Travis Howell

Assistant Professor - University of California, Irvine 


I am an assistant professor of Strategy at the University of California, Irvine. My research primarily focuses on early-stage entrepreneurship, with a particular focus on the people within and around startups. I have interviewed hundreds of founders about their entrepreneurial journeys, and draw from those experiences in both my research and teaching. Some of my recent research also focuses on the increasing popularity of coworking spaces, where communities of founders interact with and learn from one another.


My research has been funded by the Kauffman Foundation, the Strategy Research Foundation, and the Kenan Insitute of Private Enterprise. I am indebted to these organizations for their support and assistance. 


Before entering academia, I worked as a consultant at PwC focusing on the valuation of intangible assets (technology, customer relationships, trademarks, etc.). Clients ranged from venture-backed startups to Fortune 500 companies. I also worked at two startups: IMSAR, a startup  developing advanced radar technology, and Seasons, an attempt at re-inventing the grocery store. These experiences influence both my research and my teaching.

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Published and Accepted Work

How much do teams matter in founder-led firms?

As firms mature, their founders are often replaced with seasoned executives. When founders are retained, the surrounding team members are viewed as critical resources in helping compensate for the founder’s managerial deficiencies. Surprisingly, however, little is known about how team members affect a founder-led firm’s performance later in a firm’s life. Using novel methods and a sample of over 2,000 firms, we address this gap. We find that although team structure has a significant impact on the performance of non-founder-led firms (consistent with past literature), it has little to no effect on the operating performance of founder-led firms, suggesting that founder CEOs may exert too much control. Thus, the irony is that founders are retained to propel progress but their very retention may prevent progress. Taken together, our findings add to the entrepreneurship, team, and research methods literatures.


Capability creation: Heuristics as microfoundations

While much research suggests that capabilities are critical for firms, little is known about the individual-level origins (“microfoundations”) of capabilities. Using in-depth nested case studies, we explore how entrepreneurial firms develop an internationalization capability. The setting is six entrepreneurial firms from three culturally distinct countries. Our data show that executives begin by seeding the process with imperfect heuristics and then managers continue development by elaborating their understanding of what task to perform and how to perform it. Importantly, managers across hierarchical levels support the development of their firm’s internationalization capability by abstracting key heuristics away from any one experience such that the capabilities become less routine over time. Overall, we contribute to the microfoundations movement in strategy and to literature on organizational learning.  


Working Papers

Solo vs. Co: How co-creators substitute for co-founders

The choice of whether to remain solo or find co-founders is one of the most important and fundamental decisions each entrepreneur must make. Yet, while past empirical research finds that larger founding teams outperform smaller teams on average, the existing literature is not clear regarding how and when solo founding might be possible or even preferable to finding co-founders. Using in-depth qualitative data on 70 entrepreneurial ventures, I address this gap. My findings reveal how solo-founders strategically use co-creators rather than co-founders to overcome liabilities, retain control, and mobilize resources in unique and unexpected ways. Further, my findings reveal how co-founders, though often beneficial, are not always necessary (and sometimes even detrimental) to building a successful venture. More broadly, my findings add fresh contributions to the fields of entrepreneurship and strategy.


Coworking spaces: Working alone, together

In the past decade, coworking spaces have emerged as a new and promising phenomenon within entrepreneurship. Due to its prevalence, popularity, and potential for disruptive change, coworking is increasingly relevant to theory, practice, and policy in entrepreneurship, yet its implications are largely unstudied given the rapid rise of the phenomenon. Overall, more data and analysis is needed to inform owners, policy makers, and entrepreneurs regarding the effects of coworking. In this paper, I address this gap. Specifically, I explore whether coworking “works’, or in other words, whether (and how) it adds value for entrepreneurs.


Boomerang founders: What happens when the founder comes back?

CEO successions represent critical junctures for firms. Although extant research explores the performance consequences resulting from different succession types, what remains unexplored is what happens when the firm rehires a former CEO (e.g., a “boomerang CEO”). Using a sample of over 6,000 succession events, we examine the performance consequences of former CEOs who return to the firm. Our results suggest that these boomerang CEOs perform significantly worse than other incoming CEOs, and that boomerang founder CEOs experience even greater challenges. Thus, the irony is that rehired CEOs may drag organizations backward instead of pushing them forward. Collectively, our findings contribute to the upper echelons and experience literatures. 


Do founders need a second-in-command?

 Despite the proliferation of new programs aimed at giving entrepreneurs access to broader pools of potential team members, entrepreneurs often struggle to attract unfamiliar others to the venture. By integrating similarity attraction theory with research on surface-level and deep-level diversity, we explain why entrepreneurs can better attract unfamiliar others to their venture if they share deep-level similarity rather than surface-level similarity. We test our theory using data from a sample of entrepreneurs and potential team members enrolled in an incubator program designed to help entrepreneurs form a team and launch their venture. Our results show that entrepreneurs attract unfamiliar others to their venture when they are similar on less-visible dimensions and that adding a team member from beyond the entrepreneur’s network promotes early venture success.