Founders only? A Parable of Opportunity Recognition

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Thursday, August 19, 2004 dawned muggy and gray in New York City. The Yankees comfortably led the American League East division, and gas was $1.87 a gallon.

As the workday began, a breeze began to blow from the north, and on that breeze rode a new era, though we didn’t know it yet. At precisely 9:30 that morning, a small bell would be rung, a philosopher’s stone calling forth a peculiar kind of alchemy that has since set fire to our collective imagination. 

The bell was at the NASDAQ stock exchange, and in an instant it transformed paper into gold that day, creating, by some estimates, 900 millionaires in a single moment. 

That is the story of the day Google went public. 

That’s one way to tell it, anyway. We think about that day in mythic terms now, but there was still so much uncertainty. Investors remained wary after the dotcom meltdown in ’01 and wondered if Google was built on the same shifting sands as those early web darlings.

So that morning, Google actually faced some headwinds. Just before its debut, after the exhausting roadshow and all that entailed, the company priced its shares $23 below the low end of the predicted range for its first sale — a scary sign. Nerves were on edge.

GOOG came out at $85, but popped right away up to $100 per share — still under the hoped-for IPO price from the day before. Google’s rival Yahoo! boasted a market cap nearly 50% larger and its stock price was under pressure that summer. Even so, everyone breathed.

Thousands of miles away in Mountain View, CA, a young man without a speck of computer science training prepared for his day at Google. A two-year veteran of the company, he was one of its first 650 employees, and in his role in corporate services had seen Google grow to about 2,500 by that day in August. It had been a long road, challenging at times, to support such rapid growth. He built systems and established protocols; led teams of leaders who eventually led their own groups. He laid track for the Google train. 

He too watched the ticker that morning. By the time he arrived at work, his net worth was much, much larger than it had been the night before. 

This much we can see. What we don’t know is how he planned for that event; whether he asked or was asked about his philanthropic goals; whether his alma mater knew he was an early Google employee; if he could have used a connection to a classmate or alum who had gone down this path before; or whether any organization had helped him tell his story to an audience who valued his experience and his struggles. 

Now no longer with the 85,000 employee juggernaut — whose parent company Alphabet trades at >$1,000 and has split twice — the young man has since gone on to found several startups of his own.

Based on a true story.

As you design and build your pre-exit philanthropy program, think about the asset that powers this kind of philanthropy — and who holds that asset. It’s not only the founders, though of course they often hold the largest stakes in a company. And it takes more than founders to drive the innovation and growth that propels a startup to the point of an IPO or profitable acquisition.

‘Opportunity recognition’ is an important discipline of entrepreneurship. You’ll find it in many an introductory course syllabus across higher education. If we can apply this notion in our own work as Advancement professionals, our students and our communities will benefit in many ways. These alumni have so much to offer. Find a way to bring them into the circle.

Think about the asset that powers this kind of philanthropy — and who holds that asset.