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What’s the Second Job of a Startup CEO?


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Your First Creation is a Product, Your Second Creation is a Company

A CEO’s first job is to build a great product and find a small group of people who love it and use it enthusiastically.1 A Phase 1 startup CEO is the Doer-in-Chief. You must be deeply involved in both building the product (observing/interacting with users, writing code, designing product specs) and acquiring users/customers. Delegation should not be a word in your vocabulary. If you succeed, it’s because your deep involvement and unique vision give the company a perspective and drive that few others have. The other imperative for a Phase 1 CEO is to conserve money in order to extend the time to iterate and improve the product.

Most startups fail because they are not able to create a product that users love enough to abandon existing alternatives. Success in this first phase means discovering more demand for your product than your small team can handle. When this happens, you have to shift your focus as CEO to building a company that can capture and maximize the demand that your product has surfaced. Company-building becomes the CEO’s primary job in a Phase 2 startup. The company you build is your second creation and will be your lasting legacy as a founder.

As a Phase 2 CEO, you need to transition from “Doer-in-Chief” to “Company-Builder-in-Chief.” This is how you scale as a CEO, and CEO scaling is the first step in company-building. For most founders, this is very difficult. When you’ve been a successful Doer-in-Chief, it’s hard to stop. It’s hard to stop coding, designing product specs, and interacting with customers on a daily basis. It’s hard to stop answering support tickets, doing all the product demos, and debugging the latest build. It’s even hard to delegate the random and sometimes menial tasks that you’ve accumulated over the years because they were “no one’s job.” But you have to stop doing all of these things so that you can safeguard your time for high leverage tasks that only CEOs can do.

This transition can cause confusion and even friction with your team, who can suddenly wonder what you are doing if you’re no longer committing code or why you’re suddenly delegating a bunch of menial tasks that you’d been doing for years. But once your startup reaches 20-30 people, you’ll have to spend more time leading (i.e., directing the activities of others). And since time is finite, the only way to lead more is do less. Without delegating, you simply won’t have time to focus on company-building and you’ll end up slowing everyone else down.

3 Tasks Founders Cannot Delegate:

1. Hiring a Leadership Team and Making Sure They Work Well Together

2. Creating Purpose and Alignment

3. Nurturing Company Culture

What's the Second Job of a Startup CEO?

During a management meeting at Pixar, Ali once heard Steve Jobs say, “When I’m at my best, 50% of my time is unscheduled. That’s the time I use to think, drop in on the people I want to speak with, and let my curiosity roam. It’s my time to be creative. Without this free time, I would never be able to stay ahead of the company. To lead a company, you’ve always got to be two steps ahead. There’s no way to lead a company from behind.”

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