From Founder to CEO: Becoming the Leader your Company Needs as You Scale
So you founded a company. You’ve raised some money, gotten some traction, and things are about to go big! What happens now? How will your role change as you grow from “founder” to “CEO?” What do you need to know in advance to navigate this transition deftly and find success for your company?
To help you navigate the evolution from founder to CEO, we sat down with John Belizaire. John has founded and led multiple startups over the past 20 years. He is also the editor of CEOPLAYBOOK, a collection of resources for first-time founder CEOs.
Outside capital raises the stakes (and your accountability as CEO)
The first check from professional investors changes everything. Before, you were only accountable to yourself and your cofounders (along with any friends and family investors). Professional investors, on the other hand, have legal rights and clearly-defined powers once they cut you a check, which create meaningful obligations for reporting and oversight. Most of all, your role changes because you are now on the hook to turn their investment into returns. Your company is no longer yours alone; it's now owned by investors as well. And at the end of the day, it isn’t any one else’s responsibility to secure their returns. As CEO, it's now up to you alone.
Becoming CEO also changes your role within the company and your founding team. You are no longer just one among several founders. It's now your job to make tough decisions to ensure the company’s growth. You have to start asking yourself questions like “would another CEO put this cofounder as head of sales? Or VP of engineering?” As a new CEO, your role will change rapidly. It can be a lonely position and this will only accelerate as you take on additional responsibilities.
Change with the job as the job changes
From afar, a startup’s growth can look like a straight line from bottom left to top right. But, as CEO you have to zoom in to the nitty-gritty and manage that growth through all its stages. Up close, it's far from a smooth, linear process. The more you zoom in, the more squiggly the line gets. It's your job to navigate the turbulence when moving from one stage of growth to the next. To do this effectively, you have to grow as a leader as the company grows.
When you first get started, your job is to roll up your sleeves and do (everything); you are both strategic thinker and execution machine. But, as the company grows and evolves, you will need to start delegating responsibilities; instead of doing yourself, you must provide direction for your team to make decisions themselves. With increased scale and complexity, you simply can’t do it all yourself.
As you start to grow more rapidly and build greater market share, your role will change again. You will act more as a team builder and coach. Your main job will be strategic planning and communication, guiding leadership towards the company's larger goals. The more people you hire, the more you will need to rely on your leadership team to do the actual work and make the day-to-day decisions.
Simply put, your role will change constantly. Learning to let go and embrace the change while continually taking on more leadership and responsibility is a delicate balancing act — to be effective, you can’t hold everything in your hands alone. You have trust in your team; it's up to you to build the right team and company culture so that your trust is well placed. At the end of the day, your success will come down to your ability to grow, even to the point of recognizing when you may no longer be the right person for the job.
Communicate, communicate, communicate
In the transition from founder to CEO, communication becomes much more important and formal. As CEO, you are the chief direction setter, strategist and communicator. Communication is a continuous process that never stops. Your team needs to know where they are headed and they need to hear it often. You can do this in all hands meetings, in subteam conversations, in one-on-one meetings, or even an internal blog or newsletter. Transparency and candor are powerful tools for building trust and a team that will stick with you through thick and thin. People won’t always agree with you but conflict can be good. People want to be a part of something and understand what's going on. If they understand why you have to make challenging decisions, they will buy into the process even when they disagree.
Live by these principles
- Take charge — don’t let your fear of making mistakes keep you from making the necessary hard decisions. You will need to make decisions all the time and often under pressure. Be decisive.
- Be laser-focused — as you gain success, get good at saying no. Stay focused on the problem you are solving, don’t go after shiny objects just because you can.
- Read a lot — in your field, outside your field, on management and leadership. Don’t narrow in on just your sector. Explore broadly; it will help you grow as a leader and solve problems your business faces.
- Make mistakes to learn — mistakes are unavoidable. Understand that your failures are invaluable lessons, not the end of the world. The trick is to write them down and create space outside your regular routine to process and reflect on them.
- Live with, and love, your customers — spend at least one day a week with them. Just ask questions and listen.
- Find a role model — what CEO do you want to be like? Study them. Spend time with them one-on-one if you can.
- Get a coach — Just like an athlete, you need someone to help you practice, hone your skills, and grow (but it shouldn’t be someone you are close to like a cofounder or spouse).
- Join a community — expose yourself to people who have experience leading companies and who will ask you tough questions (and that don’t have the bias of your board members). A community can provide invaluable opportunities for growth.
John Belizaire is the CEO of Soluna Computing (a subsidiary of Soluna Holdings, NASDAQ:SLNH), the world’s first utility-scale company building modular, batchable computing centers for intensive applications like cryptocurrency mining, AI, and machine learning, powered by renewable energy. As a serial entrepreneur, John has successfully founded and scaled multiple industry-leading technology startups that have achieved market leadership and double-digit growth, including FirstBest, an insurance software company acquired by Guidewire, and The Theory Center, a software company acquired by BEA Systems. Before becoming an entrepreneur, John was the lead architect for Intel’s Digital Enterprise Group. John holds BS and MEng degrees in Computer Science from Cornell University. John also serves on the board of the Center for American Entrepreneurship, and is the Managing Editor of CEOPLAYBOOOK.