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BlackBerry: The problem when founders come back

Mike Lazaridis speaks during BlackBerry's DevCon at the Moscone West Center in San Francisco, California, October 18, 2011. REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach/Files

It was more than 10 years ago, and I was sitting on stage at a technology trade show in Toronto, asking Mike Lazaridis about possible competitive threats to the BlackBerry.

Gulp.

There are technology company CEOs who have no problems dissing their rivals. Steve Ballmer loved to talk about Linux vs. Windows, and Oracle’s Larry Ellison has trash-talked half of the heavyweights in Silicon Valley. Others deflect the question, bringing it back to how great their own products and services really are. Lazaridis, however, looked almost insulted I would bring up the possibility of BlackBerry being anything other than dominant in the market (which it then was). I can only imagine his umbrage at the state the company is in now.

When news broke late Thursday that Lazaridis and his co-founder, Douglas Fregin, were considering a possible bid to take BlackBerry back, it caught even experienced industry observers off-guard. “(It) seems like an attempt to save their baby at almost any cost,” tweeted Kevin Restivo, a mobility analyst with market research firm IDC who is based in Toronto. “If Lazaridis & Fregin's proposed intervention helps create more of a market for BlackBerry to soften the blow to Kitchener-Waterloo, then good on them.”

Founders have come to the rescue before, of course. Apple was in the doldrums and needed a cash injection from rival Microsoft when Steve Jobs returned from exile. Michael Dell had more or less walked away from his namesake PC business before a series of blunders by his successor convinced him he had to take back the reigns. But neither of those firms were in nearly the dire straits BlackBerry is in now. And this seems much more about Lazaridis than Fregin, who has remained in the shadows for much of the firm’s history.

Usually in these cases, founders seem motivated less by money (they’ve already made plenty of it) than an interest in their legacy. That doesn’t always bode well, because legacies are about what happened in the past, not what needs to happen in the future. Recent stories have suggested that Lazaridis was no fan of the keyboard-free BlackBerry Z10 design, for example, and based on several occasions where I’ve heard him speak, I never felt he had a real interest in the consumer market.

Unfortunately, the chief information officers who were once among Lazaridis’ biggest fans are no longer interested in forcing a BlackBerry down their users’ throats. A consumer-first strategy that includes not only a touchscreen but extensions into tablets and wearables is the baseline expectation of any major player in the mobile space. So is an obsessive interest in apps, where BlackBerry remains particularly weak. Taking BlackBerry back now would mean Lazaridis would have to be ready to literally start over, thinking more like a startup than an established giant.

The best legacy, of course, is setting your company up for the future with a worthy successor with the vision and wherewithal to make a difference. I think BlackBerry had that with Thorsten Heins, though he may have come on board too late to be effective. For those that still cling painfully to the memory of when BlackBerry was a market leader, it could be highly uncomfortable to learn what happens if Mike Lazaridis decides there’s really no replacing Mike Lazaridis.

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