Bonobos CEO: If You're Not Self-Aware, You Have No Hope Of Scaling

Being a founder is an act of creation, says Bonobos CEO Andy Dunn, and being a CEO is an act of execution. Here's why so few people can do both.

Andy Dunn wears his heart on his pantleg.

"Emotions are the raw fuel of leadership," the Bonobos CEO says. "They’re contagious, yet emotions can cloud your judgment as much as empower your judgment."

He believes that the hardest part of managing a business is managing your own psychology—how you process your emotions, how you influence your own experience, and how you actually decide to feel.

"It is a balance between positive energy and judgment," he says. "At a lot of companies, if you're not careful, the positive energy of the founder can lead to an overextension in trying to do too many things, but it takes judgment to realize how much focus is required."

That balancing act has been a motivating force for Bonobos, the apparel company founded with the mission of ridding our lives of "khaki diaper butt." Dunn dreamt up the company while finishing his MBA at Stanford and by 2008 it was off the ground.

At Bonobos trousers come in a Pantone-level palette of colors, nary a pocket goes unpatterned, and the box bearing their flagship pants has a ninja on the front—the sign of their customer service ninjas, naturally. Their vivacity has been met with VC enthusiasm, having raised $73 million to date. But as the company crosses the 200 employee mark, Dunn is on the lookout for a profusion of pastelled exuberance.

Andy Dunn

"I’ve been humbled by how few things a company can do well at once, but impressed by how well a company can do them if the CEO gives the company that focus," he says. The results can be amazing when the everybody is jamming one thing, but dismaying if they try to take on too much.

"(We have had a) lack of judgment about how much we can do," he says pointing to opening an office in Palo Alto in February 2012. "We told ourselves we were going to write better technology software because we had this separate office in Northern California where technology could be heroic," Dunn says.

"That (decision) just ended up being wrong, we couldn't do two things at once," he explains. The office closed in May 2013.

Bonobos collapsed their tech team back to New York. What’s more, they brought in a new VP of technology, Dario Vergara, formerly of On Deck Capital. A sign that he was a match: he came impeccably dressed to the interview.

To Dunn, the power of being a founder-CEO is that you have such power of decision about what the company is going to do. A student of the game, he notes that the biggest companies—the kind that grace the cover of Fast Company—are those where the founder has been able to scale to chief executive.

"Being a founder is about being driven to distraction by life so much that you decide to put something new in it, an act of creation," he says. "Being a CEO is an act of execution, it's not about being driven to distraction; it's about a relentless focus on what you're doing. There's a tremendous amount of personal growth and change that you have to go through in order to begin that journey."

Scaling successfully—at seven years in, it looks like he’s got a good shot—is a hard journey, Dunn says, one that requires the moral authority to make difficult decisions, a love of the company and product, a courage to lead, and the intellectual honesty to examine every mistake without getting all bogged down by it.

"The self-awareness piece is huge," he says, referencing one of the five attributes that Bonobos builds its culture around. "Knowing what you're good at and what you're not is required to be able to scale a business. It's fun to see a lot of founders who don't start out that self-aware, but a company will draw it out of you."

[Image: Flickr user Evan Mitchell]

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