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I’m on the receiving end of phone calls and video conferences with CEOs all day long. And, at least once a day, I can feel the intense stress on the person I’m talking to oozing through the phone or the screen. The conversation is often calm and rational, but below the surface is a bubbling cauldron of pressure.
Welcome to life as a CEO of a fast growing startup. Every day something new and unexpected comes at you. Often multiple things. Some are awesome. Some are ok. Some are bad. And some are awful.
Ben Horowitz wrote what I think is the best post ever on this called The Struggle. After I read it, I asked him if I could include it in my book Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur. He graciously said yes, so I did.
I felt The Struggle regularly when I was running Feld Technologies in the 1980s. I put myself at a disadvantage – when something went wrong people often called for “Mr. Feld.” My partner Dave carried a lot of the burden as well so I wasn’t alone, but I was on the receiving end of a lot of unhappiness over the years.
While I got better at compartmentalizing it, I never mastered it. I still struggle with it today. I can absorb an enormous amount of stress from the CEOs I work with. But sometimes I get overloaded and end up far out on a deep tree limb trembling with anxiety. I like to refer to this as “inappropriate anxiety” because I know exactly what is at the root cause, but my obsessive mind has a difficult time letting it go.
So I do what I can. I talk to Amy. I walk Brooks the Wonder Dog. I take a bath. I try to sleep a little more. I run more. I let the obsessive thoughts roll around in my head, chasing each other like characters from SpongeBob SquarePants.
And sometimes I just go in a closet and scream for a little while. I let all the bad energy out. I put my all into it – expelling the stress. Trying to reset my mind. Knowing that the inappropriate anxiety will go away and I’ll feel ok again.
When I hear this in the voice of a CEO I’m working with, I offer up myself as a release valve. While I don’t invite it, I want them to know they can vent to me. That they can bare their soul safely to me. That I won’t judge them on the pressure they are under. That I won’t try to solve the problem for them.
But that I’ll be there.
And I let them scream if they want to.
On my run this morning, my mind drifted to a common characteristic of CEOs that I work with. It was prompted by me randomly thinking about two back to back meetings I had yesterday – the first with Eric Schweikardt (Modular Robotics CEO) and his VP Finance and then with John Underkoffler (Oblong CEO) and his leadership team.
I’m regularly blown away by these two guys ability to collect new information, process it, and learn from it. Any meeting with them is not an endless socratic session from me to them, but rather the other way around. They know what they are trying to figure out and use me, and my broad range of experience, data, and opinions, to solicit a bunch of data for themselves that they use as inputs into their learning machine. Sure – I ask plenty of questions, but they do also, and as we go deeper, the questions – and the things that come out – get richer.
So – as I turned around on my run and headed back home (today was an out and back run), I started thinking about other learning machines that I get to work with. The ultimate is David Cohen, the CEO of Techstars. The entire model of Techstars is build around the context of the entrepreneur as a learning – and teaching – machine, where learning and teaching (which we call “mentoring”) are the different sides of the same coin.
Bart Lorang (FullContact CEO) is an awesome learning machine. While Bart isn’t a first time CEO, his level – and intensity – of inquiry is stunning. It reminds me of a younger Matt Blumberg, who has taken the concept to an entirely new level in his book Startup CEO.
I could keep going – almost of the CEOs I work with are in this category of learning machine. As I rounded the last turn and headed for home, I realized the learning machine model is consistent with a deeply held value of mine – reading and writing. More about that in another post.
I just did a long 90 minute video interview stretch with Boulder Digital Arts that generated a number of specific videos on entrepreneurship. While they are selling them, a few are free. One of the free ones is on Founder’s Syndrome and Origin Stories. Given the last few posts I wrote on CEOs, and some upcoming ones, I thought you might be interested in this one.
If you liked that, take a look at some of the others. They include:
- What I Wish I Knew About Business 20 Years Ago
- The Impact of My Book Startup Communities
- Essential Advice When Raising Capital
While they are inexpensive, if you use the discount code “Feld2014″ you can get an additional 15% off.
tl;dr – If you are a CEO and want to take an amazing online course about being a CEO by Return Path’s Matt Blumberg, sign up for Startup CEO from NovoEd now.
Yesterday, I wrote about Rand Fishkin of Moz falling out of love with the CEO role. Today I read Jason Goldberg of Fab’s great post on his struggles as CEO in 2013 and what he learned from it. This topic is front of mind for me as many of the companies I’m on the board of are growing extremely fast and the demands on the CEOs are significant.
It’s really hard to be a CEO. Becoming a great CEO takes a lot of time, work, focus, coaching, and introspection. I’ve had the privilege of working with some incredible entrepreneurs who, over many years and several companies, became remarkable CEOs. Dick Costolo (Twitter CEO) immediately comes to mind. While I didn’t work with him at Twitter, I was on the board of FeedBurner and worked with him and his three founders (Eric Lunt, Steve Olechowski, and Matt Shobe), who are all still close friends. I learned an amazing amount from each of them, but especially from my time with Dick.
