Commentary

Thoughts on CEOs (of early-stage companies


This is the second post in the “Thoughts on…” series addressing practical topics for early-stage entrepreneurs.

CEOThere are two types of early-stage CEOs. I call them CEOa and CEOb.

  1. CEOa is the domain expert with lots of experience in the industry in which the startup plays. CEOa may also have – is likely to have – a technical background relating to the domain: MS at the least, but maybe PhD and/or MD. While CEOa is technically proficient, he/she really knows (or learned through years of experience in industry) the business side of things. It’s possible that CEOa doesn’t have a spot-on technical background for the startup, but may have a more general technical background that is relevant, such as engineering, software development, etc.And what does CEOa do on a daily basis? He/she charts the path to product development through a deep understanding of customer needs. Leveraging his/her industry/domain expertise, CEOa travels constantly, interacting with customers and landing deals.CEOa will likely need a strong CFO, or second-in-command, who will help build the company and manage operations from the home-base. And while CEOa will be engaged in fundraising, as all CEOs are, the primary responsibility of such may be allocated to someone else.
  2. CEOb is a broad-based business person who can’t write a line of code to save their lives. However, CEOb is not intimidated by whatever technology is at the foundation of the company’s core product line. Usually, this type of CEO is more effective if they have been a serial entrepreneur, having gained a significant amount of startup experience along the way. To CEOb, it doesn’t matter if the company is a medical device, a software system, or a soluble plastics firm. But, it is critical that CEOb believe in what the company does.What does CEOb do on a daily basis? He/she leads. He/she builds the team. He/she is excellent at raising funds, and leverages many fundraising contacts. CEOb must be an excellent and dynamic speaker and presenter.He/she may not actually do much specific for the company, but make sure that all the pieces are in place to build a great company. CEOb inspires and motivates others. And, CEOb keeps on doing those things over and over for as long as it takes.

    CEOb will need a strong technical, domain partner. Since he/she is not a techie, nor a domain expert, CEOb is highly dependent upon the partner to meet expectations and to deliver technology and product.  CEOb will need the technology partner with hi/her as they interact with customers.

Obviously, the above categories are not immutable. In my experience, I have seen folks that live in a shade of gray in between CEOa and CEOb. But fundamentally, a company needs to know its CEO and his/her strengths. The two types outlined above should provide some insight and guidance as to the ever-crucial fit between a CEO and a startup.

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