Are You Dead-Set on Being Your Startup’s CEO? Your Ego Is Getting in the Way of Success

I’ve had the same title ever since I started my company more than 10 years ago: founder and managing director. I’ve been reluctant to change it, because I like that it’s understated. A friend of mine calls himself “chief cook and bottle washer” at the company he founded, and I’ve always appreciated the humor and humbleness of that.

However, now that Acceleration Partners has grown to almost 100 people across four countries, I’ve found that my title is causing some confusion. We now need managing directors to run different regions and areas of the business, and that’s not my role. So, I’ve finally changed my title to founder and CEO.

Before making this change, I took some time to reflect on what these roles and titles mean for a founder and an entrepreneurial business as it grows and evolves.

A lot of entrepreneurs load up on titles. I know many companies with fewer than 10 people where the founder holds the title of “founder, president and CEO.” Some even throw “chairman” into the mix.

The problem with this nomenclature is that it’s typically not aligned with what the founder is actually doing. CEO stands for “chief executive officer,” a title that implies that there are other executive officers for you to oversee. In most startups, the founder is serving in most, if not all, of the executive positions herself. These CEOs aren’t “chiefs”; they are one-man bands.

What’s more, it’s nonsensical for a small business leader to be both president and CEO. Those titles exist to delineate between different levels of responsibility when both roles are present and held by different people. Therefore, doubling up is nothing more than an ego stroke.

I spent some time reviewing CEO job descriptions, and I found the responsibilities boil down to:

  • Establishing  and maintaining corporate culture;
  • Setting company strategy;
  • Leading the executive team;
  • Interfacing with the board and/or investors;
  • Being the public face of the company–in the words of Peter Drucker, “The CEO is the link between the Inside, i.e. ‘the organization,’ and the Outside–society, the economy, technology, markets, customers, the media, public opinion”; and
  • Making final decisions on key issues based on the company’s needs, values and goals.

My decision to change my title ultimately came from realizing that, for the first time, these responsibilities accurately describe my job. I don’t manage our books anymore. I don’t manage our sales or operations. I have stepped out of the product.

My focus each day is on strategy, culture, leading and developing leaders, and being our key outside connection with customers, partners and advisors. I am the CEO.

This is just where my own path has taken me. Most founders actually don’t want to be CEO; their passion lies in the product or another area of the business such as sales or marketing. In these cases, they are better off taking the role they want and hiring smart people to do the rest. This is exactly what Tucker Max, founder of Book in a Box, did when he very publicly fired himself as CEO of his own company. Today, he’s in charge of the company’s product–and apparently much happier.

If you’ve given yourself the title of CEO but aren’t doing or don’t want these responsibilities as the business grows, you’re doing both yourself and your business a disservice. Pick the title and role in the business that reflects your passion and your skill set.

Find other people to do the work that you don’t want to do. That might be a No. 2 or a head of operations. It might be a CEO.

Whatever you do, give yourself a title that accurately reflects your role. Doing so will provide clarity both for the outside world and for your team about what you do and don’t do. Setting appropriate expectations is a major first step in meeting them.

Working Harder AND Smarter

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Working Harder AND Smarter

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3 Tips on How to Bootstrap a Multi-Million Dollar Agency

$18,000 a year. That was the offer Jaclyn Johnson got to work at a magazine in the heart of New York City. It was her dream job, but $18,000 was barely a living wage especially in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

She joined another agency and worked her way up.

Eventually, she took a leap of faith and moved to Los Angeles to work for another growing company. Three months later, disaster struck. She was laid off with zero connections in Los Angeles. Instead of moving back to New York where she was comfortable, she used this misfortune to start hustling.

It paid off. She built an influential events and marketing company that was acquired and now is the founder of Create & Cultivate which has featured speakers like Kim Kardashian, Chrissy Teigen and Jessica Alba, to name a few.

I sat down with Jaclyn to get three tips on how to build a successful business.

Be more resourceful than everyone around you.

“When I was laid off in Los Angeles I had no local contacts or resources to count on. I honestly struggled with where to start. But I knew that If I was persistent and talked to anyone that would listen, I would get somewhere,” says Johnson.

In my opinion, the biggest misconception of anyone starting a business is the assumption that everyone wants to hear what your building. In reality, almost no one cares. I know it’s harsh, but it’s something almost everyone needs to hear.

