Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

You are NOT the CEO

In a recent hacker news thread a person asks for some advice on how to fix the underperforming sales division of a newly created start-up ( http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1380381 ).

At some point in the thread he writes: “We are working on that now. It might give us more breathing air but still will keep us with a CEO (him) that I cannot trust professionaly.”

I practically fell off my chair when I read that. A three letter title in a two man company ? What does that make him ? CTO ?

When your startup is a couple of months old, has less than 10 people working for it, a tiny bit of turnover and has a bunch of stuff to do, the last thing you want to do it to try to stick titles on you and your buddies.

Let me try to explain why, because I see this fairly frequently and I think while maybe not lethal it definitely is a thing that is not going to help you.

In a start-up there are only two things: work and people.

The people will do some item of the work that needs doing as good and as fast as their energy levels allows them to do it, they’ll do it as good as their abilities allow them to and when they’re done they’ll go back for some more.

So, if you’re naming yourself CEO and the toilets need cleaning, that’s you. And if you’re naming yourself CTO and a bunch of stuff needs copying that’s you.

Titles are for insecure people that need to have their egos re-inforced or they are for people that have reached a stage in the life of their startup where it starts to make sense to divide the work in to fixed roles, where you have well defined territories and people as a rule will avoid crossing over in to each others territories.

A mentality like that is debilitating for a startup. It means that if there is a problem in the tech department, even though the co-founders may have the expertise they’ll stand around waiting for ‘the CTO’ (the one guy that knows a bit more about coding than the rest) to fix it. Instead of attacking it as a team and getting it behind them.

Every time you use your title in a startup you probably lose a bit of time, an opportunity or both.

Over the runtime of your getting-stuff-ready period that really adds up and the cumulative effect may well be the difference between sinking and swimming.

In a startup there are no roles. There are only expertises, so if there is a conflict between two people on a field where someone has demonstrably more knowledge than the rest that person may get the right of way to move things along a bit faster still. But everybody gets to contribute.

The guy that named himself CEO is not ‘too good to work as a mere tester of the product’, the guy that named himself CTO is not only allowed to try his hand at sales and talking to customers, he’s expected to, and so on.

Titles are - if you think you need them - for use to the outside world only, and if you want to stay flexible you should probably avoid their use altogether.

No vice presidents, no managers of business development and so on. Roles are for later, when it makes perfect sense. When you’re a founding team you may have the intention to end up in a certain role but there is really no need to fix and limit your capabilities and chances by labeling things that early in the game, and psychologically it will cause people to freeze up when confronted with a problem on a field that is not ‘theirs’.

If a startup has a problem in some arena everybody has a problem, and if people come on board with the expectation of being ‘labeled’ for a particular role and have no expertise outside of that role you should evaluate very well if they are capable of functioning in an environment like this.

Startups need people that are flexible, able to adapt to unforeseen circumstances and that will have their partners backs in every situation. They resolve conflicts by consensus first, by vote if they have to and in extreme cases based on the division of the shares, and if there is work to do or a challenge to overcome they do so as a team giving proper respect for the perceived expertise of the team members. Nothing is holy, nobody needs to get huffy or call the shots because they are ‘the CEO’ or whatever title you decide to use.

You are NOT the CEO, best case, one day you’ll end up being the CEO, and the same goes for all those other titles. For now, you are just a co-founder, someone who realizes that there is work to do and that there are no walls between any one person and any particular piece of work.

If someone should turn out to be inefficient in a certain role (or be perceived as such) then the startup as a whole has a problem, and you’ll all have to deal with it, it isn’t going to go away by pretending ‘lacking sales’ are a problem of ‘the sales guy’, since everybody is selling the startup and its product at every opportunity.

If the product has a perceived flaw in it it isn’t just the tech guys problem, it is everybody’s problem and you’d better get if fixed in a way that the team and the customers find acceptable.

The consequence of all this is that when you found a start-up, look for co-founders that are capable of doing more than just one thing if you want to increase your chances of survival. More flexibility in a team, and less ‘titular’ differentiation is going to go a long way towards surviving the stuff that execution tends to throw at you. Problems will come up and a team that has people without ‘hats’ on will deal with these challenges better than a team that has calcified in to a caricature of the structure of a much larger company. Try to stay away from that and it will help you tremendously.