As a startup grows, change is the only constant. Customers, team structures, and even your product or service offering will all likely change dramatically as the business grows from its earliest days with a handful of employees into a healthy, thriving organization that fills an important gap in its industry.
But for growth to continue at a healthy rate that meets stakeholder goals, company leadership must also grow. Founders and co-founders need to serve very different roles in the early stages of a startup when the focus is gaining traction, compared to later phases of growth that require an emphasis on management and team building.
Startup founders who cannot make this kind of transition often end up handing over leadership of their business to another person to serve as CEO – not always by choice. We recently saw a high-profile example of this at Twitter, where longtime founder and CEO Jack Dorsey voluntarily stepped down. In his resignation letter, Dorsey expressed the belief that forcing a company to be “founder-led” could be “a single point of failure.”
Let’s dive into four of the most important shifts a founder has to make as a startup moves beyond its early stages and grows into a thriving company that employs dozens – or even hundreds – of people.
1. From vision to operations
Many founders are famously idea-driven, focusing on grand visions about making the world a better place by creating a specific solution. Brian Armstrong, the co-founder of Coinbase, became fascinated by Bitcoin and cryptocurrency after reading the famous white paper by Satoshi Nakamoto. He worked on the idea for Coinbase during the evenings, while working a day job at Airbnb. In its earliest stages, Coinbase operated out of a 2-bedroom apartment shared with another organization.
Despite these hardships, Armstrong and co-founder Fred Ehrsam was able to grow Coinbase into a company that employs thousands of people and went public with a valuation of almost $100 billion in 2021. Part of the reason for their success was a tight adherence to one vision: “make crypto easy to use.”
However, if you want your startup to be around long enough to carry out its mission, you need to understand operations, management, and hiring. These concepts may not be as “sexy” as some of the things founders have to focus on in the beginning stages of the company, but they’re just as critical to the success of the business. Some of the most successful founder-CEOs in the world have embodied this shift, entrepreneurs like
2. Continue to empower others
All good founders understand the importance of delegation and have been able to do it well enough to get their company up and running. But once you get initial traction and shift your focus on growth, you have to delegate even more. Early-stage founders frequently handle tasks like sales, marketing, final review of accounting records, etc. In fact, many of the most famous founders we admire attained initial success because they were so personally skilled at one of these critical areas of business – especially sales. Steve Jobs, Gary Vaynerchuk, and Daymond John are all legendary entrepreneurs who began with an emphasis on selling.
When Phil Knight started Nike in 1964, he sold Japanese sneakers out of the trunk of his car. Today, Nike earns over $46 billion in annual revenue, a dramatic growth story that only happened because of Knight’s ability to delegate and trust his team, including co-founder Bill Bowerman.
Like all these other successful entrepreneurs did at one point, you need to take your delegation to a whole new level. Are you capable of trusting your head of sales without checking in on the numbers every night? Do you constantly double-check numbers from your accounting team and/or CFO? These habits have to be broken so that you can keep a sharp focus on your company’s mission and goals. FedEx founder and CEO Fred Smith once described the job of a CEO with the following quote: “The main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing.” In other words, while founders can focus purely on executing a vision, CEOs need to facilitate operational excellence while keeping everyone focused on the company’s mission. Behind every successful CEO who is able to accomplish their goals, you can bet they have a team of capable lieutenants who were fully entrusted with running segments of the company.While founders can focus purely on executing a vision, CEOs need to facilitate operational excellence while keeping everyone focused on the company’s mission. Click To Tweet
3. Understanding the industry
As a founder, your focus is mostly inward. What are you and the team doing on a day-to-day basis to implement the big idea that caused you to launch your startup? But when you’re a CEO, things change. These concerns still matter, but a good executive will have their finger on the pulse of the industry.
The best CEOs are well-versed in concerns in their industry that impact the business. These include things like new regulations, government policy decisions that affect the startup, developments by competitors attempting to capture market share, etc. As a chief executive, your job is to constantly be absorbing and processing all of this information, then distill it into a strategy that can help your business achieve its mission.
Warren Buffett, the famous investor, and leader of the Berkshire-Hathaway conglomerate of companies that owns major brands like Dairy Queen and GEICO, said in an interview that he reads six different newspapers every day. While you may not be able to adapt a reading habit to this voracious, it’s vital to at least borrow Buffett’s mindset of always wanting to learn more about the world at large and your industry. It will help your ability as a leader and sharpen the lens through which you look at tough business decisions.
A final note
Although we’ve made mention of lots of famous founders who went on to run multi-billion dollar companies, these instances are rare. Founders like Mark Zuckerberg and Phil Knight who can lead in both the earliest stages and when their startup grows into a large enterprise are relatively rare. Most founders aren’t like that. In fact, research from the Harvard Business Review suggests that founder-CEOS stop adding value to mature startups about three years after IPO.
There is absolutely no shame in being like Dorsey, who as mentioned earlier decided willingly to step down as CEO of Twitter earlier this year. Dorsey founded and grew two of the most popular, financially successful companies in the history of the tech world. No one would ever label him a failure, but he still had the insight and self-awareness to understand his shortcomings and take challenging actions based on them.
In other words, it doesn’t make you an inferior founder (or person!) simply because you prefer the scrappy early days as a founder over the day-to-day management of a larger operation. Both roles require separate skills that aren’t always found in the same person – and that’s totally okay! Skilled founders and startup CEOs both add tremendous value to their company, industry, and the world at large.
Looking for some expert help about your role as a startup leader, and whether or not you are cut out to remain in charge as your company grows? Contact the team at grwth.co to learn more about our fractional CMO service and how it can help you – and your company – transition to the next level.