When I built my network in Chicago, I took 250 coffee meetings in one year. I went from knowing no one to be one of the most connected in the space. So, if I needed to raise money or get connected with someone influential, I was one email away from getting connected to that person. I didn’t make any excuses about what I didn’t have. I worked to build the resources I needed.

In my opinion, resourcefulness is one of the best traits for an early entrepreneur to have. The internet has created a world where you are granted access to anyone in the world with a single email, tweet or Instagram DM. You have zero excuses to not succeed or to reach the right people.

Launch first, figure it out later.

“When I started Create & Cultivate, I had no business plan. I didn’t study any conferences. I didn’t nitpick what I was doing. I just launched without thinking too much about it. I knew from my previous business that it takes shape from being out in the world,” says Johnson.

If you’re not embarrassed by your first public launch, I think you are doing something wrong.

Jason Fried, a fellow Inc. columnist, had a great tweet about launching first:

Amen to that.

It’s okay not to make money right away. Start with a side hustle.

“I’ve lived on both the east coast and west coast, and they have different philosophies on how to start companies. What I realized pretty quickly is that, if you believe in what you’re building, you don’t need to make money right away. For me, blogging was my catalyst for finding new jobs and starting new businesses. I did it without expectations of making money right away,” says Johnson.

When I quit my job and went on my own, the first year, I dedicated to writing a blog post every morning. I ended up writing 150 blog posts in one year. One of the blog posts ended up turning into a book. The only comments I got on my first 100 blog posts were visitors commenting on my grammar. I wish I was joking.

But, similar to Jaclyn, I used this as a foundation to build a bigger community.

Of course, building a business that makes more money than it spends is important, but Jaclyn knew that investing her time in side hustles would eventually lead to something much bigger. Every side hustle brought her closer to her dream. It grew her connections. And it also allowed her to tap into the online zeitgeist.

There’s a lot to learn from Jaclyn, and I was honored to interview her. She’s now 32 and continues to build Create & Cultivate into something great.

3 Tips on How to Bootstrap a Multi-Million Dollar Agency

$18,000 a year. That was the offer Jaclyn Johnson got to work at a magazine in the heart of New York City. It was her dream job, but $18,000 was barely a living wage especially in one of the most expensive cities in the world.

She joined another agency and worked her way up.

Eventually, she took a leap of faith and moved to Los Angeles to work for another growing company. Three months later, disaster struck. She was laid off with zero connections in Los Angeles. Instead of moving back to New York where she was comfortable, she used this misfortune to start hustling.

It paid off. She built an influential events and marketing company that was acquired and now is the founder of Create & Cultivate which has featured speakers like Kim Kardashian, Chrissy Teigen and Jessica Alba, to name a few.

I sat down with Jaclyn to get three tips on how to build a successful business.

Be more resourceful than everyone around you.

“When I was laid off in Los Angeles I had no local contacts or resources to count on. I honestly struggled with where to start. But I knew that If I was persistent and talked to anyone that would listen, I would get somewhere,” says Johnson.

In my opinion, the biggest misconception of anyone starting a business is the assumption that everyone wants to hear what your building. In reality, almost no one cares. I know it’s harsh, but it’s something almost everyone needs to hear.

When I built my network in Chicago, I took 250 coffee meetings in one year. I went from knowing no one to be one of the most connected in the space. So, if I needed to raise money or get connected with someone influential, I was one email away from getting connected to that person. I didn’t make any excuses about what I didn’t have. I worked to build the resources I needed.

In my opinion, resourcefulness is one of the best traits for an early entrepreneur to have. The internet has created a world where you are granted access to anyone in the world with a single email, tweet or Instagram DM. You have zero excuses to not succeed or to reach the right people.

Launch first, figure it out later.

“When I started Create & Cultivate, I had no business plan. I didn’t study any conferences. I didn’t nitpick what I was doing. I just launched without thinking too much about it. I knew from my previous business that it takes shape from being out in the world,” says Johnson.

If you’re not embarrassed by your first public launch, I think you are doing something wrong.

Jason Fried, a fellow Inc. columnist, had a great tweet about launching first:

Amen to that.

It’s okay not to make money right away. Start with a side hustle.

