Running a company brings a set of challenges, and taking over leadership from a founding CEO is an additional exercise in discipline. There are products to build, customers to find, founders to consider, a vision to preserve and passion to nurture. But most importantly, you need a plan. This article offers front-line advice for startup CEOs.
From the garage to world domination
Startups often begin with an idea, passion and vision, and a founder or founders who have a fierce commitment to the company and are not afraid to get their hands dirty. They may face tough challenges early on as they create the culture, expand the team, find investors and chase customer prospects, all while designing products or technology that will somehow change the world.
At some point in a company’s growth, the founding team may recognize that they have moved beyond a few people coding in the proverbial garage (or in our case, a flat in Haight Ashbury) and are ready and willing to hand over business leadership in order to focus on achieving their vision for the product.
Rounding out my first 12 months in “office” as CEO at Piston Cloud, and after 20 years in technology, I have learned a few things about the care and feeding of a startup. Today I lead a company with three co-founders: CTO Joshua McKenty, CMO Gretchen Curtis, and chief scientist Christopher MacGown. These three extraordinarily bright, capable and talented individuals started Piston with a clear vision for world domination. I’m here to help make that vision a reality.
Stay focused on world domination, but arm everyone with a 90-day plan
Whether first time or serial, all entrepreneurs aspire to change the world. And there is simply no grey area between winning and losing. An entrepreneur is in it to win.
Often a startup will bring in a new CEO at a critical juncture — perhaps when the company is experiencing rapid growth, the product needs to find its market, or a rapidly growing customer base requires nurturing, for example. Founders and entrepreneurs sometimes see so far ahead that they simply need someone to draw the map to get there.
The trick to startup success is building out a 90-day plan … every 90 days. It is not my job to achieve world domination in 90 days, but rather to outline the 90-day sprints we can take toward that goal. This requires a tight and well thought out plan clearly defining owners, goals and deadlines. I chart the steps to world domination in order to translate vision into reality.
Understand your product’s value before you race to monetize it
In our world of startups and Silicon Valley, technology is sometimes ahead of the market. One critical early responsibility as CEO of Piston was driving an assessment of market timing and fit. If you have customers, it is important to tap into them and find out how they use the product and what problems it solves for them. This defines where the value lies, not from your own internal “Kool-Aid” point of view, but from the critical point of view of your customer.
One thing we did was to put a free version of our product on our website and out into the public domain to get external utilization and feedback. We knew the sooner we could figure this out, the better positioned we would be to succeed.
Monetizing during this part of the journey is not the priority, but rather information gathering. Let the users tell you how you did, whether the product meets their expectations and whether it does what they need it to do. When you find what resonates most (and you will), be ready to amplify it.
Take advantage of strengths within the organization
Once you have a plan and understand the true value proposition for the customer, turn your focus toward maximizing the team to deliver on the promise and the plan. For example, I’m in a unique situation with three involved co-founders, who each bring something different to the table. While these and other relationships take work, I stay focused on building the business, which includes applying our various personal skills and strengths where they best benefit the business.
For example, we recognize there are different skills related to building culture and brand, recruiting, coding, vision, customers and other areas of the business, and that applying these skills for the highest impact is an important way to increase our chances of success. Even understanding and applying these strengths, however, must be backed by a plan. Each area of the business — whether marketing or business development, sales or product development — needs a separate plan, owners, deadlines and goals.
In addition to the internal team, we tap into our external community of advisors and investors, who act as partners on this journey. We regularly engage our investors, who offer a unique point of view and external perspective that help to keep us grounded. A note about investors: These relationships should be about more than money; they should also be about relationships, networking, mentoring and a “we’re in this together” attitude (world domination).
Make tough decisions … every day
This one is at the heart of the CEO role. Define the goals and abide by them … ruthlessly. This means making some often tough decisions along the way. Like any executive, I appreciate that a company is someone’s “baby,” and in this I am as committed to Piston’s health and success as I am to my own family. Similar to parenting, running a business requires caring, discipline, open communication, trust, honesty, taking chances, having disagreements and a willingness to make the quick and sometimes difficult decisions without looking back.
This might mean throwing out the product roadmap, reducing or reallocating staff, refining messaging or shifting target markets midstream. While these are significant changes within an organization, keeping a team focused on the 90-day plan means that everyone, without exception, understands the next steps we need to take along our path. Hitting important short-term objectives will make the long-term objectives more attainable.
At the end of the day, we are all committed to the same thing — our mutual success. Oh yes, and world domination.
A CEO’s job is to lead the revolution, 90 days at a time. But we can still change the world (and will).
Jim Morrisroe is CEO of Piston Cloud. A cloud computing and open source industry veteran, he has over 20 years of leadership experience at high-growth companies. Prior to joining Piston, Jim spent seven years as senior vice president and general manager of Zimbra, leading the company through its successful spin-out from Yahoo! and acquisition and integration by VMware. Jim also led sales at Cemaphore Systems, Cabletron Systems and Lucent Technologies.