For most founders, being a CEO is not enjoyable. It’s a high-stress, people-management job that you do because you have no other choice. You want to make your baby successful and you want your dream to come true so, quite simply, you obsess over it. You simply can't trust anybody else to do it.
What does a startup CEO actually do?
A CEO has at least three jobs:
- Raise money and keep cash in the bank;
- Set and communicate the strategy; and
- Recruit and retain the team.
But on top of that you’re invariably also a product CEO, who provides product vision. You’re also a sales CEO, who provides sales leadership. And a lot of being a CEO is, frankly, being the company psychiatrist. In any company that scales up, the CEO is always dealing with people issues: trying to figure out how to make them effective, how to make them collaborate with you, listen to you and grow with you. It is a heavily people-management oriented role, and it's daunting.
Being a CEO can be a tough, lonely job
There are many guides out there on how to be an effective CEO, but unlike being a startup founder, which is largely creative and sales focused, being a CEO is about being methodical – turning chaos into effective, reliable, repeatable systems. For most founders, this is quite the burden, and what's worse is you usually have to bear it alone.
You can't confess to your board of directors or they'll lose faith in you and fire you eventually, and you can't confess to your employees because they'll stop following you. In many cases you can't even confess to your partner or friends because they simply won't be able to relate, and deep down they probably think this is all a little delusional anyway.
No, you're the one in charge. You took that on, and you have to suck it up. It's an incredibly lonely job.
It's no wonder so many founders obsess over their exit.
Play the long game
The irony is a quick exit, for a successful company, is invariably the wrong outcome. If you look at any company that really succeeds over the long term, one consistent factor is that the core founder stayed engaged the entire time. I'm not talking about years, I'm talking decades, as with the likes of Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and even Berkshire Hathaway. That doesn't necessarily mean the founders were engaged as CEO, but they were involved at least at the board level. They were watching out for the company. And over time it pays dividends.
All the returns in life, whether in money or relationships or friendships or product development are derived from compound interest. It all pays off at the end. The most money you make is at the end of the curve. The biggest impact is at the end of the curve. The largest customer base is at the end of the curve. So you want to go on for as long and as far as possible.
To achieve true success, your goal as a founder is not to find an exit as quickly as possible, but to build a business in which everyone, including you, can thrive over the long term. This is in everyone’s best interest because the longer you can stay involved, the greater typically the returns will be. That's only going to happen if it's sustainable. And it's only sustainable if you enjoy it.
Play to your strengths
For most founders, being a CEO is not in their "zone of genius". It's going to be a slog. If you're the founder of a company, you're probably world-class in something, right?
You should spend all your time on that thing. Everything else is a necessary evil that should be outsourced.
The beauty is there is someone out there who is world-class at the thing that you don't like to do. What's more, it's in their zone-of-genius. So, in actual fact, running a successful startup really ends up being a recruiting problem, not an execution problem.
It's not bad to walk away as CEO. In fact, it’s almost certainly the best outcome for everyone, including you, because it's the most certain way to keep you involved for the long term.
So just tell your board and colleagues the following:
“Hey, I'm going to stay engaged at a certain level on the things that I'm great at. And I'm going to take the stuff that I don't enjoy doing, and I'm going to give that to somebody else. And that way I'm going to be more effective on the things that matter. And I'm going to be able to sustain this for decades. It's not going to burn me out and therefore the company will go much further.”
If this post makes you think differently about being a CEO, I'd love to hear from you. Send me a connection request on LinkedIn and let me know how it works out.
This post was inspired by an interview between Naval Ravikant and Matt Mochary, which you can find here.