“I’ve lived on both the east coast and west coast, and they have different philosophies on how to start companies. What I realized pretty quickly is that, if you believe in what you’re building, you don’t need to make money right away. For me, blogging was my catalyst for finding new jobs and starting new businesses. I did it without expectations of making money right away,” says Johnson.

When I quit my job and went on my own, the first year, I dedicated to writing a blog post every morning. I ended up writing 150 blog posts in one year. One of the blog posts ended up turning into a book. The only comments I got on my first 100 blog posts were visitors commenting on my grammar. I wish I was joking.

But, similar to Jaclyn, I used this as a foundation to build a bigger community.

Of course, building a business that makes more money than it spends is important, but Jaclyn knew that investing her time in side hustles would eventually lead to something much bigger. Every side hustle brought her closer to her dream. It grew her connections. And it also allowed her to tap into the online zeitgeist.

There’s a lot to learn from Jaclyn, and I was honored to interview her. She’s now 32 and continues to build Create & Cultivate into something great.

Looking for Board Members? Forget Credentials–It’s What They Can Bring to the Table That Counts

Budding builders of businesses and big-city mayors often seem to have the same problem when it comes to putting together boards, whether they’re boards of directors, advisors, or industry experts. They tend to go for the gold and the glitz and they end up getting too little time, no real help, and nothing else of any actual value in the bargain. They consistently emphasize and over index on people’s titles and credentials and forget that-; unless you’re only concerned with window dressing and PR-;the object of the board-building exercise is to get some regular help, a sympathetic ear or two, and some people on your team who’ve been there before, who will tell you the truth when necessary, and who share your vision for the business. Having a couple of board members who have your back is the best feeling in the whole world and makes for a much better business as well. 

Being an effective board member is a serious job, not a sinecure, and selecting the right people for these roles is just as important as any other hire you might make. You don’t want planners and report writers; you don’t need performers and pontificators; you want doers who can help drive results. I realize that some of these guys can end up coming with the deal, being a necessary part or necessary evil as the case may be in securing your funding or for other historic reasons. The trick is to make the smartest possible choices in those cases where you actually do have a choice.

Don’t confuse someone’s credentials with the kind of proper concerns and concrete commitments that it takes to do this very critical job correctly. Some people collect board seats like they were baseball cards or souvenir buttons. Stay away from these professional self-promoters because, in the end, it’s always about them and not worth your time or wasting a seat that could go to someone with something real to contribute instead of some blowhard looking to bulk up his or her resume. We see the same kinds of issues with some of the unsuccessful mentors at 1871. You just need to invest the time to do this crucial job right.

There’s no single or simple way to get the process going, but as you begin to evaluate the various candidates-; some you’ll seek out and some will appear or be suggested and introduced by people you trust-; there are six basic questions/concerns that you should be addressing in your evaluation. There may be others and special circumstances may dictate additions, but the ones that I have found always to be relevant are the following:

(1)   Do they have the time to do the job and will they make the time?  Some of the busiest people you know still make the best board members because it’s a matter of their commitment, not their calendar.

(2)   Are they willing to show up and not just phone it in-; figuratively and literally? It’s very easy to lose the energy and momentum at a board session when half the group isn’t paying attention. If they can’t really be there, in the moment, they shouldn’t be there at all. Posture is actually pretty important and you want the folks leaning in and engaged, not sitting back, looking at their phones, and contemplating their cuticles.

(3)   Are they able to do the work-; board materials reviews, meeting preparation and participation, job candidate interviews, your spur-of-the-moment conference calls, etc.?   Entrepreneurs aren’t patient people and spending a day a month or a quarter in a board meeting is almost always a painful process, but it’s made unbearable if the board members don’t take the time (and give management the courtesy) of doing their homework and coming to the meeting prepared. We’re all busy people, but the real value of bringing the board together is the interactivity and the exchanges between smart and successful outsiders with important perspectives that might not be represented within the business. The worst board meetings are repetitive dog-and-pony shows by management where the biggest challenge isn’t a corporate conundrum, it’s trying to stay awake.

(4)   Are they engaged and passionate about your business? It’s just as bad to be a sycophant as it is to be a sarcastic know-it-all. It’s important for board members to tell it like it is and to tell the harsh truth to the CEO and others when necessary, but it’s even more important that they come from the right place-; a sincere and heartfelt desire to see the business succeed for the right reasons. These aren’t smooth or easy journeys, but a little heart and a lot of good faith makes the medicine go down more easily.

