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Ask HN: Can you be CEO and have major role in product at a huge company?
21 points by Cosmas17 3 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 12 comments
Trying to figure out my priorities for boot-strapping vs. being a venture-backed/high growth company.

Biggest con of the latter to me is I always want to have a firm grasp on the product direction/design wheel.

Can you do both if you become a very large company?

Did/Does say Steve Jobs/Elon Musk actually spend major time designing, thinking, innovating product or is that more of a media/storytelling facade and the truth is that they just make more decisions in these areas than the traditional CEO?






As a CEO your job is to sell, sell and sell. For you to become a very large company, you need lots of customers, not a lot of VCs.

As a CEO of a company that makes products, you should know your product. So, like Jobs or Musk, be good at knowing your product. Go to Xerox Parc to spy or talk to a lot of rocket scientists to test your theories on reusable rockets.

Then use your expertise on the product to set the direction for your product team. They need to have your vision tattooed on their chests because at this stage you, the CEO, are the key customer for them. Jobs was very adamant (probably too much) when trying to convey his vision to the team. But they knew, beforehand, what Steve would think and say. That's like having a doppelganger (another you) roaming around the product team. It's very good for the company.

Do only the necessary meetings and reviews for that vision to be implemented. Maybe do more in a first design phase so that they (and you) have a clear vision of what needs to be built. No more, no less. Then work on taking that vision to potential customers and try to sell them the idea. If you get some upward graphs, some proof or validation, than VCs will give you the value you deserve. If you finally go into high-growth mode you'll have other problems to solve, but always keep that grasp on product and sales as your work will shift into making them work together smoothly.


Selling the vision is both an in-house as well as marketing aspect. When you have hundreds of people working on the product design and realisation, the CEO has to figure out how to make payroll, keep investors happy, get suppliers to extend greater levels of credit, ensure that manufacturing ramps up. Successful CEOs are not micromanagers. Steve Jobs is well known for providing scathing feedback, but not for actually sitting down and sketching out designs.

First build your product and find your market niche. Once you've got enough customers to pay the bills, then you can worry about your role in the organisation. Until then you're just daydreaming.

I think you’ll find that CEOs, like anyone, usually have strengths and interests in one particular area or another - like the examples you cited, yours might be product.

Having opinions on and being able to quickly dive deep into product is a valuable skill, but I’d recognize that it will quickly become one of a dozen major areas that are vying for your time. You’ll eventually need product leaders whose thinking aligns with yours and you can trust to make decisions while you are focused on whatever the business needs at a given point in time.

From what I’ve seen, getting to the point as a CEO where you have a lot of optionality over where to spend your time relies on you being great at hiring people who can fulfill your vision in as many corners of the company as possible. Then you can choose who and where to spend time with and what to go deep on.


As a CEO, you should know the Why and What of the product, not necessarily How. Your primary job is to run the company and you cannot get into too much low level details of the product.

Forget large companies. I run a team of 15 and I m technically the CEO (sounds silly when so small) but I already have very less time to get into detailed product reviews etc. I m too busy trying to get new clients, fighting fires with existing clients/infrastructure, working on growth startegy, doing demos and even sometimes addressing disputes and protecting my team.


As a CEO (and a manager more generally), part of your role is to build an efficient TEAM to deliver the PRODUCT, not to deliver the product by yourself ! Actually, a good manager is someone that is good at recruting, motivating and good better and more competent employee than himself.

As a manager, doing the work of your employees is REALLY REALLY bad because:

1) you spend time on something that has less value for your company than your role (finding custumers, developping market and product vision)

2) your employee will know that how good they are in their job, you will shot-circuit them just for your pleasure. So the best will leave and the others will be demotived

If you want to keep working on a product, your company has to stay small (let's say: less than 50 people) or your role has to be some kind of Design Architect (and you'll have to hire a CEO for all the business administration)


>Trying to figure out my priorities for boot-strapping vs. being a venture-backed/high growth company.

I think the priority is to validate the idea and build the product.

The rest is mostly the art of imagining wrong approaches to unlikely situations; as useful to product as Aikido is to fighting, or pornography to courtship.


I bootstrapped a company and I believe the decision to remain self-financed contributed to a more tightly knit culture with more T-shaped roles than you’d typically see in venture-backed companies.

We could have raised money but the reason we didn’t had something to do with both me and my team desiring a certain degree of learning and freedom to operate in fields where we have intrinsic motivation.

It might or might not have happened simultaneously, but I remember reading that one of the founders of Basecamp, a company famous for being mostly bootstrapped, created Ruby on Rails around the same time.

I believe it can be done in different ways, also in ways more sustainable ways than the examples of Jobs and Musk that you’re referring to.


Steve Jobs actually studied calligraphy, and had a design esthetic.

Elon Musk has a fundamental understanding of physics, and the drive to make things happen.

Those 2 founders/business leaders are legit in every way.

But when you get outside the realm of founders into professional managers/MBAs, then you're right to be suspicious.

> Trying to figure out my priorities for boot-strapping vs. being a venture-backed/high growth company.

Most people don't get such a choice. You can find out by asking for the money, and seeing what happens.


Giving up control is hard.

The real question isn't can you have a firm grasp on the product direction/design wheel at a small company. It's can you build something anyone wants at all.

Secondly, can you make a sustainable business at all?

Just build something people want. The rest might follow.


Of course, if you are a product-focused CEO. Zuck still does product reviews. Bill Gates did product reviews at MSFT. This really applies more to tech, whereas in finance and other industries the CEO tends to be more of a sales job.

It looks like Evan Spiegel of Snapchat still spends a lot of time on product and design.



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