The afterlife: When founders leave

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone officially announced Tuesday his plans to step away from Twitter’s day-to-day operations. While it’s a move that many folks in the industry have seen coming for months now — Stone has spent more time outside the office as Twitter’s public face in press interviews and vodka commercials — his official departure has still garnered its fair share of headlines and a few raised eyebrows.

That’s partly because of how important founders are. As GigaOM’s Katie Fehrenbacher has put it, the “founder” title is an especially weighty one here in the tech industry. I talk daily with startup executives who refer to their companies as “my baby.” Naturally, a lot of people see walking away from a startup as a bit of an abandonment– especially before the company has seen an exit.

But Stone’s decision is not at all unique among his peers. Twitter’s other co-founders, Evan Williams and Jack Dorsey, have scaled back their involvement with the site to focus on their own respective projects. And the guys at Twitter are certainly not alone in taking a step back from the company they’ve helped build.

A founder’s nature is essentially creative. He or she often enjoys the fast-paced life of a bootstrapped, pizza-and-beer, tiny startup. But when employee numbers start doubling, more money gets raised, and things like HR and 401Ks become necessities, founders often times yearn to jump ship for the more creative early-stage life again. At the same time, there is the rare founder that can make the transition to lead the bigger company as the CEO.

Here’s a look at where founders from some of the tech industry’s biggest players have ended up:

  • Apple
    Apple was co-founded in 1976 by Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne. Wayne reportedly gave up his Apple shares fewer than two weeks after the company was founded for $2,300. Wozniak ended his full-time work with Apple in 1987. Jobs resigned from Apple in 1985 amid corporate power struggles, and rejoined the company 11 years later.
  • Google
    Google was co-founded in 1998 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Both continue to hold full-time executive and board roles at the company.
  • Groupon
    Groupon was launched in 2008 as a spin-out of ThePoint, a website co-founded in 2007 by Andrew Mason and Eric Lefkofsky. Mason continues to serve as Groupon’s CEO; Lefkofsky, who has several other ventures, serves as the company’s chairman. Both founders have been criticized for using funding rounds to cash out portions of their stakes in the company.
  • Facebook
    Facebook was co-founded in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes. Zuckerberg has remained at the company as CEO; Saverin stopped working day-to-day with the company in 2004; Moskovitz left Facebook in October 2008 to co-found Asana, and Hughes left Facebook in 2007 to lead Barack Obama’s online campaign efforts.
  • LinkedIn
    LinkedIn was co-founded in 2003 by Reid Hoffman, Konstantin Guericke, Allen Blue, Eric Ly, and Jean-Luc Vaillant. Hoffman stepped down from the CEO role in 2007, and he remains the company’s executive chairman. Guericke and Ly both left their full-time roles at LinkedIn in 2006. Blue works full-time role as LinkedIn’s VP of product management, and Vaillant has retained his role as the company’s CTO.
  • Microsoft
    Microsoft was co-founded in 1975 by Paul Allen and Bill Gates. Allen stepped away from day-to-day operations at the company in 1982 after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which he treated with radiation therapy. Allen stepped down from Microsoft’s board of directors in 2000. Gates stopped being CEO in 2000, and announced plans to step down from day-to-day operations in 2006; he remains Microsoft’s chairman.
  • Yahoo
    Yahoo was co-founded in 1995 by Jerry Yang and David Filo. Yang announced he would step down from a short stint as CEO in 2008, but remains on the executive roster as a “Chief Yahoo” and has a spot on the company’s board. Filo also continues to work with the company as a “Chief Yahoo.”

Do you have any thoughts on whether a founder’s presence is crucial to a company’s success? If so, let us hear them in the comments.

Image courtesy of Flickr user clicksense.

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