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Houston research: Why venture capital firms might change a startup's leadership

Here's what factors a VC will consider when evaluating a startup's leadership, according to Rice University research. Photo via Getty images

Consider the 21st century's most storied CEOs: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos. All have one thing in common – not only did they run their companies, they founded them.

Each of these corporate leaders, in other words, had to deal with venture capital firms to find critical resources for their firm's success. And it didn't always end well. Jobs was famously fired when Apple's board replaced him with the former CEO of a soft drink company – a disaster from which Apple took years to recover.

Even if changing CEOs doesn't always work out, however, it often does. And when VCs invest heavily in a company, they are proactive in making their investment pay off. Uber founder Travis Kalanick, for example, who cofounded the ride-sharing app Uber, was pressured to step down in 2017 after the company was rocked by scandals that included reported sexual harassment.

Though Kalanick's flameout drew global attention, being swapped out is actually commonplace for CEOs of startups, according to Rice Business Professor Yan "Anthea" Zhang. In a new study coauthored with Salim Chahine of the American University of Beirut, Zhang examined data on 1,156 venture-capital-backed U.S. initial public offerings between 1995 and 2013. Out of this sample, they found that 472 firms, or 40.8 percent, changed CEOs between the first round of venture capital financing and the IPO.

Venture capitalists often have strong reasons for swapping a CEO out, Zhang notes. Guiding a company from its startup phase to the initial public offering requires a huge learning curve. Attention must be paid to human resources, efficiency, public relations – hurdles that can stymie even the most successful startup leaders. Just as in public companies, CEO deficiencies in these areas can harm a company's IPO success and its stock value after the IPO.

A range of other factors, some subtle, lie behind VC decisions to change startup leadership, the researchers found. Distance between the startup and the venture capital firm's headquarters is one such factor. If a New York VC firm funds a company in Nevada, monitoring the day-to-day work of the startup is more difficult and costly than if the venture capital firm is based in California.

A CEO directly appointed by a venture capitalist is more likely to be seen as the venture capital firm's agent, allowing the VC firm to directly control the startup, the researchers write. Overall, VC firms unable to closely monitor the startups they funded were more likely to look for new leadership.

The CEO's past experience, described by the researchers as "human capital," is also pivotal. A CEO who has successfully led a prior IPO is much less likely to be replaced than one who hasn't been through the experience, Zhang's team found. Similarly, a CEO with finance/accounting experience, an MBA, or a graduate level degree is likely to be seen as more credible than one who lacks such experience or degree.

Chaotic as it might seem to swap horses midstream, replacing a CEO for one with more experience and education correlates to a better valuation of the public offering, the researchers found.

These findings are particularly timely now, in the era of COVID-19. As businesses turn to Zoom and other remote techniques, VCs may be questioning more than ever how well they can monitor their investments without frequent site visits and in-person meetings. Building a company has always been a heavy lift. When your funder can only measure your work through a screen, surviving as a startup CEO may be tougher than ever.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Yan "Anthea" Zhang, the Fayez Sarofim Vanguard Professor of Management – Strategic Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

Vanessa Wyche, director of the Johnson Space Center, gave the keynote address at this year's State of Space event. Screenshot via houston.org

Is the Space City poised to continue its reign as an innovative hub for space exploration? All signs point to yes, according to a group of experts.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted its annual State of Space this week. The virtual event featured a keynote address from Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA Johnson Space Center, and a panel moderated by David Alexander, chair of aerospace and aviation committee at the GHP and the director of the Rice Space Institute.

The conversations focused on the space innovation activity happening in Houston, as well as an update on the industry as a whole has space commercialization continues to develop. All the speakers addressed how Houston has what it takes to remain a hub for the sector.

"The future looks very bright for Houston that we will remain a leader in Houston spaceflight," Wyche says in her address.

Here are a few other memorable moments from the event.

"Houston, I feel, is poised to be a leader. We have led in human space flight, and we will a leader in commercialization."

— Wyche says in her keynote address, which gave a thorough overview of what all NASA is working on at JSC. She calls out specifically how startups are a driving force in commercialization. JSC is working with local accelerator programs at The Ion and MassChallenge.

"These startups help us to connect to tomorrow's space innovation leaders, and gives our team the opportunity to mentor these entrepreneurs as we work to advance both our scientific and technical knowledge," she says.

"The ability to have a place where government, academia, and industry can come together and share ideas and innovation is incredibly powerful."

​— Steve Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines LLC, specifically talking about the Houston Spaceport, where Intuitive Machines has signed on as a tenant. Altemus adds that a major key to leading space commercialization is a trained workforce, which the spaceport is focused on cultivating.

"We shouldn't discount the character that Houston has from the standpoint as a great place to build a business."

— Tim Kopra, vice president of robotics and space at MDA Ltd., says, adding that Houston is a big city that feels like a small town. "We need to incentivize companies to come and stay," he says.

"Great cities — like great companies — understand that if you're still, you're probably moving backwards. ... I think Houston gets it in that regard."

— Todd May, senior vice president of science and space at KBR, says, adding that Houston realizes it needs to be on the offensive side to bring innovation to the game, positioning the city very well for the future.

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