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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Research on startup teams and startup success

At the ACAC lunch today, Kathy Eisenhardt summarized her decades of research on tech startups. For an academic conference (the Atlanta Competitive Advantage Conference), Prof. Eisenhardt literally needs no introduction: as host Bill Bogner of Georgia State said, “Kathy Eisenhardt needs no introduction: if she does, you didn't pass comps.” (Academics would know her paper that has 20,000+ cites, while tech entrepreneurs might know her as co-director of Stanford Technology Ventures Program or her many STVP videos).

Eisenhardt's focus was on the importance of a startup’s management (“Top Management Team” in strategy jargon) in determining the success of a small or young firm in a highly uncertain environment. She identified three factors that explained that success
  1. Optimal management team
  2. Optimal strategic decision process
  3. Matching strategy and structure (at “the edge of chaos”)
1. Management Team

We know that successful teams need to be larger, diverse and have prior work experience together (and thus trust). However, there is an interaction effect between the team and the sort of opportunities they pursue. As scholars who study tech startups will tell you, firms tend to be veterans of an industry who start firms in that same industry that they know.

Her 1990 paper with Kaye Schoonhoven showed that the best firm growth came where a top team caught a great opportunity. A great opportunity was a market that’s at the takeoff phase of a growth market: at least $20 million of industry revenue and 20+% annual growth. In California-speak, Eisenhardt said this is a great surfer catching a great wave.

In specific domains, she cited the recent research of Anne Fuller and Frank Rothaermel on star faculty entrepreneurs as well as various papers by Sonali Shah on user entrepreneurs. As she noted, Chuck Eesley of Stanford (an MIT alum) who estimated when experience is more valuable than talent, based on a survey of entrepreneurs from among the 100,000+ MIT alumni.

2. Strategic Decision-Making

Her old studies on TMT decision making showed that for fast choices in highly uncertain environments, managers need more information and more alternatives, as well as a decision process that is midway from managerial fiat and (a hopeless search for) total consensus. She also noted later work of researchers who examined improvisation and bricolage.

Her former student, Sam Garg, has studied how CEOs manage their boards. The best CEOs constrain the interactions with the board and don’t give up their power over leading the company, using it to make decisions (not generate ideas), by using a divide and conquer strategy.

3. Strategy and Structure

Summarizing her research with Chris Bingham of UNC, she noted that young firms were most successful when they could use their experience to generate heuristics. Experience was valuable when it created “simple rules” that firms could apply over and over again: such rules were both quicker and often better in solving problems in conditions of high heterogeneity and high uncertainty.

Eisenhardt noted that firms (like parents “raising your teenager”) face a dilemma between too much and too little structure. In a simulation with Bingham and Jason Davis, they found that in a highly unpredictable or turbulent market, too little structure is more dangerous than too much. (This also sounds like raising a teenager).

Finally, in cases of high ambiguity (e.g. nascent markets), success is more determined by luck than skill. Therefore, skillful managers want to reshape the market to fit their skills — rather than leave the outcome to dumb luck.

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