Rock Star Founders

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs (photo: Reuters) 

A much buzzed-about piece in wunderkind Justin Smith’s The Atlantic titled “Steve Jobs’s Law” explains “Why Founders Make the Best Leaders.” It was accompanied by an iconic and familiar image of Mr. Jobs wowing the cult of Mac at one of his soon-to-be legendary product launch events.

Author James Kwak writes:

“Still, the conventional wisdom among investors, if not the media, is that founders need to move out of the way for an experienced CEO to take a company “to the next level.”** This piece of mythology plays into Steve Jobs’ remarkable story. Apple would not be the world’s most valuable and powerful technology and media company today without Jobs, its co-founder and its CEO from 1997 until last week, when he resigned because of health issues.”

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (photo: (CC) Brian Solis) 

The relationship between a CEO’s reputation and his/her company reputation is long proven. Back in the days of the imperial CEO, Dr. Leslie Gaines-Ross, then at Burson-Marsteller, conducted some excellent research that benchmarked and even quantified the correlation between the two. 

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (photo: Josh Haner/The New York Times) 

These days, some of the conversation has shifted to suggest that  product innovation may drive a company’s reputation maybe more so than a compelling CEO.

 More recently, as the writer of The Atlantic piece infers, there’s something even more special about a founding CEO and the halo effect it has on a company’s reputation and business success. (Groupon’s Andrew Mason aside.)

So from a PR perspective, how much PR lift can a company get by deploying a visionary founder on the public stage for a significant press announcement?  Few can argue that Mark Zuckerberg’s star turn at last week’s F8 conference wasn’t a total media home run.

Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page

And after reading The Times’s Jenna Wortham’s account of Jeff Bezos at the Amazon Kindle Fire launch presser today, it was clear Mr. Bezos charmed the bejesus out of a rapt audience.  (Could a 7″ Android tablet alone have fired up all those journalistic platitudes?)

Here’s a pic from Google’s co-founders at their last (?) presser together at NYC’s Grand Central Station in 2008 to announce some HopStop-like Google Map feature.  It makes you wonder whether we’ll soon see Larry take the stage at Google’s next boffo event.
Of course, the biggest question that’s looming in tech luminary-land is whether Apple’s new CEO Tim Cook will pull off a command performance on October 4 when Apple devotees gather for the company’s presumed iPhone 5 launch, and a surprise Facebook tie-in or two. (Anyone check Zuckerberg’s calendar that day?)

International Business Times’ Dave Smith asks:

Apple CEO Tim Cook (Photo: Reuters)

“As hundreds of journalists, bloggers, and techies converge upon Cupertino, Calif., for Apple’s media event next week, new CEO Tim Cook needs to weigh how he will measure up. Can he effectively assume the aura of Steve Jobs?”

So where does all that accumulated reputation capital fit in the mix?  Maybe the public’s embrace of Apple and Amazon isn’t entirely about their gadgets-du-jour and legendary founders’? Maybe their history of product innovation and customer service are the real drivers of their public relations panache?

Both companies have enough reputation capital in the bank to weather the usual missteps.  (Groupon, btw, hasn’t.)  Hence, my bet next week is on Mr. Cook wooing the crowd, even if he doesn’t fully reach the bar that Mr. Jobs has raised to such implausible heights.