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My Complicated Relationship with No Longer Being CEO (moz.com)
234 points by doppp on Dec 26, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 52 comments

Huh, while interesting and well written and all the other happy happy/joy joy stuff everyone else posted...I can't help but wonder about folks who start out in life as founders/CEOs/top 'o the food chain...how do (can) they relate to folks who spend years working for others? This made me realize that many folks might in fact be so isolated/insulated from the folks that work for them that they are quite literally "out of touch" with the reality that vast majority experiences... interesting read.

It's a different experience, for sure, but not necessarily an easier one. Common perception is that founder CEO's call all the shots like some third world dictator whose word is law and cannot even be questioned. Well, appearances can be deceiving. I went from undergrad to CEO of a startup that my best friend and I founded. I very much had a boss: our lead investor who settled in as Chairman of the Board and unleashed his domineering personality to run rampant on our weekly management calls. I had an extreme amount of pressure from him to hit deadlines and hold ourselves accountable to our excel projections (which, like most early startup projections, were pretty useless to begin with). Over time, as success bought some freedom from the board and investors, a few of our most important anchor clients filled their role instead. I would spend months feeling like a certain VP or SVP at a make-or-break client for us was basically calling the shots in large areas of my life. In hindsight what we were lacking was real mentorship, management guidance, and similar help, (unfortunately) none of which were included with capital from our investors. We figured it out as we went along while taking flack from all sides. Only later when we were acquired and I had a ''normal'' boss with a ''normal'' p&l, career oriented direct reports, etc, did I realize how different it is, in some ways worse but in some ways much better. It was a heck of a lot more predictable and less stressful. I didn't have to pull any rabbits out of hats I just had to wander over to the rabbit cage and feed them. But, without a doubt, experiencing the whole cycle made me a better founder down the road.

That was - I'm trying hard here not to be harsh on you - because you let him. If you're inexperienced I can easily see how this situation could come into play but you as a majority shareholder, co-founder and CEO have no boss, certainly not your chairman-of-the-board investor.

That's a relationship that you will have to manage, that's for sure but if you see him as your boss you imply that he has the right to throw you out or sanction you and that isn't the case, as majority share holders you and your co-founder should be in control of the company and the board should have an advisory role. If the company goes public, hires an outsider CEO who is not a part of the founding team or if the founder-CEO is not seeing eye-to-eye with the other founders then the board can become more dominant.

If you depend on that outside investor to support (take pro-rata, say upbeat things etc) your next round, then you have little choice but to say "how high" when such a board member says jump.

I really disagree with that. Board members (and other shareholders for that matter) can hold you accountable for mis-steps but if they get in the way of you doing your job then you owe it to yourself and your company to manage the relationship in such a way that they do not have the ability to impose on you in such a way.

That's also in the best interest of that investor. Structuring and managing relationships is one of the things a CEO should be good at if the company is to become successful. This goes for the relationships with the rest of the company management, it goes for outsiders and it goes for the board.

If a CEO is hired by the board then that changes but if you found it you should be in charge and you should make it clear - in a respectful way and if necessary by educating your board members - why that is the case.

> If you depend on that outside investor to support (take pro-rata, say upbeat things etc) your next round

He or she will say upbeat things regardless (because they're already in it is in their own interest), whether or not they will take pro-rata shares with a next emission will depend on the price and their ability to purchase as much as anything else so I would not count on it regardless and take it as a nice-to-have but not a must.

If you behave like someone else is in control they are in control. Don't do that.

Interesting comments... At the level of CEO and the Board there is no 'boss', there are only checks and balances.


Even a hired CEO has a mandate and the board can fire him/her but they can't unduly influence that person beyond supplying (possibly unsolicited) advice. Otherwise no CEO would ever be able to do their job. Ultimately, whatever happens is the responsibility of the CEO and the board is a source of advise and makes sure the CEO does a good job. If the board is backed by the shareholders they can fire the CEO, but if the shareholders (and in this case that meant the original founders) don't agree by simple majority to get rid of a CEO then he/she can continue to do their job. Whether you still want to is another issue entirely.

Anybody in a CEO position would do well to make sure they understand their rights, obligations and their relationships with the various other entities they are dealing with. If you don't understand those then it is a recipe for frustration and potentially disaster.

This is the reason why you'll see board members leak to the press (see for instance Yahoo! recently). They can't win the argument in the boardroom and they can't/won't fire the CEO (maybe because they only have a minority share and the rest of the board and/or shareholders do not see their way).

This is also why founder disputes are extremely risky for a company. Founders typically hold large blocks of shares and if some those suddenly align with of non-founders then it can really break your stride or cause serious trouble.

