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April 4, 2016

Ceopinions: How to Make the Transition From Founder to CEO

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We’re launching a new blog series called CEOpinions, where every month our venerable leader and CEO Matt Zeiler will drop some entrepreneurship knowledge – enjoy the first episode, where he walks you through what it takes to evolve from “founder” to “CEO.”

You know what’s hard? Starting a company. You know what’s even harder? Growing a company. Now that I’m in coming up on my third year of being the founder of a startup, I feel like I’m ready to share some insights that I’ve learned from growing my company from one person to thirty people.

Find a good mentor


As a first-time founder, it’s easy to try and reinvent the wheel when it comes to building your first business. Find a mentor who’s been through all the ups and downs of entrepreneurship already and can guide you through the problems you’ll inevitably face. As a tech founder myself, there were so many aspects of running a business that I never had to worry about when it was just me, my computer, and some lines of code. Once you factor people into the equation, though, you realize you need to figure out payroll and HR and legal and banking – which isn’t something my machine learning Ph.D. taught me. A good mentor can help fill in the gaps in your knowledge. Shoutout to Jeff Han, founder of Perceptive Pixel, for being my guiding light!

Hire people that you’d want to work for yourself


People are the most important investment you’ll make as a founder. Not only will they propel your company forward, but they’re also the people with whom you’ll spend every waking moment of your workday. If you hire people you’d want to work for yourself, you’ll end up learning a learn a lot from them. You can also trust those people to build great teams around them as the company grows. Even Mark Zuckerberg said it himself, “I will only hire someone to work directly for me if I would work for that person.”

Culture is greater than talent


You can have the smartest, most talented, most ridiculously good looking crew of people in the world, but if they don’t get along, it can slow down the whole team. As a founder, I’ve tried to leave hiring in the hands of my team because the team dynamic is more important than my opinion. I’ve seen both the good and bad when a team jives – when you get it right, the team is far greater than the sum of its parts!

Of course, it’s much easier said than done to hire a smart team that gets along with each other. That’s why it’s so important to get to know people on a personal level during the interview process before you make any hiring decisions. Case studies, coding tests, and canned interview questions don’t tell you everything you need to know about a candidate. Take them outside the interview environment, ask them to join the team for lunch, and do your due diligence before hiring someone – Facebook stalking is totally legit.

Let go and embrace change

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There’s a pivotal moment in every founder’s life when they have to let go – it’s the transition from being a “founder” to becoming a “CEO.” Your company is your baby, so it’s going to be hard at first. You always want to know everything that’s going on. But, as you scale somewhere between 10 and 30 employees, it will become impossible to get into the nitty gritty of all the moving pieces as you used to. You just have to trust that you’ve hired great people and rely on them to do what they do best. Good news though – if your team is made up of people you’d want to work for yourself (see point #3), relying on them becomes very natural. You’ll be amazed at the innovation that happens from a group of people who are encouraged to be autonomous, and you’ll see things you couldn’t dream up on your own.

Get a life

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Starting a company takes 1000% of your time. It can be an all-consuming monster that will take over your life. Be conscious of how you’re spending your time and don’t forget all the important things in your life that make it worth living. You know, like your family and friends. Block time on your calendar to connect with your loved ones, shut off your phone, don’t look at emails. Health is something you don’t fully appreciate until there’s a problem, so set time aside to keep your body in good shape. One fun activity I’ve started in the new year is running to and from work. Don’t worry – we have a shower at the office!

Just remember that at the end of the day, all of this is supposed to be fun!

I hope these tiny nuggets of wisdom help you on your journey as entrepreneurs, builders, hackers, and makers. Next month, I’ll talk more about company culture and how to shape it as a founder. In the meantime, you can always tweet me @mattzeiler!