(5)   Are they good and additive collaborators-; team players?  A good board leaves its own desires and its selfish concerns at the door and works together to reach the best decisions for the company rather than pushing or promoting choices that serve other outside interests-; including, sometimes, a board member’s own investment objectives. 

(6)   Do they have a relevant something?  It might be:

(a)   Skill;

(b)   Knowledge;

(c)   Experience;

(d)   Network/Connections; or

(e)   Money

The bottom line is the same rule as in football. You don’t want the 11 best people you can theoretically get. You want the best 11 people who can come together to help you build a better business, through thick and thin, and with only that desire, that agenda, and that goal in mind.

Want to Launch the Next Billion-Dollar Startup? Here is How Elon Musk Did It

Tesla launched its Roadster in 2008. While a radical entry into the electric car market, it was largely ignored. Over time a truly unique business model emerged, including the shift to online ordering. The release of Model 3 is Elon Musk’s true end-game: a production car the masses can afford.

I have had the honor to work with pretty eccentric inventors and tinkerers. I am often mesmerized by their splashes of creativity and innovative new products. But as proven by Tesla and many others, the type of innovation that is relevant in a market has everything to do with life cycle. Whether you are a startup or mature company, it’s critical to be aware of which industry phase you are innovating in:

Market Disruption

When a new entrant creates a market in a white space, it has the largest upside for exponential growth. This is the time a company can command high margins and market share, as in the case of Square. This window of opportunity closes quickly, and the innovator has a finite amount of time to realize the first mover advantage. After adoption, the number of brands will proliferate quickly.

I work with a startup launching a beauty line. Whenever they launch a new concept, their own customers try to copy them. In this struggle to gain relevancy, few startups graduate from this stage to the next. In this phase, ensure you have robust intellectual property protection, gain a foothold in a few strong customers, create success stories, and manage your cash very, very carefully.

Up Market Disruption

When a market is nearing maturity but is not yet saturated, entrants may attempt to provide new features or benefits that improve the utility of its products or services. A classic example is the shift to on-demand content. Famously, Netflix founder Reed Hastings approached Blockbuster CEO John Antioco in 2000 and offered to sell him the company for $50 million, but Antioco dismissed Netflix as a “small niche business.”

The rest is history. According to Statista, online movie subscription services, including Netflix, had a 59 percent share of U.S. movie revenue by 2016.

What’s interesting about the rise of Netflix and streaming video is that the core product didn’t change- the delivery system did. But business model innovation would not have been as relevant if movies hadn’t already been adopted. Renting a movie at Blockbuster was an alternative to the theater; then Netflix became an alternative to Blockbuster.

In this phase, be very aware of the value chain, so you can find new ways to innovate your business model as opposed to developing new products. For example, one of our clients recently offered a monetization method new to their industry. They allowed customers to lease their equipment instead of buying it, adding a new profit center in the form of financing. 

To conduct a value chain analysis, plot all the major activities involved in your customers’ procurement of your category. Then assign a value to each activity (as a proportion of the total price) and consider if you can provide more relative value to other parts of the chain. Those are the segments in which you might consider adding services.

Low End Disruption

The term “disruptive technology” was first introduced by Clayton Christensen in his revolutionary book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. Since the book’s release in 1997, many have misused the term “disruptive innovation”, which is often used to describe any radically transformative business model. But that is not the proper application of Christensen’s theory.

Disruptive technology describes technologies that scale existing product categories, generally at lower costs. In this phase innovations may include products or services that do not offer a leap in terms of new utility. In the case of electric mobility, Model 3 does not offer new technology, it offers it at a lower cost. 

When McDonald’s, to combat Starbucks, began offering its McCafé coffee line, it did not offer new varieties of coffees. The expansion of its menu merely supported the status quo, because McDonald’s enjoys such massive scale that a duel with Starbucks based on sameness played to its strengths.

In this phase, embrace the path to a billion-dollar brand. This may be the time when the established company needs more funding. Focus on scale, cost reduction and efficiency.  Ensure you have the operations people who can take your business to the next level.

So be thoughtful about how you innovate. Maybe you will launch your next invention into orbit someday, as Musk did.