6 Critical Lessons I Learned as a Startup CEO

No one can fully prepare you for that top spot as CEO, but here's how to set yourself up for success.

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Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor
CEO of Nexkey
7 min read
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I've always known I wanted to make a big impact in the world, but it wasn’t until I had my daughter that I realized I wanted to fundamentally enhance the world she lives in, which led me to jump at the opportunity to be the CEO at Nexkey. 

I’ve held many leadership roles, including chief officer at an augmented-reality company and VP in the cyber-security space, which prepared me for this challenge. I knew being CEO was going to involve more weight on my shoulders, more risk and more impact on the team, but I don’t think you really know what it takes until you actually step into the role. 

In the last three years, we emerged from stealth, launched several amazing products, increased our team by four times, closed two rounds of funding and steered through a global . Here are my top lessons learned during my first three years as a startup CEO.

Related: 13 Leadership Lessons from Zoom Founder and CEO Eric Yuan

Don’t compromise on talent

This by far is the most important advice I have to give, so it’s up first. Innovation, success, culture —everything stems from talent. One of the most important jobs you have as a CEO is to recruit and hire "A" players across the business. 

Why is this important? "A" players take ownership. There’s no room for anyone in a startup to say, “That's not my job.” Every challenge needs all hands on deck, and everyone needs to work together to take initiative. The right people will elevate the business, sometimes in ways that you didn’t think were possible. Lean on these people and trust them. 

"A" players also attract other "A" players. This cycle is a continuous loop and needs to be top of mind. Different stages of the business might require different people, so never stop recruiting (that doesn’t mean you always have to hire).

If you haven’t already read the book Who by Randy Street and Geoff Smart, do so. I give this out to hiring managers before they even start crafting their job descriptions so they too can adopt this strategy of hiring "A" players while building their own teams. 

Forget stealth and start selling

Too many businesses I see fail before they even get off the ground. Why? They waited too long to start selling. What they don’t realize is that you can’t perfect the product without getting real feedback from paying customers. Beta customers aren’t going to give you the real criticism you need to see if there is a product-market fit. 

If you’re waiting until the product is “perfect,” you’ll never get out of stealth mode. Get your product in front of paying customers ASAP. Send Net Promoter Score (NPS) surveys to analyze customer satisfaction, invest in market research, gather feedback regularly and then make educated decisions on how to continuously improve the product based on customer input. 

Related: How to Really Hear and Use Customer Feedback

Make decisions and changes quickly if necessary

It’s okay to make mistakes; you’re going to make a lot of them. Embrace them as a chance to grow and learn. Be prepared to make decisions quickly, and don’t delay the inevitable when something needs to change. It’s far more hurtful to a business to defer decisions than to make the wrong ones, realize it and  immediately make a change.

Communicate with your team, have one-on-ones, look at the information and data presented to you, and then make your decision. You won’t know if it was the right decision until you make it. Delaying necessary change will kill growth and progress. Did the change not work out like you hoped? Re-evaluate, rinse and repeat.

Encourage teams to collaborate, then step back

You can’t be everywhere, and from the beginning you actually shouldn’t be. That’s just not reasonable, nor scalable. Encourage your team to connect, discuss and come to decisions among themselves without relying on you. Only then can the company scale. 

Encourage team members to look beyond their department and consider how their own actions might affect others. A new iOS update, for example, will impact , which needs to educate prospects; support, which needs to train the customer; , which can sell those new features; and it goes on.

Everyone needs to be on the same page, and it’s up to you to foster a culture that encourages collaboration and . If you do that right, teams will organically work together. If you stay too involved, decisions will be delayed as teams await your answer or decision. This also requires trust, which is why, again, hiring "A" players is so important.

Related: Six Tactics to Improve Collaboration for Remote Teams

Find mentors and meet with other CEOs

I’ve always been a big advocate of having many mentors and connecting with people going through similar experiences. Having conversations with these people will be extremely helpful in making those quick decisions in a bind and may even open your eyes to something that could be better. 

Gather as much input as you can, but ultimately make your own decisions. Having mentors doesn’t mean be a sheep and follow every piece of advice you hear. You also need to trust your gut because no one knows the business like you do. 

When the pandemic hit, I kept hearing over and over that I needed to let people go. It didn’t feel right to me. We need people to innovate and bring necessary changes to help our customers in this new normal. I didn’t lay off one single person because of the pandemic. That decision paid off. We innovated more in just a few months and saw three times the revenue we had in the previous year.

Keep moving forward 

The biggest test as CEO came this past year. We were a couple weeks away from showing off our new product in . Everything was flipped upside down with the news of Covid-19 spreading worldwide. 

The show was cancelled. Our culture, communication and collaboration was put to the test as we worked from home. Sadly, some of our customers were forced to shut down. The future was full of unknowns. I learned more about being a leader in the last year than I have in the last three. 

There are going to be ups and downs, sometimes out of your control. Keep moving forward. Don’t dwell on the setbacks, but see them as an opportunity to improve and do better. We took this time to really focus on what our customers need right now. Our platform evolved to help businesses reopen their doors and run their business more efficiently, and it was a huge success. Remember to celebrate those major milestones, but then quickly shift gears and focus on the next one. 

These last three years were tough, but being CEO has been more rewarding than I could ever have imagined. Remember to stay focused on your purpose and enjoy it! As CEOs, we are in the position to impact how people live their lives. If you’re striving to bring positive change to the world, there’s nothing you can’t do.

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