When Founders Die

12 August, 2006

What will happen when the visionary founders of today's most important technology companies die or retire?

While the question may seem especially timely with all of the hullabaloo around Bill Gates' recent retirement announcement, what I'm really interested in are the companies dedicated to the public good -- Wikipedia, Linux, Craiglist, etc.. Each of these entities was created by a single charismatic figure who held the goal of making some big positive difference in the world. Each depends on the coordination of a large community of volunteers for its continued functioning. And each is, in turn, depended on by millions of people around the world.

What would happen to each of these companies without their founders? What plan do they have in place to ensure their continuity? How realistic does that plan seem and how well does it line up with their values?

Let's start with Linux. The volunteer programmers that make up the Linux project are organized into a rigid hierarchy based on the different technical divisions of the software and culminating in Linus Torvalds, the project's Benevolent Dictator for Life. Torvalds has sole commit access to the Linux kernel trunk. In other words, he has final and absolute say over all changes made to the heart of the operating system. In practice, of course, Torvalds relies heavily on the project's core committers, technical experts deeply versed in the arcane corners of the code, whose changes may not be fully comprehensible even to him because of their obscurity. He doesn't read every printer driver and graphics card interface. While his technical decisions are occasionally questioned -- a few groups and individuals with ideas for radical different directions for the software have even split off from the main effort from time to time and there have been bitter fights over process -- no disagreement has ever been so heinous as to actually fracture the project at the cost of overall productivity and compatibility. The UNIX wars seem gone for good.

The obvious downside to the Benevolent Dictator for Life model is the high level of dependency it creates on the Dictator. Or, as one of Torvalds' chief lieutenants Andrew Morton phrased the problem in a lecture on IT Conversations : what would happen if Linus got hit by a bus?

Basically, the answer is that Morton, and others in the Linux leadership, would act as stewards in the short run while a "high commission" was convened to select a new dictator to take the reins.

This strategy seems to pose a couple of problems. Obviously, opposing candidates for Linux Dictator would represent, to a certain extent, different visions for the technical future of the project. Maybe one leader would emphasize the move towards the desktop and slicker GUI tools while another would be associated with attempts to optimize Linux for its ubiquitous life on the server. At this point the broad adoption of Linux in so many different environments -- exactly what makes its continued healthy development so important -- means that it also servant to many different masters including a large number of highly powerful corporate interests with big stakes in its direction (IBM, anyone?). What if the high council reached a stalemate or if its choice was unpopular with a large percentage of the Linux constituency?

If history teaches us anything, it's that transference of dictatorial power means major trauma for most societies. With changes of kings, whole nations have changed religion, gained allies, begun and ended wars. Since dictators' policies are generally not so subject to the will of the people (usually a popular dictator is just about as effective as an unpopular one) societies governed by them tend to do all their changing at once between regimes. This makes for long periods of relative stability (or stagnation) punctuated by brief bursts of violence and chaos.

Now, while I'm not predicting that Linux won't outlive Linus -- it is too important to too many for that to be likely -- I would argue that its social structure almost guarantees it a major shake up somewhere along the line.

What about Wikipedia and its founder, Jimmy Whales? In a recent talk at the Long Now Foundation, called Vision: Wikipedia and the Future of Free Culture, Whales explained the intricate collaborative processes involved in maintaining Wikipedia as well as the important role his dictatorial power has sometimes played in maintaining them -- like by promising to ban a large group of skin heads who were plotting to take over the site to twist it to their own message. Whales is skittish about the personal exercise of this kind of power and has gradually worked to wrap it in institutions that involve representative, democratically chosen, groups of Wikipedians in making all important decisions.

Basically, Whales is gradually transforming Wikipedia from a benevolent dictatorship into a constitutional monarchy, with the eventual goal of making of himself a figurehead. And he's said as much, here quoted from his own Wikipedia page: "I'm more like the Queen of England — my power is decreasing over time. Soon, I'll just wave at parades." In contrast to the Benevolent Dictator for Life model, Constitutional Monarchy is extremely messy. It means a contradiction between formal principles and practical reality: a sovereign monarchy overseeing a country that's actually governed by a democratic parliament.

In a way there's an even more interesting parallel between Wikipedia and Great Britain: their reliance on common law, a process whereby rather than intentionally writing down and formalizing them all at once in some variety of constitutional process, a society allows its rules to accrue gradually over time through the settlement of disputes by courts or magistrates. Both Wikipedia and Great Britain base the resolution of new questions on past consensus, which is, in turn, built on a core set of community values: the Magna Carta for Britain, for Wikipedia the Neutral Point of View.

So, what future does this structure bespeak for Wikipedia without Jimmy Whales? Well, constitutional monarchies aren't completely immune to the inheritance problem we discussed in the context of Linux. The death of the monarch will still likely mean significant instability, though in the best case scenario it could mean largely a cultural shakeup rather than a practical one. If Whales manages to make Wikipedia's emergent governing structure independent of him, he will still retain significant importance as a cheerleader and public image tender -- he's the voice we hear defending the site every time a new moral panic about its accuracy sweeps through the mainstream media. And this is not an insignificant role since the morale of Wikipedia's many editors and maintainers plays is so important to the site's quality. As far as I know, Whales hasn't named a successor or to put in place a system for picking one in an emergency. He should. No matter how he sees his importance in Wikipedia's day to day governance.

And, finally, what of Craigslist and its founder Craig Newmark? The organizational structure Newmark created may be the simplest, the most robust, and the most traditional. Craiglist is the town square: a place for merchants and shoppers to find each other, a forum for announcements and advertisements to find eyeballs, and a venue for barkers, yarn-spinners, and soap box-standers of all stripes to harangue passers-by. Like town squares, Craigslist's structure is pretty much the same everywhere, but its content is hyper local, mostly arranging transactions that take place in person: apartment rentals, job interviews, and dates, etc.

Because Craigslist's social function is so time-tested it requires of Craig little evangelism or politicking. He needn't explain to anyone the site's raison d'etre (it's obvious on first glance) or defend it from critics (it doesn't really have any). Instead, Craig is a little like an ascetic saint leading a simple life of sacrifice to set an example. He does customer support. He's like the public minded senior citizen (maybe an Elk) who organizes efforts to pick up litter and paint park benches.

In many ways, Craigslist seems the most sustainable of these three organizations. While Craig's passing would be mourned, little to none of the site's operation is dependent on him. Someone would still be required to make large scale decisions like which new cities to cover and how to pay growing hosting bills, but Craig has traditionally made those decisions simply by responding to demand. He puts up new sites for cities when enough people ask for them and he figured out how to pay the hosting bill by polling his users about what policy they wanted to see. A new leader could likely step into Craig's shoes with little fanfare or difficulty. There's always a town square whether or not the city father who first helped erect it is still around.

To conclude, I thought it would be interesting to set these three strategies for longevity off against the dominant one to which they present alternatives: the publicly owned for profit company. When I started writing this post, I intuitively included Google in the list of companies I planned to discuss. It took me a minute to figure out why it was the odd man out: while Google's mission seems broadly in the public interest, as a publicly held company its objective is by definition solely to make money for its stockholders.

And there lies the rub for using the publicly-traded company as a strategy for longevity. Over time, and especially in the absence of the charismatic founders, the markets will wear away any of the company's objectives which are not explicitly about profit making. After all, that's its job. While Google's one hundred billion dollars of market cap value do a pretty good job ensuring its existence for at least the next dozen or so generations, the ideas and principles that differentiate it from all the other companies in the Dow are necessarily on a timeline for destruction, or at least homogenization.

And as strategies for longevity go that doesn't seem like the greatest tradeoff.

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