I often get asked by friends, professors, students, and even my family, “as a startup CEO, what do you actually do?" The question even comes from my own engineers, who ask the question with particular emphasis on the word “do.” As an engineer and former startup programmer myself, I can empathize with the question. While I built the product, I saw the CEO running around doing… what, exactly? I hadn’t a clue.
Now, before I give my take on the CEO gig, a few caveats. I have only been a CEO for just under two years, hardly long enough to consider myself an expert. I also have only been a tech startup CEO, and I doubt much of what I’ve learned sheds light on being the CEO of, say, a Fortune 500 company or a world-dominating multinational with private jets and invitations to Davos. My run as co-founder and CEO of AnswerDash has been from the inception of an idea to taking that idea through Series A financing from VCs and building a team of 10 people. That I’m not (yet) surrounded by multiple C-level executives like COOs, CFOs, and CMOs gives me an unprotected perspective on what the CEO role entails during the Series A stage of a company’s life.
I call my major activities the CEO Six. These are not the six things I think I should be doing, but the six things I actually find myself doing. The CEO Six emerged; they were not planned. For a period of weeks, I noted how I spent my time, and these six priorities stood out. When I got into the CEO role as a university professor (now on leave), I did not have any preconceptions of what “being the boss” in the context of a tech startup would mean. Put the Hollywood glamorizations aside; being a tech startup CEO on a ticking VC clock is just plain hard work.
In no particular order, here are my CEO Six.
- Financing and finances. I spend a ton of time getting and keeping my company financed. This priority comes in spurts, but even when I am not actively raising new money, I am managing the money we do have to control our burn rate, which is mostly affected by hiring, the next item.
- Team building. In the Series A timeframe where so much is about unrealized potential, my job is to continually sell the vision of the company. I have to sell not only to VCs, the press, and customers, but also to would-be hires. Attracting top talent to fledgling startups is no easy task, especially in Seattle with giants like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google nearby. I have to repeatedly convince superstars to climb into my rowboat—rather than an ocean liner—and set sail into the unknown.
- Vision, priorities, and accountability. I can’t sell a vision if I haven’t established it first, so another aspect of my job is to set the vision for the company, establish the priorities that we undertake to realize that vision, and then hold people accountable for those established priorities. A truism about being CEO is that if everything works out, I get a lot of credit, but the flip-side is also true: if the startup flounders, even by someone else’s hand, it is still my fault and blame to bear. That is as it should be: I am the only one invested with near total control.
- Board management. Amazingly enough, people who give you money want a say in how you spend it. Having that “say” means they need visibility into the workings of the company at the right level. It is my job to establish that right level of visibility and manage the expectations that go with it. In addition to a Board of Directors, which every financed tech startup has, we also have an Advisory Board of industry experts and experienced entrepreneurs, and it is my job to empower them to contribute while being efficient with their time.
- Thought-leadership and evangelism. I spend a significant amount of time speaking, reading, and writing, which is one aspect where being a startup CEO and being a university professor share much in common. Of course, the difference is the audience. As a CEO, I have conversations with press, analysts, investors, customers, and team members. I write to be read by other tech entrepreneurs, customers, fellow travelers, and the curious. I believe I have something to say and part of my job is making the time to say it, while not wasting the time of those willing to listen.
- Establishing product-customer fit. Most tech entrepreneurs have heard that Series A is for “nailing it” and Series B is for “scaling it.” My expertise is in user-centered design, product design, and product innovation, and those skills map very well to the Series A challenge of establishing product-customer fit and ensuring a great experience for our customers and end-users. A reason that VCs are comfortable backing a non-professional CEO like me during Series A is that there can be no “scale it” until you “nail it” and the skills required to scale a business are usually quite different from those required to nail product-customer fit.
The above activities are more than a full-time job, and they are constantly threatened by mundane tasks like paying bills, filling out insurance forms, ordering equipment, and related. To ensure I focus my energies where they will pay off the most, I post a printout of the CEO Six in 54-point font above my desk. With every new activity I begin, I ask myself which of the six it falls into. If I can’t answer that question, I don’t do the activity. I may delegate it or not do it at all. Such an approach may mean dropping some balls from time to time, but realizing that balls will be dropped is a prerequisite for taking on any challenge as improbable as building a successful company. The key is just figuring out which balls are made of mud, and which are made of gold.