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‘Joiners’ Share Similar Traits With Startup Founders, Increase Likelihood of Success

June 25, 2015

In recent years, academic researchers have focused on trying to identify the characteristics that could make someone a potentially successful founder of a startup. However, there has been limited research on the characteristic of the individuals who join these founders as early employees to help them develop and commercialize innovative new products and services. These “joiners” are skilled laborers who want to work for tech startups, but don’t want to be founders – mostly because they are less interested in management and more interested in technical roles. Two studies have been released that look at the characteristics of joiners and the role they play in a startup’s success.

In a recent study by Michael Roach of Cornell University and Henry Sauremann of the Georgia Institute of Technology, the authors examine the personal characteristics and preferences of Ph.D. candidates in STEM fields to understand the differences between potential entrepreneurs, those likely to join a startup, and those unlikely to join a startup. Personality characteristics and preferences examined include acceptance of risk, desire for autonomy, interest in commercializing new technology and willingness to take on managerial tasks. Over 4,200 participants also were asked more direct questions about interest in entrepreneurship and joining as startup.

The authors found that many of the same characteristics were similar between both founders and joiners – a high tolerance for risk, autonomy, and a desire to bring new ideas to life. However, the authors found that the differences between potential founders and joiners center around their willingness to take a management role versus a more technical position.

The study also found that contextual factors – norms, role models, and opportunities – exhibit very different relationships with founder and joiner interest. In particular, an interest in being a founder is most strongly associated with individuals’ preferences for entrepreneurial job attributes, while contextual factors do little to shape a founder interest in individuals who lack these preferences. An interest in being a joiner, on the other hand, is associated with both preferences and contextual factors.

One benefit of this finding is that it may validate the importance of connecting Ph.D. candidates with startups and putting them in other entrepreneurial environments. These types of experiences and programs may not help uncover more entrepreneurs. However, they have the potential to uncover more joiners because of the importance of contextual factors (e.g., working in a startup, mentorship) on those individuals.

In another study, Jing Chen from the Copenhagen Business School looks at the role early employees (joiners) play on improving the startup’s performance. The author contends these joiners play a critical role because of their closer interaction with founders and deeper involvement in the early stage of business operation. Similar to Roach and Sauremann, Chen found that these joiners have similar personality characteristics and preferences to the founder.

The author also found that individuals who have different skills from the entrepreneur are more likely to become cofounders and those with the same skills tend to become early employees. This result suggests that efficiency and competency could be simultaneously achieved in startups with different skill structures of founding team and early employees.

The report also found that diversity in staff appears to be crucial for entrepreneurial decision making. However, many entrepreneurs hire individuals with similar characteristics, experiences, and preferences as theirs. This creates an important role that economic development organizations may need to take in helping develop startups – they must work to bring together a diverse team that have different technical expertise and experiences.

The impact of these studies on startup formation out of universities may be twofold:

  • First,  by better identifying the personal characteristics and preferences of recent STEM graduates, universities will be able to help them find the best career path to apply their knowledge and skills; and,
  • Second, universities and economic development agencies may be able to bring together startup teams with higher potential based upon the individual characteristics of the team.

The finding also may allow universities to focus their efforts on providing more intensive, focused entrepreneurial training and education to individuals that exhibit more entrepreneurial/joiner characteristics than broad programs. 

entrepreneurship, higher ed, recent research