Startup CEO: The GOOD, BAD & UGLY

Being the CEO sometimes really sucks! It really does…

I’m a newbie CEO. In fact most startup founders are first timers. When I started I did not know exactly what was expected of me. Afterall, it’s not the typical job title and description. I looked around and found some marginally useful corporate descriptions. But what I’ve recently found is much more helpful!

The job of a startup CEO is:

“A CEO does only three things. Sets the overall vision and strategy of the company and communicates it to all stakeholders. Recruits, hires, and retains the very best talent for the company. Makes sure there is always enough cash in the bank.”, Fred Wilson

These key responsibilities were reiterated by Jason Goldberg and Jason Baptiste, so there is a solid basis. However, what they don’t tell you is what an enormous challenge it is building and running a startup as CEO.

In my experience over the last three years of being a startup CEO and meeting other startup CEO’s, it isn’t as glamorous as glorified by the press. It’s a job that sometimes really sucks!!


Responsibility... What could be worse – everything is the CEO’s fault. Yes, everything! It’s the only way to get a company moving forward. Someone has to make the final decisions. Unfortunately these decisions are often ‘between a rock or a hard place’. And one wrong turn and the startup is toast. To make matters worse the CEO often doesn’t have all the information needed to make informed decisions. There is also too many things to do, in too little time in a startup. It’s all a heavy weight to bear.

Founder CEO’s are not perfect and mistakes will happen. Of course, no one is perfect, including the people who work for the CEO. If the CEO has done their job well, they’ve found ‘grade A’ employees. But employees do not have the undying love a founder has for his/her startup. A founder will often want to keep re-writing, re-designing or re-developing something until its perfect.

However, there’s not luxury of time in startup and employees are not always willing to repeatedly go over and over the same thing. So, the CEO has to let somethings slide. There is no other way. They cannot grow on their own as a one/two-man business. Businesses are about people. People are about trust and creating a culture. And culture is about the founder letting go. So let go!


CEO ego... When things are going well the CEO starts to believe in his or her own words a little too much. They think they know everything! It becomes poison to the company. They start saying everything is down to them. They made this company. The founding CEO worked damn hard and now its time to bask in their own glory.


Yes, their passion and determination was needed to start the idea but in reality their narcissism becomes their cage. And a prison for the company. A business is built upon people, and not just the CEO. It’s all about the people.


Creativity… By now you’re probably thinking it’s all bad to be a startup CEO. There are huge upsides that make the responsiblity and challenges so worthwhile:

  1. Opportunity – As an old friend said to me a startup is an MBA for life. Startup’s brings the opportunity to learn so much about: yourself, your friends and customers, your market, your competition, and more. It is a learning fest! CEO’s are in a position to help everyone around them stretch their capabilities and learn.
  2. To create – A startup brings the opportunity and perfect platform to make something new. We humans are made to pass on knowledge (learn from each other) and to create. A CEO steers the company strategy and executes a vision to create something new.
  3. Love –  We all want to feel appreciated, be in a caring environment and have fun.  As founder and CEO they start and set the tone for the culture of the organisation. However, remember thatas an effective leader you can’t aspire to be loved by everybody”

With such Bad and Ugly things surrounding the CEO it is so easy to see why CEO’s give up and startups fail. Paul Graham said, one of underlying causes for startup failures is usually people getting demoralized. Ben Horowitz puts so well:

“As CEO, there will be many times when you feel like quitting.. Great CEOs face the pain. They deal with the sleepless nights, the cold sweat. The great CEOs tend to be remarkably consistent in their answers. They all say: “I didn’t quit.”

Ultimately a startup is not about the CEO, it’s about the people! And the CEO needs to bring hope. Startups are damn hard for everyone. It is the CEO’s role to create faith and willingness to believe there is a chance that things will come good, against all the odds. And help everyone to keep going!


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2 Responses to “Startup CEO: The GOOD, BAD & UGLY”

  1. doubleninja Says:

    I sympathise.. I really do. But someone has got to do it 🙂

    I learnt more in 3 years of victories and defeats as startup CEO than in the previous 10 years.

  2. Nick Barker Says:

    As you say, its not all bad 😉 Thanks for the comment.

    Its so true – time seems to slow down in a startup. Especially when you’re the CEO.

    My co-founder and I often say its like dog years. Every year in a startup is equivalent to seven years in a corporate!

    Keep learning!

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