Guys, Quit Trying to Buy Back Your Old Company

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

The BlackBerry World logo on a smartphone. These days, it’s an ever-smaller world.

With Fairfax Financial’s efforts to raise money for a BlackBerry Ltd. bid sputtering (nb: a charitable description), a couple of new names have come out of the woodwork: Mike Lazaridis and Douglas Fregin, co-founders of the company. You may detect a trend here. There was Best Buy Co.’s founder Richard Schulze kicking the tires at his old company. There was Barnes & Noble’s Leonard Riggio gearing up to make an offer on the bookseller and then backing out. And of course there’s Michael Dell at Dell Inc.

Dell’s an exception to the pattern; he never left. More often the urge to buy back the farm is a case of “How the heck did those folks mess up my creation so badly?” Some days it feels like there’s not a manager left who hasn’t offered to come back and fix the company he started. Except maybe Yahoo’s Jerry Yang; it’s not likely there’s an active “Bring Back Jerry!” lobby.

The big success story in this department is Steve Jobs’s return to Apple. So there is hope. Sort of. If you’re the retired founder of a struggling company and believe you are Steve Jobs, you may consider reading Soren Kierkegaard’s advice to the guy who’s convinced he’s the next Abraham. Look into yourself and ask if you’re really, really sure. If you are, take a cold shower. Repeat until you’ve changed your mind.

It’s probably good for the founders that the attempt to return usually go nowhere. If you do manage to step into the same river twice, you’re likely headed toward a waterfall. In the technology business, the history of trying to succeed twice at the same thing goes back to Jack Tramiel, who founded Commodore Business Machines, made a fortune, got kicked out, then bought Atari just in time for the home computer market to blow up. Meanwhile, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell started the Chuck E. Cheese’s pizza chain and made another fortune.

This blog isn’t prone to giving unsolicited investment advice to people more successful in business than the author. But it’s hard to resist a suggestion for Mike, Doug, and all the other tech folks treading this path: Have you considered pizza?

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