Another great CEO I’ve had the honor to work with is Matt Blumberg who has led Return Path since founding the company in 1999. Matt is a first time CEO and has a fun blog titled Only Once which references the idea that you can only be a first time CEO one time. In a delicious twist, he’s now been a first time CEO for 14 years. While Return Path has had countless twists and turns along the way, Matt has been CEO from inception and presides over a large and significant company that continues to be a leader in a market it helped create.
Fred Wilson, who is on the board of Return Path with me and Matt (along with the FeedBurner board, and the Twitter board) had a frank and insightful post about turning your team three times through the life of the company to meet the different challenges that face a company from its journey from sweat driven startup to massive scale. Often this process of turning the team includes the CEO; other times it doesn’t. In Matt’s case, there have been plenty of team changes along the way, but Matt has demonstrated an impressive ability to scale and adapt himself in the evolving role of a CEO of a rapidly scaling company.
As a result, when Matt started talking to me about writing a book about the role of a Startup CEO, I was super excited. I encouraged and supported this, and it resulted in another book in the Startup Revolution series that I’ve done with Wiley. Matt’s book, Startup CEO: A Field Guide to Scaling Up Your Business, is a must read for any CEO.
Last summer, Matt began exploring doing an online course around the content in Startup CEO. He teamed up with the Kauffman Fellows Academy to put together a course titled Startup CEO, an online class that really drills into the important material of the book. It’s the real deal with hours of video, Q&A that Matt did in front of a live studio audience of NYC startup CEOs, as well as engagement with the teacher through the NovoEd platform.
I’m encouraging all the CEOs in Foundry Group’s portfolio to take the class, and I encourage you to take the class as well.
The class starts on January 20th on the NovoEd platform. You can learn more about it on Matt’s blog post about the Startup CEO course.
I was a CEO once. In my first real company, Feld Technologies, there were two founders – me and Dave Jilk. I was President (we didn’t use the CEO title then, but as the President, I was the “chief executive officer”) and Dave was Vice President. As we grew, other people had different titles, but the two of us ran the business.
I’ve been told that I was a good CEO, but after about ten people I didn’t like the role of CEO. But we stayed after it and built a successful company that was consistently profitable and acquired by a public company in 1993 for a few million dollars.
At the time it was acquired, we had 20 people. For the next nine months, I ran the consulting group of this public company. I reported to the two co-chairman and we quickly scaled up to 50 people in two offices. By the time we got to 50 people, I hated being the CEO of consulting group (I have no recollection what my title was, but again my role was the CEO role of this group.)
The parent company acquired a much larger consulting company – about 200 people – and I quickly handed the keys over to the new CEO (well, President) allowing Feld Technologies to become two of the branch offices of what ended up being AmeriData Consulting.
I have never wanted to be a CEO since. It’s a really hard job. Some people love it. Some people are outstanding at it. Everyone I’ve ever worked with in the role has struggled immensely at different points in time.
And some people grow to hate the role.
Recently, Rand Fishkin, the CEO of Moz, took an incredibly brave step. In his post Swapping Drivers on this Long Road Trip Together, he handed the CEO role over to his long time business partner Sarah Bird. As of January 15th, Sarah will formally become CEO and Rand will become an individual contributor on the executive team, reporting to Sarah.
We invested in Moz in April 2012. Rand wrote an epic blog on the financing titled Moz’s $18 Million Venture Financing: Our Story, Metrics and Future. It was so epic that the mainstream tech press didn’t really want to report on the financing since there was no new information they could discover, since Rand blogged every last detail.
Since that date, I’ve developed a professional love affair with Rand and Sarah. As an investor, I have no hesitancy to become close friends with the entrepreneurs we invest in. Rand and his wife Geraldine have become extremely good friends, and I have deep respect and affection for Sarah.
In the middle of 2013, Rand called me up and said “What do you think of the idea of me handing over the CEO reins to Sarah?” I reacted immediately with “That would be awesome.” There was silence – I don’t think Rand expected that reaction.
I knew Rand was unhappy as CEO. He was exhausted in his role. He had a strong senior team but carried around every ounce of stress and responsibility for all aspects of the business. He traveled constantly evangelizing Moz, SEO, and marketing. He loved certain aspects of what he was doing, but hated others. And many of the ones he hated were the ones that a CEO of a scaling business is responsible for.
I recognized this. It’s the same stuff I would hate if I ran a company the size and stage of Moz. It’s the stuff I hated when I was co-chairman of a 1,000 person public company and effectively acting CEO since the CEO we had recruited bailed after accepting the job, leaving us with a four month scramble to find a new CEO. It’s the stuff I remember hating leading a company of 50 people.
Now, Rand and I are different people. But he’s special. And magical. And amazing. And his special, magic, amazingness was being squandered as CEO, especially when he sat next to Sarah, who will be an awesome CEO while allowing Rand to be special, magical, and amazing in the next chapter of Moz.
I’m so incredibly proud of Rand for how he’s approached this, talked openly about it, and dealt with his own emotions, insecurities, and fears around this decision. And I’m extremely excited about Sarah become CEO and unleashing her talents on the new wave of growth at Moz, while Rand spends his time being true to what he loves in the context of Moz.
Building a company is hard. Being a CEO is hard. Working with people you trust, admire, and adore is a delight.