Start-ups must focus on innovation even when their founders leave

'Virgin without Branson and Carphone Warehouse without Dunstone are hard to imagine'
'Virgin without Branson and Carphone Warehouse without Dunstone are hard to imagine'

LONDON - What happens when the founders of tech start-ups take a back seat, asks Nancy Cruickshank, executive director for digital development at Telegraph Media Group and Revolution columnist.

'I want to be an entrepreneur when I grow up.' It's a common goal for many today, and it's not limited to Silicon Valley. Founding a business is exciting and, sometimes, enormously lucrative. But what happens when the founders of these companies leave?

In June, MySpace co-founder and chief executive Chris de Wolfe announced his imminent departure, while Last.fm's founding trio, Martin Stiksel, Felix Miller and Richard Jones, stepped away from the business. These guys all made millions of dollars from selling their companies to, respectively, News Corporation and CBS, which now need to deliver ROI while maintaining the vision and drive that is essential to the rapid growth of these businesses.

The question is: can these more corporate owners be consistently innovative, staying ahead of the curve of tech trends and product ideas? Do they have the focus, passion, vision and the drive to succeed, often against the odds?

The latter are assets commonly associated with tech entrepreneurs. Work and play slip seamlessly into one another and they create much-needed 'buzz' for their enterprises. But can they also bring rigorous business process to the fore? Are they capable of ensuring sustained revenue growth and profitability? Sometimes, yes, but in most cases, no. When founders leave, there are opportunities for their businesses to move on, develop and thrive, but this is not without significant risk. As CBS's interactive chief, Quincy Smith, says: "It's always a bummer when founders depart."

Is it different when the entrepreneur is more traditional? Virgin without Branson and the Carphone Warehouse without Dunstone are hard to imagine, but what these businesses have on their side are successful processes and succession plans that have been formed over time. That's not to say that these businesses have cast innovation aside, but they are simply more stable and reliant on business rhythm than most tech start-ups.

So, when the founders leave, how can the new owners retain the most desired entrepreneurial traits while delivering ROI? It's got to be about fostering entrepreneurial cultures and approaches within established businesses so that they are well-equipped to innovate and successfully draw acquisitional opportunities into their midst.

Nancy Cruickshank is executive director for digital development at Telegraph Media Group.

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