Marc Dillon, Jolla’s Rock’n’Roll Co-Founder, Departs

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Some startups — and hey, some very large companies (*ehem*, Apple) — can justifiably be termed ‘personality cults’. Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of reporting on emergent startup businesses is access to the people who are actually making the decisions and standing in for an unformed (and future theoretical) corporate culture with their own personal charisma.

Once a company scales up significantly then press access to such people is almost invariably locked down, and most media activity takes place in bland briefing rooms populated with the kind of faceless marketing minions that would make paint curl off the walls in boredom.

Finnish mobile startup Jolla has always had a very visible front man in its leather-clad co-founder Marc Dillon — certainly ever since he stepped up from COO to CEO, back in fall 2012 (although he subsequently relinquished the CEO role to continue heading software dev from 2013).

It was Dillon who stood on stage at Mobile World Congress in 2013 to pitch the Sailfish project to a global assembly of carriers. It was Dillon who, the following year, climbed on a stool at the Jolla MWC booth like some kind of traveling preacher, to declaim the good news to delegates: “it’s not every day a new OS is born!”

And it was Dillon setting the tone of the crowdfunding campaign for Jolla’s first tablet, standing on stage at the 2014 Slush conference in Helsinki with almost the entire Jolla staff ringed round him like disciples, leading a cry of “people powered!”. The campaign went on to raise around $2.5M.

Dillon’s visibility and personal passion for Sailfish has, at times, made him feel like the de facto face of the entire Sailfish project — eclipsing the other co-founders with his call-to-arms conviction and punkish demands for a more human technology, for software to have a heart, for developers to champion difference and care about consumers whose tastes are unlike the mainstream. Sailfish’s small pond certainly rippled with the energy of such a vivid personality.

So on one level it’s a huge surprise to hear he’s left Jolla, the company he quit former employer Nokia to help co-found all the way back in 2011.

A Jolla spokesman confirmed his departure to TechCrunch, saying Dillon has left to “purse other challenges outside the company”, and adding: “There’s no big drama to it as such — this was Marc’s personal decision, and he wants to try his wings elsewhere. He has a lot of passion for many things, and even though it’s sad to see him go, we wish him all the luck in his future endeavors. Of course Marc is still a true Jolla and Sailfish OS fan and he will do his part in promoting our message around the world.”

All that said, Dillon has felt less visible within Jolla’s business this year. And briefings on some significant strategy shifts — such as Jolla gunning hard to build a BRICs OS licensing business for Sailfish and subsequently deciding to split the company into two, putting its initial effort into the OS basket — came from its board chairman, Antti Saarnio, rather than Dillon.

At the time of writing, Dillon had not responded to a request for comment on his reasons for leaving, so I’m not going to speculate — except to say that the departure of such a visible and passionate co-founder does feel like a blow to Jolla. Or else it could be a sign of the company shifting gears to move into a different phase. I just hope they don’t start hiring droves of marketing drones…

It’s certainly true that there’s something of a pivot afoot for Jolla. At least for the moment it’s moved away from making its own hardware to more fully focus on OS licensing. That was always one of the Jolla business models Dillon would talk about, so it’s not a full pivot, but is a shift of emphasis that has clear implications for management structure, if not business culture.

The Jolla spokesman also noted the company recently appointed Antti Öhrling as a new COO. “He is not replacing Marc in any way, but he will take on a wide responsibility in the management of Jolla,” he added.

Dillon’s LinkedIn profile lists his current employment as board member for fintech startup InvestorEye, a role he apparently took up in August. His Twitter biog lists his interests as: “Archtops, Sailfish, Suomi, BSA, Garrard, Rangefinders, Horology, Love.”