August 16, 2014
Ownership and Control in Startups
Posted by Gordon Smith

Since reading Barbarians at the Gate in the early 1990s, I have been a huge fan of business histories. Although I have read scores (perhaps hundreds) of business histories, my list of "must reads" is still long. Recently, I decided to read one of the books on that list, The Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder's account of Data General's efforts to build a minicomputer in the 1970s. This book was published in 1981, and it deals with events during my high school years, so it is a great trip down memory lane.

Here is an observation about the founders of Data General early in the book:

Some notion of how shrewd they could be is perhaps revealed in the fact that they never tried to hoard a majority of the stock, but used it instead as a tool for growth. Many young entrepreneurs, confusing ownership with control, can't bring themselves to do this.

Hmm. The distinction between ownership and control is a familiar one in corporate law circles, but this Berle-Means concept is typically applied to large corporations. What does it mean in the startup context?

Chuck O'Kelley examines the connection between entrepreneurship and the Berle-Means corporation in his 2006 article, The Entrepreneur and the Theory of the Modern Corporation, 31 J. Corp. L. 753, but I am curious about viewing this from the other direction. As noted by O'Kelley, the separation of ownership and control is used by Berle and Means to describe firms after the decline of the classical entrepeneur, so it seems somewhat surprising to see Kidder use those terms to describe a startup.

Founders often exert a tremendous influence on a company, even when shares are held by other employees and investors. This control may emanate from their formal positions within the company (CEO, CTO) or perhaps from the respect they are paid from other employees. But I think it is fair to say that ownership matters a great deal in the startup context because it is more concentrated than in the public company context. Thus, to a large extent, ownership is control in a startup.

Books, Corporate Governance, Corporate Law, Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurship | Bookmark

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