The Napoleons of Big Tech
Recent events in the technology sector suggest that investors and lenders should be demanding a premium to cover the risk that a star entrepreneur will become an egomaniacal dictator. With each business cycle, it seems, old lessons must be relearned.
LONDON – Companies have long had to manage “key person risk,” even taking out insurance against the possibility of losing top executives through death, illness, or injury. But the collapse of the crypto exchange FTX, Meta’s plummeting share price, and the chaos at Twitter following its takeover by Elon Musk suggest that “key people” can pose a very different kind of danger. Call it “Napoleonic founder” risk. Perhaps investors and lenders should be demanding a premium to cover the risk that a star entrepreneur will one day become an egomaniacal dictator, burning money along the way.
The risk is not new, of course. Business history is full of executives going rogue with corporate funds, and of successful entrepreneurs failing to realize that mature, publicly traded companies are not their personal playthings. But with each business cycle, it seems, old lessons must be relearned.
Following the dot-com crash at the turn of this century, the storied American investor Warren Buffett famously quipped that “you only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.” Such is the modern business cycle: it flows eternally from optimism to pessimism, and from boom to bust. Yet Buffett might have added that the optimistic high tides are the moments when precautions must be put in place. Once you have been confronted with the naked truth, your money may already have been lost.