You Could If You Wanted To . . .

In today’s scrum, the staff discusses Ben Horowitz’s Why Founders Fail: The Product CEO Paradox, the executive burden, and “good soft skills.”

You Could If You Wanted To . . .

Today’s News Scrum Discussion: Why Founders Fail: The Product CEO Paradox, by Ben Horowitz.

At first I was glad to read this piece by Ben Horowitz because there is so much “advice to CEOs” out there, good and bad, but not as much discussion about whether or not founder CEOs fundamentally want this role and can be successful. It’s so obvious that it’s liberating to hear someone say “not every inventor wants to run a company.” But by the end of the piece he moves in a very different direction.


Marc Barros, formerly of Contour, tackled the founder to CEO topic in a June piece for GeekWire. He pointed out that becoming a CEO involves learning a different leadership style and new set of management skills. For some people this may be an exciting or inspiring challenge, but for others it can feel like a distraction that weighs on them and inhibits their ability to pursue other creative projects.

As a former first-time founder and CEO, I didn’t make it. I didn’t understand, until it was over, just how hard the transition is from a founder to a CEO. A completely different role from getting a company off the ground, I learned that becoming a CEO is even lonelier than being the CEO.

Though, as mentioned above, Horowitz admits that not every founder will want to be CEO, he tries to make the case that everyone should want to do it. And his explanation of why it is important and possible will certainly motivate a founder who is already thinking about how to scale the CEO mountain. But it seems like it could have the opposite effect on someone who is already disenchanted with the job.

While talking about staying involved in products, Horowitz writes:

If you find . . . you cannot let go a little without letting go entirely — then you probably should consider a CEO change. But don’t do that. Learn how to do this.

It’s a prescriptive generalization which puts more value on the work founders would do as CEOs than on the work some of them might do if they freed themselves to pursue other things. —Lily Hay Newman

I’m going to disagree with Lily: Horowitz is right that all founders should want to be CEOs. Why? Because when you create a company and hire people to work for you, you’re starting a community and asking other people to buy into it. If you bring other people along for the ride, you need to be ready for it yourself. If you’re not, you shouldn’t be the lead founder of a company in the first place.

That’s what Horowitz is really getting at when he talks about a “product-oriented CEO.” All of the people he cites were able to redirect their passion for products towards company operations. Instead of focusing solely on products, they turned to injecting their company culture with the same passion and vision that made it successful in the first place. That’s exactly what Horowitz recommends:


At some point, you must formally structure your product involvement. You must transition from your intimately involved motion to a process that enables you to make your contribution without disempowering your team or driving them bananas.

In this way, it’s not so much about forcing everyone to be a CEO, it’s about re-imagining the CEO as the keeper of the company vision, not just a decisionmaker. I have no problem with asking everyone who starts a company to think about investing time into keeping that company focused. — Gabe Stein

I agree with Lily here, in the anti-establishment tradition of the Scrum. I get Gabe’s point, that a founder should be ready to lead his company as CEO. But the question here isn’t about “founders” so much as inventors. It’s possible to believe in a creation–a web platform, a search algorithm, a pharmaceutical product–without caring at all about running a business.

When Lily mentions “the work some [founders] might do if they freed themselves to pursue other things” those other things are the real work of an inventor–a tinkerer, an experimenter, a creator. The personality of a person who invents imaginative new products or reimagines a system is often not that of a great CEO. Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are exceptions, not the norm.

I’m new to the corporate world, but I’ve spent a long time in science labs. I’ve met plenty of brain-imagers, electrical engineers, mouse-brain researchers, computer scientists, and doctors, who are developing new technologies for decoding brain-signals and drugs for treating diseases. In many cases, the pioneers who invent these techniques, which often yield products and have impacts in the broader world of health and bio-tech, would never care to become administrators of the companies spawned by what they create. Great inventors often make terrible administrators: Why not let them pursue the creative work they’re best at? — Taylor Beck

Being the product-oriented CEO of a company of over 500 people, the point at which Horowitz claims that things get messy, requires a completely different set of skills from being an inventor or developer. In fact, you could compare it to an extreme version of being promoted to a manager because you are very good at your job as a developer, scientist, or whatever. Not every inventor is cut out for it, or even wants to be there.

When I was first promoted to software team lead, the most difficult thing I had to learn was how to let go of controlling everything and to stop imposing my work style on my team. I almost faced a mutiny from the first team I lead when I insisted that they sink time into analyzing the best tools to use. I am the analytical type, someone who will spend ages selecting the perfect tools, but my developers just wanted to start hacking. Or, as the famously engineering-centric Google discovered, even Google engineers want managers with good “soft skills,” instead of stellar development skills. The best bosses didn’t micromanage, but had a clear vision for the team and were results-oriented, which is similar to what Horowitz suggests for a good product CEO. Maybe the best combo is a pair–the engineering genius of a Woz combined with the product nous and charisma of a Steve Jobs. That way they each get to do what they do best. — Ciara Byrne


[Image: Flickr user Michel Filion]