Say a company has two founder that still hold 60% of the shares, 5% is in an option pool and 35% is held by an outside investor. If the founders no longer see eye-to-eye the board suddenly holds the tie breaking vote and this could lead to the departure of either one of the founders depending on with who the board sides. In such a case I hope your shares are vested if you're the founder that is forced to leave (and if not I hope you have a vesting acceleration clause in your contract).

Absolutely, in hindsight there would have been different ways we could have managed the board more effectively from the start, and saved ourselves grief (and likely created even more value). At 22 y/o we lacked the experience to do this. (And don't worry, you couldn't possibly be harsher on us than we were on ourselves once the dust settled and we reflected on the whole rodeo ride.) Part of what I think incubators do well is they remove some of the crazy early stage investor dynamics that used to plague very young early stage founders who raised money from close personal networks of doctors and dentists. The experience I wrote about is from a decade ago in the early 00s. Before Y Combinator came along there was very little written about pre A angel investing.

I should write about this. I never realized that it might be useful to someone. Thank you for opening my eyes to this. I'm hip deep in contract work right now (3 due diligences back-to-back, totally crazy, working over Christmas on one of the reports) but I promise that as soon as I have my hands free I'll try to expand on these comments in a blog post.

Y combinator is a real game changer in many ways, and one of those ways is that founders now find themselves with a support group of others who have been in similar situations and who have a lot of knowledge about subjects like these. But there is a large group of founders currently not in YC and for those especially it might be advantageous. As a small time investor I'm sometimes in the role of the procedural jerk who makes sure that from the founders perspective all the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed. Usually this is not without friction but I've yet to hear a founder not express (sometimes many years later) that they're happy we went that route. Experience - even a little bit - can be worth gold if there is a power asymmetry and such asymmetries are more the rule than the exception where founders meet capital.

Working for a year or two post-acquisition is nothing like working for 10+ years in the industry as a normal employee. You know nothing.

I'm genuinely curious, what do you think you experience in 10+ years that you wouldn't in 2-3 years? I spent three years working post acquisition. I experienced an up cycle (we were making so much $ that budgeting went out the window and we could spend/hire without restraint) and a down cycle (multiple rounds of layoffs, C level firings, hard resetting of public market expectations and a deep restructuring of parts of the business). I managed a team of about 30 people through this. Almost everybody seemed to be comfortably settled in to their jobs. Bad times were more stressful than good times, of course, but apart from these external factors impacting the business, it was a pretty monotonous routine month after month. The status quo is powerful and acts as a headwind against anyone making much radical change, while the business coasts along on whatever its core legacy income streams are. You try to make cautious, incremental improvements to those income streams without jeopardizing anything. The very senior employees (SVP and C level) seemed to have the least stability and most career anxiety, and entry levelers had that first time in the foxhole look on their faces for the first few months, but in the middle ranks, it was pretty much good natured cruise control. If I had stayed 10+ years I imagine it would have just been more up cycles, more down cycles, but mostly the same routine.

You worked at one company, hired as a senior person with no experience, probably with an employment contract, a high salary, and large earn outs/bonuses.

You had a very different experience from normal people, so why would you think you can relate to them...

And presumably had enough cash that even being fired would not have caused major problems in your life, like an inability to pay rent/mortgage, eat, or afford health insurance.

Fair enough but you are pointing toward employment insecurity, low salary, and other stressful work conditions - these seem to be largely functions of job skills and industry, not how many years you spent at an employer. I would probably learn more about job insecurity working 2 years as an actor off Broadway than I would in 10 years as a programmer or product manager at Google or Facebook.

This was definitely the case at the last place I worked. Most of the "upper management" (with some key exceptions) had literally never once had a job, and it really showed in a number of ways. Frankly I think Fishkin made the right decision, because if he ever steps into another CEO role (which I think is likely) he will be much better at it due to his experiences around this.

I also really want to say how much I appreciate the fact that he wrote this. One of the bigger problems with C-Level people is that they try to act infallible. This seriously hurts there ability to grow. Being able to have conversations like this is beneficial to everyone involved, but it takes a certain amount of bravery to start that conversation.

Wow! That was incredible. Must read for anyone and everyone at any level. If only we could get honest AND self aware posts like that from everyone.

Critical quote: "I think, to be frank, I was also deeply selfish. I wanted Moz to be the kind of place I wanted to work, not the kind of place most likely to succeed with the team we had or were hiring, not the kind that fit best with what Sarah wanted, but my own little creation where things were weird and different and Rand-like."

I really really appreciate this. I think if you want to become a CEO you have to first (critically!) a) figure out what makes a successful culture and then b) become a person who enjoys and thrives in that kind of culture.

Do you have be born that way for "b"? I don't think so, though it probably helps.

I think if you want to become a CEO you have to first (critically!) a) figure out what makes a successful culture and then b) become a person who enjoys and thrives in that kind of culture.

