Entrepreneurs consider themselves a special breed. As they see things, they are unique innovators who begin businesses and provide jobs for everybody else. Yet, new research finds the start-up employees who join entrepreneurial founders in Silicon Valley startups may share many of the same traits. Founders and joiners both share a desire for greater autonomy, a greater than average risk-tolerance, and a desire to commercialize technologies, say the researchers.

That said, founders are more interested in management, while joiners appear to find greater enjoyment in the work itself.

“Our findings highlight the need to complement the pervasive focus on founders with research on joiners, who are not simply founders lite, but who are drawn to entrepreneurship for different reasons,” wrote the authors in a new highlight of their research.

Stem, meaning to originate

Innovation, the stereotype goes, typically begins in a Silicon Valley startup within one of the STEM fields — STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, all you English majors. While each startup has its own unique culture, they all generally include an opportunity for employees to make a greater contribution while also providing more personal satisfaction than most other kinds of work. For this reason, a lot of smart people who find academia stale and established companies ever so booooring will gravitate to some startup, looking to devote themselves to a job they genuinely love while also experiencing the thrill of growing something completely new.

While a ton of attention is paid to entrepreneurs, what about those who join them — who are these other people? So asked Dr. Henry Sauermann, an associate professor in the Scheller College of Business at the Georgia Institute of Technology and his colleague, Dr. Michael Roach, an assistant professor in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. And so they surveyed 4,200 Ph.D. candidates who were within two years of obtaining degrees in STEM fields.

Among those surveyed, “46 percent were interested in joining a startup as an employee, whereas 11 percent expected to one day start their own company,” wrote the researchers. Continuing to probe, the researchers discovered that Ph.D.s who dream of being part of a startup (no matter which role) share similar job preferences, including a desire for autonomy, a greater tolerance for risk, and a desire to bring a new product to the commercialization phase. Both groups, then, distinguish themselves from their peers who want to either remain in academia or work in established firms.

Yet, when comparing founders and joiners to each other, the researchers discovered a few key differences. Founders are more risk tolerant, plus they have a stronger interest in management. Meanwhile joiners are more interested in the functional work, such as research and development.

Delving deeper, Sauermann and Roach discovered only 39 percent of the Ph.D.s who aspire to be founders believe their own research has commercial value. Meanwhile 24 percent of joiners believe the same of their research. The majority of all founders, it would appear, may not possess a solid idea of their own (while nearly a quarter of all joiners do).

Overall, the researchers find a full 50 percent of those claiming their ideas (research) could turn to gold want to be a joiner and only 30 percent want to be a founder.

“The majority of people with a possible commercial opportunity are not interested in being a founder,” wrote the authors, noting this “raises the question of whether and how opportunities are commercialized, and by whom.”

Natch, we (who read this research) have other questions: Are some founders essentially exploitive in nature — with no real ideas of their own, they just want to be the boss of an enterprise capable of (stealing and) developing the ideas of others? If so, are they truly entrepreneurial? Conversely, are some joiners essentially manipulative, hoping to sneak their egg into another’s nest (as some birds do) where it might be warmed and hatched by others?

Oh the twisted ways of humans! Perhaps none of this matters. After all, innovation continues to take place, arising however it does.

Source: Roach M, Sauermann H. Founders and Joiners. Science. 2015.