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Using Power as a Founder

October 3, 2011, 2:17 AM
Airbnb

Over the past few days a "scandal" has emerged from a leaked email regarding AirBnB's new round of financing. 

Potential investor Chamath Palihapitiya (former head of growth at Facebook and now increasingly prolific investor), penned an email detailing his reasons for passing on the deal.  Namely, that ~$22M of the new funds were being used to pay out a dividend to shareholders (93% of which appears to be the founders). This is an extremely unorthodox method for providing founder liquidity.

Over the last several years, founders have seen their power rise in comparison with investors. This is driven by both short-term realities (e.g. the relative stability of the technology market bringing in new investors) and long-term trends (costs decreasing exponentially and growth of user bases and addressable market sizes).

One can argue whether this power balance is good or not, but I'd rather just accept that it's happening (this fact is elegantly defended by Naval Ravikant; Paul Graham has written about it as well). If the power balance is shifting, we will likely see frequent examples of the impressive companies testing the boundaries of how they can apply this power in negotiations.

Ultimately this is just a sensational example of rational actors in a market trying to discover a new equilibrium.

However, it does open up an interesting question: how should founders wield this new, unknown power?

If you're leading a high-growth company, think about what boundaries you want to test and how you want to go about optimizing for greatest possible impact/outcome. Fight for the things that will matter in the long-term for both you and your team (control, rights, ability to maintain simplicity/speed, comfort, etc.). 

Going after short-term gain can be logical, and is not inherently wrong, but every time you do so it becomes easier to slip into playing a short-term game. If you make that slip, you will dilute your chances to actually disrupt or create a market.

 

Some food for thought: If they'd been in this current market during their ascent, would Bezos try to get a dividend payout? Zuck? Page or Brin? Gates? Jobs?  My guess is yes, probably one of them would have tried it - which is why you shouldn't use this as a way to fault the AirBnB team, regardless of whether you like the idea of a dividend cash-out.

 

Using Power as a Founder

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