Startups Need a New Option: Exit to Community

Startups Need a New Option: Exit to Community

Founders create startups for all sorts of reasons. Often, the motivation is a mix between the founders’ desires to do well for themselves and to do something worthwhile for others. Dreams of greatness might figure in there too. Rarely, however, is the overriding reason to build a company people want to get rid of. But that is what the startup pipeline is designed to produce.


IMHO Tumblr latest change in ownership is a big WHAT IF to this underutilized outcome. Their story in short:

While reports say the price tag was only $3M, most of the deal is in absorbing operating costs (and liabilities) as Automattic is “bringing over close to 200 people. We’re taking them all on. I am aware of some of the details of some of the bidders. You know they were not planning to keep much, if any, of the team going.”

Now, is this a good outcome for the Tumblr community? It’s probably better than sitting around the Version/Yahoo/AOL/Oath portfolio. In that same podcast Matt Mullenweg (Automattic CEO) said “(Tumblr has) more daily active users than has monthly active users. They’ve really cracked a lot of the social side of it.”

It’s pretty depressing to sell a company with more daily active users to a company with less monthly active users at a firesale firesale firesale rate… and yet that is the current market. I think Tumblr could surely find another purposeful life with Wordpress (and if it doesn’t it’s still valuable to Automattic internet real estate and talent expansion)… but what if it sold to its users instead?

The “subset of startups in venture capital portfolios that lie in “zombie” territory—somewhere between failure and exit-ready” is massive. But the rub is in HOW we execute “a new way of liquidating investments that would otherwise lie dormant.” In the use case of Tumblr, I think the challenge is not in crowdsourcing more money than the ticket price or even 10x-ing (or possibly even 100x-ing) it… the challenge is in how all management decisions (operating costs, liabilities, product implementation, etc.) are made going forward.


I think i have 2 questions now

  1. after E2C how company will be operated. I.e. who will be in charge? will company has similar structure to companies that went to IPO for example?

  2. if part of owners(group of users) want to do A, another part want to do B - how this situation/conflict can be solved?
    Should it be voted and part that will have >51% votes win and other just lose and agrees with winner or maybe they can split company into 2 pieces and go into separated directions?

Btw, it’s awesome idea/vision. There was a lot of changes in last 100-60-30 years span. And this workflow looks “anti-old-fashion”. Like before web we have one way to do things.
Then after Kickstarter and sharing ecomony a lot of people can do things differently.

I like it and hope future will go into this direction. It’s sad to see when startups failing, or killed by company that just eat it in one piece.

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Thanks for your interest in this. Governance is in many respects an easier problem than most people think. One can look at the structure of the bigger cooperative businesses, for instance - think REI or one of the many rural electric co-op utilities in the United States. On the whole, they’re not all that different from investor-owned companies in terms of governance; there are shareholders, and a board is elected or appointed, and the board is accountable to the shareholders. The main difference here is the identity of the shareholders.

This could take various forms. It could be that the users’ stock is held in a trust, and the trustee is chosen by them, or is required to act based on their preferences. It could be that user-shareholders elect board members directly. It could be that the board is self-perpetuating (as in many credit unions) and is merely accountable to act in the members’ interest. For the most part, we would not expect users to be making or voting on day-to-day decisions for the company. There may be a referendum on a large policy decision, and the bylaws would determine how votes are counted. The point is, there is flexibility here, but for the most part what we’re talking about are fairly familiar challenges in corporate governance. The major difference, again: the people management is ultimately accountable to are users, not outside investors.

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Thanks, David! I agree that the financing challenges are pretty massive. There, we may need some new fund models, and perhaps even some new public policy along the lines of what enabled ESOP conversions beginning in the 1970s. (More on that here.) The governance challenges scare me less, because experience with large co-ops and ESOPs suggest that there can be some meaningful community oversight without radically changing executive level operations. The main question that changes is who is the CEO ultimately accountable to - outside investors or users?

@ntnsndr curious to see how it will pass validation. because it can help a lot of people/businesses/owners.

I think there will be some difference between physical products and online projects. At Kickstarter most of products you can “touch”. Maybe it’s just a KS policy, but I see it as a trend

Next thing will be related to country where company was incorporated. So maybe it’s also important to move organization into countries like US, CA, etc during E2C process or before it. Like using Stripe Atlas for it.

I think Andrew Yang’s Freedom Dividend would be a shift toward allowing people to work on things that are Community Improving vs Economically Extractive from a community.
That is what I was thinking when listening to Kevin Owocki on your podcast.
I mean, How much easier would it be for 10 people to get together and start a coop if they were each getting $1000/month already? Or to work on Open Source software.
If we want to talk about using tech for Democracy 2.0, the next step beyond that would be to decouple income from work so that anyone that wants to can work on tasks that make the community better. We already do this basically with Grants (benevolent) vs. VC money (ownership by 1% ). The better way would be for society to fund everyone’s basic needs in exchange for people creating more public goods.
There are a few ideas I haven’t really completely wrapped my head around. But I think should be kept in mind during a movement toward stakeholder ownership.