The Mind of the Startup CEO: Why a Little Crazy is Good

Person thinking

The successful startup CEO has a particular mindset that tends to favor the chaos and excitement that are typical in the early days.

By:  Andrew Johnson, Ph.D.

We have all heard stories about the ousting of the Founder and his team once their business has proven itself to be a winner.  Steve Jobs was kicked out of Apple (though famously brought back for a second act), Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (The Ben & Jerry of premium ice cream fame) were ultimately replaced when the company was sold to Unilever.  This phenomenon can be scary to many new entrepreneurs.  However, a closer look at the differences between what makes a successful entrepreneur different from a successful manager not only shows why this is a logical progression but also something that should not be feared.

It is extremely rare to find a person that has the mental makeup and desire to be both an entrepreneur and a manager.  The following points show why this is.

The Mind of a Startup CEO

  • Deals with chaos with calmness:  The startup CEO not only has the resilience to withstand the unpredictability and risk associated with a new company but actually thrives in this environment.  Here are a few examples of the things that can keep you up at night with a startup; making payroll, cash flow, technical setbacks, opportunity costs, launching into an unknown market, threats from competitors, dysfunctional boards etc.  The startup CEO actually thrives with these challenges by finding creative ways to resolve these issues while sleeping soundly at night.
  • Doesn’t shy from risk:  The stakes are often very high.  You only have so much time to prove that you have a viable business before either you lose the support of your investors and/or miss your moment to enter the market.  Being comfortable with taking prudent risks allows the startup CEO to move faster towards success or failure.
  • Is creative, resilient and realistic: The startup CEO can maintain a certain amount of detachment from the pressures that are part of launching a successful startup (resilience).  They will look for non-traditional ways of solving problems (creativity). However, they are also realistic.  This crucial balance between Cassandra and Pollyanna (too pessimistic or optimistic) can be the key leadership difference between a commercial success and failure.

The Mind of an Established Company CEO

  • Skilled at maintaining and growing existing business with the least amount of risk:  The market and business of an established company are well known.  Success here is about strong and steady growth that is scalable.  The successful CEO of an established company knows how to execute on the business plan and provides the calm and methodical leadership it takes to keep everyone on track.  There is much less unpredictability here and this type of leader will look to avoid risks when possible and maintain a strong and steady growth trajectory.
  • Generally most effective when things are good – fails terribly when things go bad:  The CEO’s of established companies are excellent managers.  When things are good, they shine at steadily improving the performance of the company using tried and true procedures and policies that can be easily scaled to grow the company.  When things start to go wrong, (e.g. technical problems, labor issues, and/or entry of a powerful competitor into the market) executing on existing plans only makes things worse.  This is a time for innovation and risk-taking, this is a situation where the startup CEO thrives (turn-around experts are often former startup CEO’s).
  • More risk averse, steady hand on the tiller:  Decisions are made after careful and thorough analysis.  If there is not enough data to guide a decision, these CEO’s will defer making a decision and look to gather more information.  This is often the right thing to do in a successful established company where there are fewer unknowns.

Why you want to be replaced
Once a company has seen some success it needs to focus on execution and getting every last drop of profit from its established products.  This is where the mentality of an Established Company CEO is needed.  The startup CEO can find this environment to be stifling and may feel constrained.  The ‘seat-of-the –pants’ style of leadership that worked in the early days must give way to new processes and procedures.  This allows the business to scale up quickly and efficiently with a much larger team.  At this stage, even new product launches will feel different than your earlier efforts.  Phased gate reviews, shareholder communications management etc. will need to be part of the process now.

Know thyself and gun for your exit
The chaotic realm of the life science startup is a fast moving, passionate ride with thrilling highs (achieved profitability) and crushing lows (great tech but no market for it).  This is where the ‘Fail Fast” moniker is celebrated.  If you thrive in the worlds of chaos and speed, you will find the life of a manager to be slow and plodding.  You will no longer be as free to innovate as you were before.  If you know this about yourself, you can start to build in how and when you will exit the company.  Keeping this in mind can even be helpful with investors as they look for entrepreneurs with the foresight to put the well-being of the company above their own ambitions.  Stay as long as it is a fit and plan to leave when it is your time.  With a little planning, you can still participate in the success of the company with good exit terms (seat on the board, profit sharing, valuable equity holdings).  By planning for your exit you will now have even more resources to ease the burdens of starting your next company.

Suggested Reading:

A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness by Nassir Ghaemi, Penguin Books Ltd, 2012. | A New York Times Bestseller.

Picture Credit:  © Sklemin | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

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