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Big Tech is so big it doesn’t need its founders anymore

With one big exception. Rhymes with “Zuckerberg.”

Jeff Bezos at the annual Sun Valley conference in 2017.
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Here’s the Great Tech Founder Story we have been told over the years: Brilliant, quirky dude (always a dude) has a flash of inspiration, sets off on a quest to build something earth-changing, gets doubted along the way, and eventually steers his company to massive success — success that comes directly from his leadership.

And here is the Great Tech Company Story we have also been taught over the years: That even though these massively successful companies have grown way beyond their humble roots, they continue to win because they keep the focus and ferocity they had at the beginning.

But just because we all know these stories doesn’t mean they are true. A more honest version goes like this: Once one of these companies attains a certain size and status, it’s very, very hard for the company and its founder to keep that single-mindedness. More importantly: They probably don’t have to.

Which might be the takeaway from Tuesday’s news that Jeff Bezos is stepping down from the CEO job at Amazon, 27 years after starting the company.

Bezos’s move means that of all the major tech companies that dominate our lives today, only one of them — Facebook — is still run by the man who started it. But the rest of them, it turns out, have done fine without their founders.

You can chalk that up to the initial insight, breakthroughs, and drive that got them to the place where the founder could hand the reins to a protege and no one would miss them much. Or you could argue that at some point, these companies are so swollen that they make their own gravity and plot their own path, beyond the control of any single person. Probably a mix of both.

But in any case, it’s clear that most of Big Tech has become so Big and entrenched that it no longer needs the men who made it.

That doesn’t mean they don’t pay lip service to the idea that they’re still the scrappy startups they once were: Bezos, in his step-down note to employees, insisted that it is still “Day 1” at Amazon. That’s a reference to the company’s insistence that everyone at the company — a $1 trillion company that hired more than 250,000 people in 2020 alone — should act as if they’re at a just-launched startup. Amazon also fetishizes the desks that Bezos and his early co-workers made out of wooden doors, which are supposed to symbolize the company’s lean, stay-hungry mentality.

The counter to all of that lip service: There’s a serious antitrust movement afoot that wants to break up, or at least slow down, Google, Apple, and Amazon. (Microsoft, which faced its own antitrust breakup case 20 years ago, has largely avoided the wrath of politicians, regulators, and activists this time around.)

There are still plenty of caveats to consider as we look at what happens when founders separate themselves from their companies. Steve Jobs didn’t leave the Apple CEO job to Tim Cook because he was bored with Apple — he did it because he was too sick to run Apple, and he died months after the handoff. Bill Gates stepped down as Microsoft CEO in 2000, but he stuck around and watched as the company meandered for years under successor Steve Ballmer; it didn’t regain its footing until 2014, when Satya Nadella took over and Gates had truly moved on. Larry Page didn’t formally leave his company until 2019, but he definitely handed over operating control in 2015, and folks inside Google will tell you he had been detached for some time before that. Reed Hastings hasn’t actually stopped being the CEO of Netflix — he’s moved over to become co-CEO with Ted Sarandos.

But investors, at the very least, have learned to live with Big Tech companies run by someone other than their founders. You can see the performance of Google/Alphabet, Apple, and Microsoft once their CEOs stopped running the companies day to day; Netflix is the counterexample, but it’s a story still in its very early days — Hastings didn’t make his side-shuffle until the middle of last year, and the overall market has been on a crazy tear for a while now.

The big outlier to this trendlet is Mark Zuckerberg, who has been running Facebook since its founding 17 years ago and who is still only 36 years old. He doesn’t look remotely ready to leave: Not only is there is no obvious succession planning underway, but by all accounts Zuckerberg has been extremely hands-on during the last few years, trying to convince regulators and employees that there’s a way for his company to connect 2 billion people and dominate the market for digital ads without destabilizing the planet.

He could leave, of course. He controls a majority of Facebook’s voting shares, and can do almost anything he wants. And maybe Facebook, like its other Big Tech peers, could chug along for some time without him. Even though the company is constantly battered in the press and by politicians, it continues to hoover up ad dollars without any sign of flagging. Like its Big Tech peers, it’s a perpetual money machine that never seems buffeted by the outside world: Last year, it generated $85.9 billion in revenue, up 22 percent from the year before.

But for right now it’s impossible to see Zuckerberg letting go — not when the US government is suing to break up the empire he’s built, and not when there are genuine questions about whether Facebook and civil society can coexist. Facebook certainly isn’t a scrappy dorm-room startup anymore, but it’s also still tightly tied to the man who created it. Which will be true right up until the time it isn’t.