — founders and joiners — the study also helps to reconcile 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 start-ups 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.”

There are important policy implications if we start to place as much emphasis on joiners as founders within any entrepreneurial system, Roach told me.

For start-ups, it means that need to think about hiring practices. Instead of just hiring the best talent available, they should be hiring employees with joiner profiles. If they only hire the best talent available without also testing for entrepreneurial traits, they might end up paying a wage premium to attract employees who have very little interest in working for an entrepreneurial startup. And if they hire fellow founder-types, they risk these employees leaving after only a short period of time to launch their own ventures.

For emerging start-up hubs trying to attract human capital to move away from New York or Silicon Valley, there are also important policy implications. So much emphasis is typically placed on inducing founders to set up shop in a specific city, using measures such as tax incentives. But, says Roach, you won’t be able to attract a large enough labor pool to become a startup hub if you don’t reach out to the joiners as well. There needs to be the right entrepreneurial culture and a big enough ecosystem to support both founders and joiners.

However, as Sauermann and Roach point out, there are important caveats about their research. For one, they only surveyed science and engineering PhD candidates at the nation’s best research universities, so you probably can’t extrapolate these findings to the general population. Moreover, the findings on founders and joiners are most applicable to what Sauermann and Roach refer to as “academic entrepreneurship” – entrepreneurial spin-offs in areas such as the life sciences or physical sciences.

Going forward, then, don’t expect new magazines called “Joiner” to supplant Entrepreneur, Entrepreneurship programs to be replaced by Joinership Programs at America’s top campuses, or for VC firms on Sand Hill Road to replace Entrepreneur In Residence programs with Joiner In Residence programs. After all, there is something uniquely American about the way we celebrate the cult of entrepreneurship and the rock star founder.

However, Roach told me, this new research might lead to greater public understanding of the traits of “serial joiners” who bounce from start-up to start-up in search of new entrepreneurial opportunities. Thinking in terms of founders and joiners could go a long way in helping to bring into public view the role of all the smart, entrepreneurial employees who make new start-ups successful and contribute to American innovation. People such as Marissa Mayer.