I don’t know if I see this as much value add. Finding out what makes a successful culture doesn’t seem trivial, much less easily repeatable. Different cultures can succeed in different circumstances and many different types of cultures can succeed. I also believe cultures evolve more than they are created. To me your argument sounds like saying “to succeed in starting a business you need to figure out what it takes to make a successful business and become a person who thrives doing that.” Working at Google is no more likely to teach you how to start a business than to create a culture. Sure you can learn things that worked there, but only some will work for you and some will likely work against you. The best I’d say you can do is recognize culture is important, try to learn what decisions leadership can make that affect culture, and understand how those decisions impact the business both short and long term. There’s no magic formula for business or for culture.

In all the successful companies I've ever worked in/with, there have been different sub-cultures depending on what role you were fulfilling and what team you were part of. I suspect that part of the requirement for a successful culture is that it allows for the networking of the work of people from a wide range of different backgrounds; favouring different communication styles and patterns of working.

Born what way? (serious question — "born the kind of person who thrives in a successful culture"? Seems a bit tautological / vague)

That's a pretty incredible read. Anybody in a start-up either as a founder or a current CEO should read this and take it to heart. That took real guts to write, much more so than your average start-up post mortem or 'I messed up' post.

So if he's stepped down from and away from (almost) all his responsibilities as CEO...

I'm left wondering - "Why do you still need your own Executive Admin"?

There are a lot of folks who don't understand how important it is for a leader to have a personal secretary, executive admin, executive assistant, deputy or whatever you want to call the role.

The sad truth is that, as hard as he might work, a man can't add a single hour to the day: every hour he spends dealing with one matter is an hour he doesn't spend attending to another. Leaders, despite being in many cases quite remarkable, aren't so remarkable that they can perform 15 minutes of manual labour in 15 seconds. That's where a good secretary can add so much value: he's a leader's right hand man, his second self. He can cut through or deal with the paperwork, the waits, the scheduling &c. and free the executive up to lead. An EA is an enabler in the best sense of the word.

I've never had a secretary, but I've had the opportunity to work in that role. It's exhilarating to see someone one respects able to do his job that much better because of what one has been able to do.

Obviously, in an ideal world almost anyone would have a deputy. Sadly, that's not numerically possible (and what about the assistants: surely they would benefit from having their own?). But I think it's close to vital that anyone whose value consists of meeting, connecting, travelling and so forth have a lieutenant to help smooth the way.

Have you seen his speaking schedule? That alone demands an exec assistant.

So he has someone to book all his needless frivilous travel...

While I agree it's a great read and CEOs would be well served to understand what he's saying...I don't think that takes any more guts to write than a schmoe who posts something derogatory about their company..esp since 10% of the us population lives paycheck to paycheck (yes, look it up...10% of the population has ZERO savings [not even retirement money] and spend EVERY penny EVERY month)...and 25% have zero savings i.e. they may have a surplus, but nowhere NEAR a year's savings...

It's not derogatory.

In fact, he's hitting the nail on the head with his insight that CEOs that tend to re-make the company in the image they'd like to see can do active harm if that image is sub-optimal (and it probably always is).

That has nothing to do with how much money he has or with the fact that others are living paycheck to paycheck.

This message is so clearly directed at the internal audience of Moz to try and frame his failures to rise as the CEO from a founder and garner internal support. If I'm Sahah, I'm clearly annoyed at this and see it as part of the reason he lost the job in the first place. All the drama he presents you don't see coming from any other CEO or corner office in tech. The real 'honesty' is clearly read between the lines that he doesn't want Sarah to be the CEO and wishes he were still in the position despite his former and current failings. Companies reach a tipping point at which time they need an operator instead of a perpetrator of drama following bad results.

His whole blog reads as: Ineffective Hipster CEO Ousted, Has Sour Grapes

> Spent hours doing work […] whose purpose I can’t understand (that has been entirely new).

I don't think it is related to the employee condition, but more with sub-optimal top-down communication.

I never worked without knowing the purpose of what I was doing, in my professional life. And I think that I will quit my job if this happens — I didn't choose to work in a startup to work blindly on tasks without context and being able to participate.

This was a fascinating read, but I couldn't help but wonder:

Why was this posted on moz.com?

Who is the target audience for this story?

What's the tl;dr?

I empathized with Rand's struggle to square his selfish/quirky desires with what was good for the company, but those questions above made me wonder: how does this blog post help Moz?

He's always posted stuff like this on Moz, from the very beginning.

I think thats kind of the point though... Posting whatever you want on Moz when your the founder and CEO is one thing. Posting such indepth material that casts a not necessarily positive light when you have been removed from control (perhaps by your own hand) is another...

I am imagining that these kind of heartfelt posts draw more attention to the marketing firm with such impact that the current CEO thinks its worth dealing with the negatives...

