A smoothly running startup is like a dune buggy – not what you were expecting from the title was it? Dune buggies don’t do well in stop and go traffic. They struggle to hold back. Dune buggies show their strength in tough terrain when they launch themselves off the ground in an instant. If you’ve never gone dune buggy racing, I highly recommend it. When tuned right, the engine, wheels and driver create opportunities for thrilling acceleration over or around any obstacle. For me, the dune buggy and the tech startup are similar three-headed monsters. Each requires vision, a powerful engine and traction. Here, I’ll describe how I view the three heads of a startup.
Entrepreneurial vision comes in several forms. Some people are great at envisioning a strategic path forward to a specified destination. Others have flashes of insight, where they see a distant opportunity but fail to see the path forward. Still others seem to have an uncanny intuition that guides them in the moment, without knowing the path or the destination. Each of these visionary properties is important for a startup. A great CEO doesn’t have to exude all three types. They just have to harness the collective visionary skills of their team.
If the CEO isn’t focused on decisions that will guide the startup to success, the startup will stall out.
Technological advantage is at the core of most startups. The core technology must be engineered for a specific purpose (just like the engine of my dune buggy). The CTO is responsible for designing and maintaining the engine to be the powerhouse of the company. The core technology should accomplish in seconds what would take hours for hundreds of people. While a CTO may sketch out the initial design on his own, it will take a team to design and build it out properly. The CTO doesn’t need to know every detail of how the engine works, he just needs to harness the skills of his team to make sure it’s running properly.
If the CTO isn’t focused on honing the engine, the startup will fail.
What good is a dune buggy if bald tires just spin in the mud? Unfortunately all too many startups ignore traction. They see the path. They build the engine. They just forget that it takes a lot of energy to get things moving. The responsibility of traction falls on the shoulders of the CMO (chief marketing officer) or CSO (chief sales officer). While CMOs typically sell lower-price widgets in B2C startups and CSOs sell higher price tickets in B2B startups, their role is identical – they increase revenue. There is a reason why a major sales push is often described as, “pounding the pavement.” You have to be tough, but malleable to make contact with the outside world. As a CMO or CSO, you must find ways to push the world and propel your startup to success.
If the CMO or CSO isn’t focused on revenue, your startup will burn out soon.
Three Headed Monster:
At Boulder BITS, we bring people together to form unstoppable three headed monsters. As a three-headed monster, a startup can operate in one of several ways. If the heads don’t trust each other, they will each try to pull the monster in a different direction. They’ll interfere with each other’s jobs. They may even undermine each other. If the heads aren’t aligned to their responsibilities, nothing is accomplished. In this case, the startup will just sit like a lump. But when each member of the leadership team is suited for their job, the monster becomes unstoppable.
Two Headed Monster:
In some cases, startups can operate for a short while without one of the heads. When this happens, the startup’s two heads must initially take on the responsibilities of the missing head. This distracts the heads from their primary responsibilities. I always recommend looking for the third head as soon as possible.
As the startup grows, more heads become necessary. You’ll need a COO to make sure everything runs smoothly. A CPO (chief people officer) will coordinate the talent you need. The CFO (chief financial officer) will streamline the finances. Your CLO (chief legal officer) will make sure you stay out of the courtroom. But as an early stage startup, you shouldn’t focus on these roles. These come later. When you’re a hydra (the mythological creature), you can cut off one head and another will grow back. Such a blow almost often kills a two-headed monster and typically maims a three-headed monster. But the Hydra keeps on ticking.
Which Head are You?
I encourage you to think about which head of the monster you could be. Are you focused on the path forward? Are you focused on communicating with your clients? Do you always think about tech before anything else?
The New Monster:
If you’ve been a CEO, CTO or CMO before, it can be much easier the second time around. Working with other’s who’ve had prior experience can also help your startup launch faster. However, I give a few words of caution to returning entrepreneurs; not all monsters are the same. You can’t assume that the bag of tricks you learned during your last startup will work perfectly on this new beast you’re building. You’ll need to adapt and change. Just like the first time around, if you’re open to adapting, you’ll have a much better chance of success.
- It’s important for entrepreneurs to create a defined structure early on, even if you start as a one-man shop. Document the various roles and duties for the company. Be specific and avoid vague titles for job descriptions. In fact, startups should have job descriptions for various positions even if those positions don’t yet exist or one person is handling a number of positions. (Patrick Hull)
- As a founding COO, you will have to pinch hit and do things you don’t like. Eventually you have to find someone else to do those things though, or you’ll burn out. (Andy Sparks)
- One of the most important characteristics of a strong leader is to be open. Be open to ideas, solutions, proposals, as leadership is a learning process and changes in any new environment you pursue.
Author: Jesse Lawrence
Founder and CEO of Boulder Bits. Sci-fi lover, game theory strategist, and idea generator.