The Greatest Skill Every Successful Founder-CEO Must Learn: Letting Go
Entrepreneurship is a deeply personal endeavor, especially for founder-CEOs who must believe in their companies above anything else. Indeed, a startup is not terribly different from parenting, in that thousands of hours are spent nurturing children and and helping them to grow. In both the result is a strong attachment; in startups, the attachment is inherent in every step of the building process.
Early on, it’s the details that capture a founder’s attention: the logo, the elevator pitch, the sales decks. Later, it’s the product that founder-CEOs tend to agonize over and tightly control.
Once you’ve found the ideal product-market fit for your company, however, there is something else you must do: let go.
To understand what this means, imagine what would have happened had Larry Page and Sergey Brin continued to work to improve their search algorithm for Google -- rather than build a business off their technology with AdWords. Sure, they’d still have the best search engine in the world, but without the business model, they wouldn’t be able to stay independent or thrive.
Alternatively, had Mark Zuckerberg not evolved into a great CEO and just continued writing code and running the dev team, Facebook might have become another MySpace rather than a $200 billion company.
Once a company's founder gets attached, the company encounters its greatest obtacle: making sure that the founder-CEO backs off enough to scale his or her job duties in lockstep with the company's evolving demands.
As a serial entrepreneur and angel investor myself, I have learned that as a company finds its product market-fit and gains customers, the greatest skill a CEO can demonstrate is to to get out of his or her own way and let go.
Here are three areas which a budding CEO should focus on less after finding his or her best product-market fit:
1. Let go of responsibilities that are not yours.
The hardest part of being a successful CEO is learning to let go of specific job functions you’ve grown to enjoy, and bestowing that responsibility and trust in your team. Needless to say, if you’re a first-time founder CEO, your expertise is in something other than being a CEO.
So, you have to be ready to let your earlier expertise or preferences go and take on CEO-only tasks, especially the development of a clear vision and a strategic leadership, and the management of growth.
Another consideration is that once the company is growing, and you’re looking to hire and offload some of this responsibility, you should look for people who are not going to do the job exactly as you would.
Instead, surround yourself with great people who bring different experiences, fresh thinking and opinions to the table, and who are complementary (not identical) to your style. Let go of your own ego by encouraging questioning and independence.
2. Let go of the product.
Early-stage founder-CEOs (especially those who come from a product background) will be drawn to micro-managing their product teams. This is often counter-productive and leads to hobbled, ineffective PMs, who are not given the creative latitude to try interesting things.
The danger is even stronger if the company’s initial product, created by the founder-CEO, is in the market and doing really well, as the CEO will likely have a higher opinion of his or her own product prowess. This is an especially controversial point in Silicon Valley, where VCs want their CEOs to be obsessed with product. Once growth starts, however, this obsession can really hold a company back.
While founders should continue to be involved and hyper aware of the product and strategic direction, they should allow their PMs to thrive. Obviously, some products won’t find their fit, so it’s important for CEOs in those companies to constantly analyze and judge whether the potential for a breakout product is even there. These leaders should distance themselves enough to see the big picture and pull the plug or pivot on an idea, if necessary.
3. Let go of day-to-day business functions.
The first 10 to 15 initial hires are incredibly important for a startup, and the founder-CEO should be heavily involved in screening and hiring decisions. However, once you go beyond that number, it is too much of a time sink as founder for you to be involved in finding the best people.
In fact, as the company reaches a certain size, the CEO should not be thinking at all about day-to-day business functions, like HR, accounting and finance. Someone else needs to make sure there’s water in the water cooler. Certainly, the CEO has to focus on keeping the lights on, but someone else should replace the light bulbs.
The reason is that the CEO needs room to grow with the company and focus on vision and strategic direction. Getting bogged down in these details will only hurt.
What the founder-CEO should focus on instead
Let's say that the company's strategy and vision have been set. Say that there is an initial product in the market, and the company is seeing growth. Now it's time for the CEO to focus on accelerating that growth via sales and marketing, and optimization of the company's market strategy.
At a startup, the CEO must also constantly have his or her pulse on fund-raising. If substantial revenue has not yet been generated, or is trickling in, the company should be preparing for the next round. Fund-raising really is a full-time job and, at most startups never stops. So, make sure you have room in your day to day to focus on this priority.
Finally, the CEO should constantly be checking in with team members to make sure the company vision is clear. There is nothing more draining than a vision that is either unclear or changes all the time.
For the founder-CEO of a growing startup, then, the priority should be on flexibility and the drive to continue through constant change.The one thing that will keep that founder sane will be an ability to focus on what is most important and let go of the rest.