Maybe, I don't know enough to say. But radical transparency has always been part of their brand. Here's one he wrote a few years ago about their Series B. It was so comprehensive that TechCrunch just linked to the post instead of trying to dig up more info behind the scenes.


But wasn't this entire post about recognizing that he can't just do things the way he always has? That what works for Rand doesn't always work for everyone else at Moz? I felt like this post was filled with mixed emotions and messages and if I worked at Moz I might not know what to make of it.

I imagine if he can't do this, he'll hear about if from the board or CEO or other employees.

moz specializes in inbound marketing. Guess what we are sitting here discussing?

Not inbound marketing. And I'd be curious to see how this post (assuming it is a form of content marketing) converts into new users for Moz products. You could probably get through the entire post and not even be sure of what Moz does.

Yes, and maybe, just maybe a few years down the line, who knows? Your startup, or your boss, or even a friend tells you "Hey, we're looking to subscribe to an inbound marketing platform. Got any suggestions. We're down to Moz vs Hubspot vs Marketo." You'll say... "Hmm I haven't heard of the last 2, but heard a lot about Moz."

> Hmm I haven't heard of the last 2, but heard a lot about Moz...

..And how their founder became the champion of Feminism simply by updating his twitter bio.

I meant moz: we're discussing Rand and Moz. And sometimes it's enough to have a bunch of interested parties linking to your content.

He seems like such a whiner. In the article he talks about how his dad always told him he had "high potential, low achievement." This whole blog post comes off as sour grapes. Also, how exactly are we supposed to feel bad for him? Poor Rand, he was ousted and now he has to travel the world with his wife going to cushy speaking gigs while doing no real work.

You are not supposed to feel bad for Rand - he went through his depression and now he is OK.

You are supposed to learn from his experience, and Rand's openness gives us that learning opportunity.

I founded a software company about 10 years ago, and moved on from my CEO position 6 months ago. A lot of what Rand says really resonated with me. I too had started to make mistakes, mis-managing the company by making decisions that were far too emotional and not strategic enough.

The high pressure, make quick decisions, life or death mindset that is necessary for a startup is not compatible with a company that has matured. In fact, in my experience CEOs/founders of companies that are growing successfully will throw bombs in to the building. I'm sure many of you have read about VCs removing founders from growing businesses. Founders simply aren't compatible anymore.

I'll leave the psychology of why they do this to somebody else, but in my personal experience I decided to move on from the CEO position because I found myself having to do work, make decisions and partake in meetings that were no longer a reflection of the business I wanted to create 10 years ago. In fact, I can recall the exact moment when I realised it was my time to get out of the way. I was sat in a disciplinary meeting with a member of staff who was under performing. At the end of the meeting I said to the woman running the meeting with me who is now the CEO "This isn't why I started a business, what am I doing here?". A few long chats later and I had made the decision to handover to her and the business is already performing better under her command.

Like people, businesses evolve and mature as they grow, and good founders need to know when to get out of the way. Rand clearly feels he did unnecessary damage to Moz; I wonder if he could go back in time if he would have given up his CEO position a few years earlier?

This was interesting to read.

Apparently one of the things precipitating Rand leaving the ceo job was mismanaging a major project with an initial budget of 6-9 months and targeted release date of July '12 that slid to Oct '13 -- not only a slip of 15 months, but a very buggy release even after major feature triage. Though Rand doesn't say it, I'm guessing this was pretty hard on their engineering staff.

As an engineer who's worked on a similar death march with a major schedule slip that turns out to have been totally unnecessary, it was nice to see some accountability passed upwards for a change.

Interesting... ultimately although I don't think he clearly states it... being CEO is not for most people... you can have the brains, the willpower and even be successful in the role, all while feeling horrible about it...

I somewhat to a degree found the posting to be a bit in bad taste... a bit too 'honest' in his feelings that the company is being run 'wrong'...

I didn't get that. If anything, he is admitting that the way he would prefer to run the company is "wrong" or at least, sub-optimal.

Good read but it also seems like a humblebrag.

rand humblebrag? nooo waayyy

What is moz? Mozilla? Please don't post stuff like this if nobody knows the company.

I don't think it's too much to expect readers to do a little googling about a company they aren't familiar with.

This was an excellent article whether or not you know anything about moz.com, and finding out is easily remedied.

Wow, barely three weeks into your new account and you already want to dictate what gets posted.

Regardless, what Moz does is about as far away from my day-to-day work (or even my interest) as you can get, and even I know what their business is. Doesn't matter, plenty of postings here are about companies I've never heard of, so I go look them up. Takes less time than it took you to type your comment.

Lastly, what Moz does has little bearing on the content of the article. They could make oil filters for cars and the content would stand on its own (well, mostly).

Is there posting guidelines that prohibit posting things like this?

Otherwise, enough people voted for this submission to be relevant.

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