Congratulations. You’re the CEO of a startup. You’re doing the hardest job in business. You’ve raised money from venture capitalists and turned down better-paying jobs elsewhere. You’ve mastered complicated things such as capitalization tables and common things, such as payroll. You’ve fought with competitors, coworkers, friends and even yourself without losing your way or your wits. You’ve inspired others to work beside you each day to make your dream a reality. I salute you.
Now, everybody else calling himself or herself a CEO—listen up, this is for you: stop it. Just stop calling yourself a CEO.
Stop putting “CEO” on the business cards you printed last week at Moo.com for YourLastName Consulting LLC. Take it off your LinkedIn page. Remove it from the résumé you’re passing around in hopes of getting hired. Self-titling as CEO is an atonal homage to structurally mandated social hierarchies, not a statement of your iconoclastic self-determination.
Maybe it’s generational. Steve Jobs’ early business card read: “Vice President, New Product Development,” in part because he recognized he didn’t have the skills to run the company he wanted to build. At least not yet. Bill Gates went with the classic and somewhat understated “President.” But today’s tech titans have opted for something much more conspicuous. If you were one of the folks to get an early Mark Zuckerberg card, you may remember the supercilious line: “I’m CEO, Bitch.” Way to stay classy, Zuck.
Facebook aside, title inflation is bad for business. Calling yourself the CEO will label you as either an egoist or someone with confidence compensation issues. That will make people less willing to work with you or help you. Taking the top title in a company also suggests a limited vision of what your company can become. Ask yourself: would you still be CEO if it were a $100 billion business or would you require what’s euphemistically called “adult supervision?”
So stop pretending to have attained a title you didn’t earn and start doing what you need to do to get to where you want to be. Here’s how:
Attract Awesome People
Jobs had Wozniak and later, Markkula. Clark had Andreessen. McNeally had Bechtolsheim, Joy and Khosla. A remarkable CEO should be like the moon, illuminated by the reflected light of all the stars he or she has brought into orbit. Awesome people act as accelerants to whatever you’re doing. They push ideas forward, execute with aplomb and challenge you to new heights.
If you can hire, hire. If you can’t hire, bring them into your orbit as advisors, friends and fellow travelers. Get them to invest their creativity and energy.
To get the true benefits of awesome people, focus on diversity. You want to have as many different perspectives on a problem as you possibly can, so bring on the best people from as wide array of backgrounds and from different generations. They’ll learn from each other and the confluence of their experiences will be the basis of company creativity for years to come.
Most importantly, attracting awesome people to your company precludes retreat. You carry too valuable a cargo of energy and confidence invested by others to turn back.
Build an Experience, Not a Product
Eric Ries has put the concept of the minimally viable product (MVP) front and center in the minds of Silicon Valley startups. But this focus is somewhat misguided. Products give you utility and then may be discarded. Products are the one-night stands of business. Experiences give you memories and good experiences will bring you back for more, it engenders a long-term relationship. The best CEOs know this instinctively and do all that they can to create and cultivate an attractive experience for their customers.
Once you’ve got a good experience, cement it with the bond of buying. A funny thing happens when people buy your product: they invest their energy into the choice and will find reasons to justify their action. In the early days of Apple, customers loved their computers because they had to pay a boatload of money for them. They found aspects of the experience they could rave about just to justify their purchase to others.
That price tag is valuable to you too. It focuses the mind tremendously and forces you to deliver a unique and memorable experience of real value. When you offer a product for free, you aren’t forced to justify your existence to customers or show a useful benefit. That’s why we see half a dozen Instagram clones.
A CEO doesn’t market a product to users. A CEO sells an experience to customers.
If you wanted to be a rock star, you’d have to learn to read music and if you wanted to be an award-winning novelist, you’d have to learn basic grammar. It should not come as a surprise that if you want to be the CEO of a business you should learn finance. Yet we regularly see founders blowing off finance or outsourcing major financial decisions to hired guns.
There’s no secret to learning finance. There are plenty of good books that can take you through the basics of accounting up to the execution of liquidity preferences under preferred stock agreements. Interview friends that have run their own companies, worked in banking or had P&L experience for a division in a larger company. Start using QuickBooks. Today it’s easy to find help online from corporate finance communities such as Proformative.
For startups, there’s one important financial metric that matters more than any other: months left to live given your current burn rate. Real CEOs know this number and manage it religiously.
Define a Big Goal and Take Small Steps
Plenty of wannabe Silicon Valley CEOs have read Jim Collins and will tell you about their BHAG (That’s their Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal). They’ll tell you that they want to revolutionize the datacenter, or change the face of mobile payments, or create a new paradigm for social sharing, or something equally nebulous. That’s great. But it’s the ability to both set that goal and show how you’re going to achieve it that marks a real CEO.
Successful CEOs balance aspirations with operations. They focus on things that can be done today to secure customers and growth over time—not on the title they put on their business cards.