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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Being A Great CEO

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Matt Blumberg’s new book, Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Businessis about to come out. If you are a CEO and haven’t preordered it, I recommend you go get it right now.

I had a chat with a CEO I work with who has had a challenging year scaling up his company. He – and the company – have made a lot of progress after hitting a low point this spring. After the call, he sent me the following note he has pasted on his desk.

1. Lead by example by holding myself and all accountable, no matter how hard.

2. Set the overall vision and strategy of the company and communicate it to all stakeholders.

3. Recruit, hire, and retain the very best talent and inspire them.

4. Makes sure there is always enough cash in the bank.

5. Be the advocate for the customer over the company’s short-term needs.

6. Drive the execution and evolve the operating system.

7. Champion the company and our mission to the world.

You might recognize #2, 3, and 4 from Fred Wilson’s magnificent post What A CEO DoesI give a talk for many of the Techstars CEOs called “How to be a Great CEO” and I focus the conversation around Fred’s points. Matt’s book also uses Fred’s three points as a framework. And when I think about how a CEO is doing, I always start with 2, 3, and 4.

I’ve come to believe that you can’t be a great CEO if you don’t do these three things. But, great CEOs do many more than just these three things. So – I view them as “price of admission” – if you can’t / aren’t doing these three things, you won’t be a great CEO.

I always encourage the CEOs I talk with to create a clear framework for what they are doing. What you are doing, and spending time on, will change over time based on the stage of your company. When you are 10 people, you’ll have a different set of priorities then when you are 100, or a 1,000 people. But having a clear framework for what you, and how you do it, is powerful.

I love what this CEO has done to make Fred’s framework his own. Notice that each sentence starts out with the imperative form of an action verb (Amy told me that – doesn’t it sound smart!) – basically a statement of action. Lead, set, recruit, make, be, drive, champion. Great words.

If you break it down, it also defines a value set for the CEO, and for the company.

Finally, you are going to hear a lot more from me about the Company Operation System (what you see in #6). That’s the essence of what Matt Blumberg has figured out in scaling up Return Path, and uses to define his approach to scaling a business in Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business.

My experience with all of this is that it’s incredibly hard, breaks regularly at different points in the life of a company, and requires a great CEO to continually grow and learn from mistakes, adjust course based on new information, and work diligently at being honest with himself, his team, and his board about what is going on. But, if you get it right, it’s magical.

Don’t Let Fear Dominate Your Thinking

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I’m doing a one hour CEO roundtable on an “about weekly basis” with each of the Techstars classes. Yesterday I did a face to face with the Techstars Boulder CEOs (they are across the hall from my office) and then I did my meetings with the Techstars Chicago CEOs and the Kaplan EdTech Accelerator CEOs by video conference.

This is a new experiment for me. I’m trying a different approach to mentoring the Techstars teams this year. I’m still a lead mentor for two of the Boulder teams (Kato and SnowShoe) but for all the other programs, including Boulder, I’m trying a weekly one hour CEO only session.

One of my big goals is to generate more peer interaction between the CEOs of the various companies. We do this aggressively within the Foundry Group portfolio and it’s one of the really powerful things about Techstars. But historically it’s been adhoc and random, rather than in an organized way. This is an effort to get the CEOs to really bond with every one of the other CEOs during the program.

So far the experiment is working great from my perspective. I’m stunned by the depth of the conversation and I can see the relationship dynamics being very broad as well as intellectually and emotionally intense.

Each of the three meetings yesterday were totally different, as Techstars Boulder is in week 8, Techstars Chicago is in week 4, and Kaplan EdTech is in week 2. As I was taking a shower this morning, I kept thinking about the rant I went on during the last 10 minutes of the meeting with the Techstars Chicago CEOs.

By week 4, a team is deep in things. The stress is showing. Everyone is tired and working at their max capacity. They’ve been exposed to a wide range of mentors and lots of conflicting data. Stuff is breaking all the time. Everything is uncomfortable and – in some cases – distressing.

In reaction to a particular conversation, I strung together quotes from three of my favorite books about entrepreneurship. The rant went as follows:

  • It’s not that I don’t suffer, it’s that I know the unimportance of suffering.” – John Galt in Atlas Shrugged
  • Fear is the mind-killer.” - the Bene Gesserit is Dune
  • “Anxiety, the next gumption trap, is sort of the opposite of ego. You’re so sure you’ll do everything wrong you’re afraid to do anything at all.” – Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

I used the quotes as the anchors on a longer rant, but I did it extemporaneously. I hadn’t realized how nicely these quotes fit together until this particular moment, prompted by the particular situation. In hindsight, the only quote I forgot was my favorite of all time – “Do or do not, there is no try.” – Yoda.

And – it reminded me that three books should be on every Startup CEO’s reading list along with Matt Blumberg’s new book, Startup CEO.

The Power of A Great CEO Coach

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Our Foundry Group CEO list lit up this morning with a question about CEO coaches and whether they were helpful.

My quick response was:

I think a great CEO coach can be awesome and not-great CEO coach can be very detrimental. Jerry Colonna is the best CEO coach I’ve ever met or worked with. There are others that I’m sure will emerge from this discussion but make sure you know what you are getting / looking for.

Like many of our CEO threads this one filled up quickly with great thoughts and suggestions. Then one just nailed it.

“The key for me is that it was a cross between coaching and therapy. You can talk about business issues *in the context* of how you feel about them. This is a crucial benefit, because no matter how good your relationship with board members, expressing those feelings necessarily affects the business conversation; and no matter how astute your spouse, he or she is likely not to put enough weight on the business considerations. Consequently, the normal mode for a CEO is to have all of it in your head; and sometimes it just rolls around in there and makes you crazy.

I suspect this is true no matter how “transparent” you are.

Consequently, the key for a CEO coach is that they be able to quickly understand the business issues AND the emotional issues, and tie them together.”

CEO coaches aren’t for everyone, but I’ve seen amazing impact when a CEO gets a match with a coach that fits well with what he/she needs. And I’ve also seen the opposite – total mismatches between coach and CEO that drove the CEO over a cliff. Make sure you know what you are looking for, and assess regularly what you are getting from the relationship. But don’t be afraid to try.

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