After more than a decade, Twitter’s co-founder, Jack Dorsey, has stepped down from his CEO position, bringing to the spotlight an issue that frequently impacts tech companies—the founder dilemma. Today’s tech giants were touted as miracles born out of the minds of geniuses in the 90s or early 2000s. Among those entrepreneurs were Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Jack Dorsey, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin, who were admired as brilliant. The founder ethos impregnated the second decade of the 21st century, with new founders coming into the scene, such as real estate WeWork’s Adam Neumann, who embodied this eccentric but brilliant trope. But with Dorsey’s resignation, this founder-led era seems to be coming to an end.
Before the tech boom, it was common for founders to bring business-focused executives to the top roles of the company, as it was understood that they lacked the skills to manage large-sized firms. However, that vision changed. Founders had more access to funding and thus were willing to put up with less overview. The case of WeWork is a prime example, as the founder, Neumann, had little oversight until the company decided to go public. Even Groupon’s founder Andrew Mason was involved in this kind of culture. The little oversight was paired with the fact that some tech-based companies led by their founders, such as Apple or Facebook, were thriving, and that Steve Jobs was becoming the paradigm of what a founder should be. American culture idealized or hated this image, but in doing so, it perpetuated it. Sidenote: Theranos’ founder Elizabeth Holmes was intoxicated by this culture.
However, the decade’s end has brought a slow change to the paradigm. The first company to step away from the founder culture was Apple in 2011 when Jobs decided to leave the company as he faced cancer. That decision was not comparable to the resignations that would come later from both Google and Twitter founders, as Jobs had to resign. In 2019, we saw another of these tech giants move away from its founder-based culture, with Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin stepping down from their roles at the company. The move paved the way for Sundar Pichai to take on the top position. Still, three founders/CEOs remained—Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Jack Dorsey—four, if you count Tesla’s Elon Musk.
Now, it’s Dorsey’s turn to step down, with executive Parag Agrawal becoming Twitter’s CEO. In an email he shared on Twitter, Dorsey said of his resignation: “There’s a lot of talk about the importance of a company being “founder-led.” Ultimately I believe that’s severely limiting and a single point of failure. I’ve worked hard to ensure this company can break away from its founding and founders.”
Dorsey’s resignation can be interpreted in many ways. It can be the end of the founder culture, a way to put the company first, a change that will make Twitter a different beast, or, as many pundits have noted, a natural step for Dorsey, who was already spending most of his time with its other enterprise, fintech giant Square. What’s clear is that the founder culture is coming under further scrutiny, in part due to the antitrust hearings in Congress and the increasing criticism against tech monopolies, which tends to focus on the visible face—the founder. For that very reason, Dorsey’s decision has been well received by the public, with many going as far as praising his will to put the company’s interests over his own (which is not precisely the case).
Twitter is now left in an exciting but demanding position. The social media platform has been experimenting with different features for the past year, such as the Clubhouse-like tool Spaces or the newsletter option, copied from Substack. On top of its technical decisions, with which the firm hopes to retain users, Twitter is still in the hotspot of the free speech debate. Agrawal will have to face those challenges on his own.
As scrutiny over the tech world increases and these firms become bigger and harder to manage, we expect to see the founder culture crack. Executives, mainly engineers who climbed up the corporate ladder, will slowly take over. But the allure of the founder will not disappear, remaining as an essential element of American culture.