By Karthik Sridharan W’07/ENG’07, Co-Founder & CEO of Kinnek
This is a message for all you CEOs of early-stage companies.
Phase 1: High Touch
As your company goes through various phases of its lifecycle, the CEO role must also undergo some pretty dramatic changes. In the formative days of your company, it’s all hands on deck. It doesn’t matter if you’re CEO or intern, you’re getting your hands dirty with the nitty gritty. That’s unavoidable.However, as your company grows past a few dozen employees, the complexity of the business increases exponentially. At that point, you might find yourself needing to change the hands-on approach if you want to do right by your team. To put it succinctly, at this stage, you should no longer be focused on building an amazing product- you should shift your focus to building a company that can build an amazing product. It’s a nuanced, but extremely important, difference.
Phase 2: Hands Off
Where should your focus shift? Here are a few areas for starters:
- Setting the company’s goals;
- Communicating the bigger vision;
- Hiring the best people;
- Making sure teams are communicating properly;
- Ensuring they have sufficient resources at their disposal.
These are your areas of responsibility. It might be a tough wake-up call at first but it’s a skill in itself to recognize your business has reached the stage where you won’t be the primary driver of sales, product ideas or marketing tactics. That’s when you know you’ve built something with wings. Your ideas, extra hours of work or creativity are no longer the sole drivers that propel your company forward. That’s why you’ve invested in smart, talented people.
It’s now your job to build a company capable of supporting dozens of people to make the same product, sales and marketing judgment calls you used to when “team” meant single digits, shared desks, and bad coffee.
Phase 3: Self Denial & Enlightenment
If you don’t make this shift, at some point you’re going to hamper your company from breaking through the invisible ceiling of growth and scale to where you want to be. As CEO, you need to immunize your company from depending on you as an individual contributor.
We all reach these same conclusions eventually. Usually it all boils down to a pivotal moment. Sometimes all it takes is a throwaway comment to highlight when you’ve surpassed that stage without realizing. Following a recent vacation my friend joked to me, “Phew, well, the company didn’t go down in flames, right?” Well, it’s a start, but ultimately we should be striving for more than that.
So I asked myself, what standard we should be setting for ourselves? It was this: if you, the CEO, are out-of-office for weeks, your company should thrive. It should be able to innovate, originate and execute on awesome ideas and push forward just as well as if you were there. If that’s not the case, then you need to come up with a plan to make that happen. That’s a structural weakness of your company and it’s your job to fix it!
Phase 4: The Tools for CEO-Empowered Business Growth
As CEO, it’s still your job to make major decisions for your company. You should still be aware of what’s going on. However, prolonging your role as an “ideas” person or an “implementation” person dampens a business from going full steam ahead. Your goal as a manager (and hiring manager) is to ensure your skills and knowledge are replicated across the entire organization, regardless of your own skillset.
The founders of Apple, Microsoft, Google, or Facebook may have helped those companies emerge from their formative stages. But the founders alone haven’t made those companies the multi-billion behemoths they are today. Those founders’ successes can be largely attributed to their ability to cultivate an organization that enabled thousands of amazing, awesomely talented people to drive their companies forward.
The proof is in other founders. Just ask yourself how many successful companies in Silicon Valley have been started by ex-employees of Facebook, Google or PayPal to date? The answer is a lot. If you have an exciting product and are attracting excellent talent, you could possibly have future founders of the “next big thing” working for you. That’s the best testament to your business—and the talent it has attracted and grown—you could wish for. So best not to hinder your company, or your people, by trying to do everything yourself and not capitalizing on their ingenuity. Some simple advice, but it’ll make your company stronger and allow you to focus on the next exciting task in hand—company growth.
Bio: Karthik Sridharan is co-founder and CEO of Kinnek, the marketplace for small business purchasing. He finds it incredibly rewarding to be building a platform that helps small business owners succeed in the face of pretty daunting challenges. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2007, where he was in the Fisher Management & Technology Program. He lives in New York City and in his spare time, he enjoys being a connoisseur of breakfast cereals.