The 13 Things a Startup CEO Must Do
When I started my first company as CEO, I had no idea what a CEO was supposed to do. Despite having two Silicon Valley VCs on my board, neither of them had been a CEO either. I had no annual review and nobody to mentor me into the role. I was 22 at the time. It wasn’t pretty.
If you haven’t done it before, chances are you don’t know what to do either and you’re just winging it. The hard truth is that “winging it” means you are mostly doing what you like to do, not what you’re supposed to do. Okay, I’m not saying you should lose your “personal spike” — what makes you be you. Every awesome CEO has a personal spike, something they really excel at doing. It could be marketing, product development, technology or sales. I was a technical and product person. Keep doing whatever it is you need to do to keep that spike, but you also need to be a CEO and do the things a CEO needs to do. As CEO, you have certain responsibilities, if you want to build a successful company and grow at warp speed.
So what is all this maybe-horrible stuff I “need” to do that may not be my first reflex as a first time CEO?
I’ve learned through trial and error that there are 13 things an early stage CEO must do to steer their company into the success zone. You can like these things or not, but you absolutely need to do them to be an effective CEO of a hyper-growth company.
Note: By the way, 99% of early stage company boards suck at telling their CEOs what they should be doing to run the company. In my experience, board members are either too inexperienced at the CEO position, too busy or too inarticulate to engage with a young founder & CEO to really help.
So, what’s on this magical list? Here we go.
1. Create the vision of the alternate future you want for your customers.
The best CEOs are relentless about the continued evolution of the company’s value to customers. Make sure the vision is simple, powerful and unique. Really take the time to really spell it out, because this will be your one true guide through your company’s journey.
2. Recruit and retain the best talent.
The number one issue growing companies, especially hyper growth companies struggle with, is talent acquisition. Yet, the most important fuel for your growth is great talent. This means as the leader of the business you have to be a recruiting machine.
3. Develop and lead the executive team
Ultimately, the number one job of a CEO is to assemble a holistic team to run the business and lead this team.
4. Manage the Board of Directors
Startup boards can be super helpful or they can be a complete distraction. The CEO has the responsibility for determining what type of board the company should have, who is on the board and how the board operates. In my experience, most early boards are a distraction, and it’s up to the CEO to make sure that this doesn’t happen.
5. Ensure the company’s product roadmap is in line with the alternate future.
An early stage CEO must pay extra special attention to product plans, ship dates and progress. At it’s core, this is how a company progresses, so CEOs need to stay focused on the heart of the business, in addition to fighting fires in other dimensions.
6. Develop and maintain the business plan
Second only to TEAM, is the CEO’s responsibility to develop the strategic business plan. Without a business plan, watch everything fall apart faster than you can say "Series A".
7. Evangelize the market
CEOs must know how to paint a vision and get people to listen. Every CEO must do some speaking at industry conferences, blogging, speaking with the press or writing contributed articles. There are tremendous opportunities for feedback as you hone your message.
8. Strategic selling with key customers
Getting a very important customer to make their first purchase, painting the vision of the alternate future with a customer who is looking to make a larger purchase or helping to save an early customer where things didn’t go so well are all examples of where a CEO’s sales magic can make a world of difference.
9. Measure the important things
An effective CEO understands the key goals for the company and the key metrics that tell everyone if the strategies laid out by the team are working. It’s critical to be able to differentiate between what is a little spark versus a full on fire to put out. You’ll get burned badly otherwise.
10. Establish a rhythm to the business
Everyone on your team must understand that you are building a culture of planning, performance and constant improvement. As CEO, strive for complete transparency and dependable frequency of communication.
11. Understand funding needs
Running out of cash in a startup is not an option. The CEO must understand how much money the business is spending and what fundraising needs the company has going forward.
12. Develop network of potential investors
Raising money takes time, but it takes less time if you’ve already done your homework to understand who are the likely investors for your company. CEOs should always be researching who is funding their type of a business considering the company’s industry, geography, business model and stage.
13. Run the fundraising process
The CEO runs the process. Nobody, but the CEO in an early stage company should be running the process with investors. Investors are backing the CEO.
Overwhelming? You bet. It’s a tremendous journey where you discover your limits. You want to be the CEO, so now do the job or get someone who can.