What Does it Take to be a Great Startup CEO?


Having a CEO title seems very splendid, doesn’t it? It is attached with a lot of responsibilities however, especially for start-ups. After having spent time with various CEOs, founders and co-founders of start-ups who have made it big in their respective domains, I felt like penning down a few things that I have learnt about what it takes to be a great start-up CEO.Build the tower brick by brick

The CEO needs to be focused on the ultimate goal and keep building the company quarter after quarter without losing focus on the larger picture i.e. the vision. The CEO needs to keep moving and monitoring actions to meet short term goals with the single objective of meeting the vision. Most of the time CEOs get carried away with current challenges or short term gains but great CEOs will find ways to pivot and keep taking necessary actions to reach the ultimate goal. No company got built the easy way, be it Google or Facebook or Twitter or Apple, the leaders were focused on creating long term value for all the stakeholders with their vision in mind. The great CEO will regularly evaluate smaller goals with the objective to meet the larger vision.

Be a stress reliever

Most of the start-ups go through lots of ups and downs during early days. While it is good to be transparent and share the true picture with the team, the CEO needs to take a call on what should be shared. No point stressing the team as it will only be non-productive, the CEO should lead from the front and take up challenges and absorb early stage stress while taking tough decisions. Nevertheless, when the time comes, the CEO should also share the burden, but as far as possible the CEO should face the early day’s stress and challenges, allowing the team to focus on work and targets.

Have the right people on board

Most of the time the Founders/CEOs get carried away with their passion and want to do everything themselves whether it is product development, coding, marketing, business development, finance and even opening the office door; it is good in early days but as organisations grow, the CEO needs to delegate and build a good team around him. The CEO should always keep his/her eyes open for good talent and induct people smarter than him/herself. It is not easy to hire good talent for start-ups but the CEO should be able to sell vision and motivate good talent to join the ship. He/she should have the ability to find good people and take fast decisions in hiring them. Once on board, the CEO should ensure that professionals are given enough room to function and delegate authority to the right candidates, some mistakes will be made but in the long run it will pay in building a good organisation.

Investor’s relationship

The start-up CEO has a lot on his plate to address, and most of the time, day to day works don’t allow thinking about investors. The fact remains however good your venture, Investors have a lot to handle as most of the time they have a big portfolio to manage and if you don’t get attention then it is quite obvious that you might have not engaged with the right perspective. The CEO should keep investors abreast about progress, issues, team and areas where they need help from investors. The continuous update will always allow you to seek timely help or assistance from investors.

Be a good learner

I personally believe the Founders/CEOs are experts on what they build/do, but a company is beyond its products and services and it is not necessary that the CEO should know everything. In fact most CEOs start without formal education and have successfully built great companies like Microsoft, Facebook, and Dell to name a few. What is important is to have the ability to learn while on the job and from failures. The best CEOs will build a smart team around themselves and get smart mentors.

Be ready to unlearn and learn

Most of the stuff you may have learned or experienced while with a big organisation will be helpful, but be ready to unlearn and learn new things as start-ups needs different skill sets and out of the box thinking. Something which worked for a large organisation need not necessarily work for start-ups as well; the CEO should be prepared to think differently as preconceived notions may hurt start-ups.

Have the ability to say “NO”

The CEO will be flooded with various opportunities, requests, suggestions and advise. You must explore all but only take action on what is in the larger interest of the organisation with one objective- to achieve ultimate vision. This will also help keeping the team focused on goals. There will be times when things will be really tempting but the CEO should learn the art of saying NO for things which don’t gel with the overall vision of the organisation.

Be willing to dirty your hands

The CEO is not supposed to know everything but it is good to have some technical knowledge as it will help in navigating the team during critical situations. It is easy to ask the team to work on a project but it makes a lot of difference when you join the team in building it and it is real fun seeing things shaping up. It will also help the CEO to hire the right candidate when need be.

Have small goals and milestones

A mountain looks huge when viewed from the bottom but if smaller targets are set, and smaller steps taken, the journey seems relatively easy. Always break tasks into smaller goals and keep monitoring progress on a regular basis; this will also help in correcting things at the right time with minimal cost. Also, it helps in motivating team as you celebrate success on reaching each milestone.

Have the ability to handle negative vibes and be a motivator

The company will go through various phases; some will be good and some really bad. The start-up CEO should be able to take up bad news head on to avoid any damage to the organization; he/she should keep motivating the team so as to not lose focus on the larger picture at hand. The worst would be to avoid the situation and allow it to die its natural death. Mind you, that doesn’t happen. In fact, it will only cause damage from all sides; vendors will get jittery and employees will start feeling insecure etc. Hence, the CEO should ensure that the team is motivated and be transparent on situations as people know what the problem is and what is being done to address it.

Be a good communicator

Needless to say, the start-up CEO should be a great communicator, especially when it comes to pumping energy and passion in the team. The CEO should be able to communicate the vision of the company to everyone and in a much simpler way. Don’t be too technical or use jargons to communicate vision, make it simple so that even a child can understand and don’t be offensive if someone challenges you; it will only offer an opportunity to correct something which you may have missed unknowingly.

Don’t run after fame

Be a real CEO like Steve Jobs, concentrate on results and not fame. There will be a time when you will be required to choose between a conference, attending a media interview and joining your team member for an important deal; you should choose joining your team member for a deal as it will take the organisation closer to the goal rather than attending a conference, which can be delegated.

Save, for rainy days

Not all days would be the same. Hence, while in start-up mode don’t overrun budget and if need be cut wherever possible. Time has proved that those who saved for rainy days always excelled in the long run. However, that doesn’t mean you don’t spend; spend on activities which bring business - don’t compromise on productive expenses but cut on non-productive expenses.

Exploit your network

Most of the time, first sales have come through references. So don’t hesitate to exploit your network. Trust me, it always helps.

The above list can’t be construed as exhaustive or definitive. These have come out of my experiences with young, dynamic and successful CEOs.

Anil Joshi, Mumbai Angels :

Anil heads operations at MA. Anil’s professional experience includes involvement in corporate management functions in medium and large organizations, Investment in startups, Project management, Joint Ventures & business development and sits on board of 4 portfolio companies. He has worked with B.K. Birla group of companies (Textile div), Business Access India (Scandinavian Consultancy), Transasia Biomedica (leading Diagnostic co) and Artheon Group (diversified group). While at Mumbai Angels, Anil was instrumental in closing over 15 deals in Mumbai Angels Anil has bachelors degree of Engineering, PG in Management (Marketing) & PGDBM in Strategic Finance and Control .