The title of CEO elicits a reaction. We often think of power, leadership, control, authority and success. Before I ever became a CEO, I associated those terms with the role. But after being a CEO for over four years now, my reaction to the title has changed — and I think for the better. Terms like “loneliness,” “humility” and “responsibility” are now equally tied to the perceived glitz and glam of the chief executive officer role. I can best explain this by sharing my story leading up to founding Apcera and my last four and a half years as CEO.
Technologist + leadership
First and foremost, I am a technologist. But leadership also comes naturally to me. I tend to be a deep thinker with good logical reasoning, am a decent communicator and I’m usually the first to admit when I’m wrong. Early in my career, I did not seek out leadership roles; but when there was a lack of purpose or direction, I could make a strong case for what I thought was right and was able to align the team or company behind my idea.
Before long, I became an executive that was managing teams and leading the technology efforts for some of Silicon Valley’s most prominent companies including TIBCO, Google and VMware. This progression felt very natural to me. I could focus on my passion for innovation and technology, and I was effective at rallying my teams behind the cause. Surely, starting my own company would be similar — or so I thought.
From CTO to founder and CEO
When I founded Apcera, I immediately realized that the burden and responsibility of this new venture relied completely on me. As the sole founder, so many of the challenges that I never before had to think about — creating the business, fundraising, payroll, insurance, building a strong executive staff, creating perception in the market — now rested exclusively on my shoulders.
“Think. Decide. Act.” has long been my mantra; and in the beginning, it was just me doing the thinking, making the decisions and accelerating the actions. It was exceedingly lonely. There were many sleepless nights where I was trying to figure these things out. I had 20 percent of the information I needed to make the right decisions, and the only really bad decision was not to make one. Think. Decide. Act.
Shifting from a CTO to a CEO role was a transition that stretched me in many ways. There was no line of code or script I could write to make this transition easier. And there weren’t other teams or business units to collaborate with. It was just me.
Priority #1: build a strong team
This was a lesson I learned from my father at a young age. He told me, “You are getting good, very good; but no matter how good you get, there will always be someone better. The important question to ask yourself is: are they in the same room as you?’” This still serves as a great lesson in humility.
As a CEO, you can’t be threatened by people who are smarter than you or better than you. You need to attract those people, trust those people and set them up for success.
Exit stealth, enter growth
The list of CEO responsibilities is much broader than my previous roles. I am not able to focus 100 percent of my energy on the product or technology (nor should I). I need to dedicate at least half my time to the company itself. This became exceptionally clear as Apcera grew.
For years, we operated in stealth with a very small core team. At first, it was easy to make decisions, act quickly, make mistakes and recalibrate. However, after we publicly launched our product, the company expanded from 17 employees to more than 100 in just eight months, and now we had customers.
As a company matures, you can’t operate like a small, stealth startup anymore. You need to adapt and you need to continue to adapt. You need alignment across the growing company and need to establish a connection with customers and the industry.
A lot of founders struggle with transitioning into this rapid-growth phase. After all, they’re founders. They are driven by creating new ideas and innovating new products. Many leave during this transition to found their next company. While I’m not a serial founder, I understand that draw quite well. As things got difficult or stressful or different, I caught myself seeking my comfort zone. There were weekends I’d come into the office to code and I realized there were times my focus would drift towards the familiar, not my CEO responsibilities.
Someone once said, “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing will ever grow there.” What I’ve learned as a CEO is you must be comfortable with the uncomfortable.
Spend time on the right things
Entrepreneurs at companies of any stage needs to ask themselves, “Am I spending my time on the right things?” It is a discipline I encourage everybody to turn into a habit. I wrote that question on a sticky note, and I see it every evening when I go to bed and every morning when I wake up. It serves as a powerful reminder to reflect on how I spent my time that day and how I should spend my time in the day ahead. And my answer to that question may even be wrong, but it’s an exercise that has directly impacted how I use my time and reminds me to trust the people I’m surrounded by at Apcera.
More than anything, my years as CEO have renewed my commitment to learning. Change is the only constant in the cloud computing space. Leading an ever-changing company that develops an ever-changing product for an ever-changing industry inspires me to reflect on the past, act in the present and plan for the future. I have to constantly challenge myself and rely on my team to challenge me in order to grow in my role. Every year I have matured, and I strive to continue that trajectory. Complacency is not an option.
Many of the CEOs I look up to — the Elon Musks and Larry Pages of the world — live this model. The strategies and methods employed by Elon at PayPal were not copied and pasted at Tesla, nor did Larry use the same leadership tactics to disrupt mobile and cloud markets as he did when he led efforts to disrupt search.
When I first began my journey as a founder and CEO, I never would have been able to predict the ups and downs of this role. But if I were to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change much. I’d approach the role with more vigor and be more aware to avoid my comfort zone. It was these successes and failures that shaped me and, ultimately, helped shaped my company.
And by no means is the journey over. It never will be. Every day, I will continue my commitment to grow as an individual and as a CEO, and I am grateful to lead a company with so many driven, like-minded entrepreneurs.
Derek Collison is founder and CEO of Apcera. An industry veteran and pioneer in large-scale distributed systems and enterprise computing, he has held executive positions at TIBCO Software, Google and VMware. At TIBCO, he designed and implemented a wide range of messaging products including Rendezvous and EMS.