The 5 jobs of a startup CEO

With my work at PSL in starting new companies, being on boards and in my own experiences, the CEO of a startup has 5 jobs;

– Set and communicate a clear, compelling, and consistent vision – this comes in the form of presentations, team meetings, town halls, 1:1s, board meetings, investor pitches, customers calls…  It’s a blend of the big picture— “how will the world be a better place when we succeed” as well as “where does your work or contribution fit in.” This requires the repetition of the same messages and methodical re-examining and modification of direction and priorities. If the messages change dramatically, it requires an increased frequency of the new message. In my experience, using different time horizons to reflect and re-examine are useful; tied to product sprints (every 2 weeks), monthly investor updates, quarterly team strategy reviews, semi-annual budgeting cycles, and fundraising roadshows every 12-18 months.

– Hire and manage a great team – this seems obvious, but many CEOs don’t plan or budget enough time here. Management is helping each individual understand their role, responsibilities, and metrics as well as aligning those to people’s skills, gaps, and areas of learning. It’s about solving interpersonal issues between team members. And, as the strategy changes or the business outstrips someone’s skills or interests, it’s about making hard choices and changes and then re-aligning again and again and again. Being clear about “proactive/active” and “opportunistic/passive” hiring; “who do I need now and what’s my plan/process to get them”…and “whoa, this person is amazing, how do I find them a spot…”

– Find the resources for the team to do their best work—the team needs salaries, beer/pizza/great coffee, fast computers and big monitors (one form of resources)…and that takes money (another resource). The CEO needs to find and organize these resources. This is usually thought of as fundraising, which is critical. Your job as CEO, is to raise the necessary capital, full stop! This is usually from investors, so plan your fundraising strategy wisely.  But you can also get capital from customers, and you are also the first and best salesperson. Coincidently, the more customers you can close, the easier it is to raise investment capital, but you need to make sure the team can stay focused on doing their best and most aligned work, without distraction or worrying about making rent.

– Improve the process in the way work gets done—a startup is a machine and you need to be a mechanic. Look inward toward “systems and tools” to make the team work better, smarter, faster. As recommended for the cadence of communication (every 2 weeks, monthly, quarterly…), consider a similar cadence for making improvements on the process. This might be the way you’re organized, how you communicate, what software you use to support a specific function, who runs a specific meeting, who attends which meetings, how you engage with customers or investors…or all of these things.
– Discovery and focus on “make” or “break” parts of the business – in every company and about every quarter, there are major things that could kill the business if they fail and others that could create a step-function improvement. This is oftentimes fundraising, which will need to be a focal point during specific quarters but could also be a specific customer win, channel partnership, conference appearance, or key hire. It could also be an internal process, sub-system or team challenge. As a CEO, if you put one or two of these on your goals every quarter and put the requisite time and attention toward it as only a CEO can do, it will increase your likelihood of success.

Being a CEO is a hard job and it takes consistent focus on the business and yourself. Though the day to day work should be largely filled with these activities, it is also important to find time to learn, rest, grow, recover, and live. That’s job #6.

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