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There is no such thing as a CEO of pre-product startup. Get off of it. (humbledmba.com)
119 points by jaf12duke 2182 days ago | hide | past | web | 44 comments | favorite



It sounds to me like you're misdiagnosing the problem. The problem isn't too much hierarchy, it's too little! Your CEO friend needs to grow a pair and demote his CTO co-founder. Ideally, he would sell his co-founder on the idea of doing this voluntarily. This will not be an easy discussion.

Titles and hierarchy matter in a startup because someone has to be able to make decisions in the face of disagreement. Decision making by committee leads to a lot of really mediocre decisions--like keeping a co-founder as CTO despite being unqualified for the job!

This decision-by-committee dynamic happened early on in my current startup. Mostly, the problem was engineers having an equal say in marketing and financing decisions––a topic they were not focused on or very familiar with, yet had strong opinions about. This was dumb. It took one of the founders of Netflix giving me/us a swift kick in the ass to get over it. No longer. We now divide and conquer. The company is much better for it.

Every company needs a CEO. And if the CEO is not technical, then the company is eventually going to need a CTO as well. But that's about it in terms of C-level officers. A small company should not have 4 chiefs. What that really means is the company has NO chief.

Being a C-level person means being responsible for long term big picture shit and management and leadership, not just coding. For myself, I am extremely fortunate to have a visionary co-founder and CTO with real leadership qualities. He is a partner in the true sense of the word. I expect him to stay CTO for a long, long time––unless I decide to demote myself and make him the CEO. (Might happen, who knows?) Regardless, the buck has to stop somewhere. And that somewhere is the CEO. There can only be one.


Amen. Every group needs an undisputed leader. Otherwise they flail about and get very little done. CEO is the default name for that leader in a company, and using any other name would just lead to confusion when speaking to investors, press, clients, etc.

A small company (1-10 people) usually doesn't need any other CxO titles besides CEO.


Exactly. The way I would put it is that this CEO is flunking out in his job.

If any executive (CTO or whoever) is not getting things done, CEO's job is to replace them as fast as possible. If the CEO is failing to do that, this means he needs to be replaced.

Ben Horowitz has an excellent post explaining the CEO job: http://bhorowitz.com/2010/05/30/how-andreessen-horowitz-eval...

At the end of the day any company needs real leadership. The one described in the article lacks it.


I agree, you definitely need a CEO. A startup is not a democracy and you need accountability. The CEO needs to set the vision and make executive decisions or veto bad ones. It's part of the job. If everyone is accountable, then no one is.


This seems superficially attractive, and it's hard to imagine too many people making a spirited defense of the 'all chiefs, no indians' job title inflation.

But there's a bullshit aspect to it that bothers me - it seems to be ignoring something basic that's being communicated when people insist on CxO titles.

Specifically, people who insist on CxO titles at some stage in a startup where it seems a bit pretentious may have a very good reason. What these titles communicate internally and to the board is something like:

"I am joining this startup and doing a buttload of work under the assumption that I will be the effective leader (or, CTO = effective technology leader) of the the company, and if anyone wants to make me step down from this, it will actually be a demotion and it will be an issue".

This doesn't mean "I will have a tantrum and leave". It means, "don't assume that you can seamlessly bring in a layer of management above me and this will fit my expectations".

This position may be a bad idea, I'm not disputing that. However, it may be what's contingent on someone doing a pile of work for very little money - part of their vision of the startup might be not suddenly acquiring a layer of people to report to who have been parachuted in after the hard, nasty work has been done.

If you want to make it clear that at any moment, the guy who thinks he going to run the company or the technical aspects of the company can have someone parachuted in on top of them, then denying them the CxO title is a good way of communicating that. That's fine, but don't pull this sophomoric shit where you pretend that people in small companies are insisting on these titles out of sheer ego alone.


If the main purpose is "reserving" the title for the potential future, wouldn't some kind of contract be more effective and less pretentious? Just asking.


What would this contract look like, and say? All up it seems a lot more complex - and potentially brittle and problematic - than just saying "look, we have a CEO and CTO now, for what that's worth in a tiny company, deal with it".


This looks like it's a problem with job titles but it's really a problem with managing people. The job title is just the symptom.

I have a talk with everyone who works for me in which I say "this is a startup, job titles are flexible, and everybody (including me) will have to revisit their role and title frequently. If you're OK with that, then great. If not, we should talk it through now so everybody's expectations are set."


Wait .. you're saying that good leadership is setting expectations early, being consistent, and following up on them?!

Of course it is. In my experience those are the two hardest things for people (including me) to do.


I absolutely agree with you.

I appreciate the author's advice, though I have a hard time imagining 3 or 4 cofounders doing fundraising when there isn't someone calling him or her self "CEO."

(I personally take no special pleasure in calling myself CEO. If it confers more ability to control my destiny, then great; anything beyond that is an ego game that no startup founder has time to play.)


Also if you haven't incorporated yet and you call yourself CEO, what exactly are you an officer of? A corporation has officers; a domain name and a github account don't.


That's a great litmus test. If you find yourself working with co-founders that take their Cxx title very seriously, and you have only a couple of employees, you might have picked the wrong team.

Several of us have Cxx titles at our startup, but we sell in to really large organizations (sometimes municipal), so having "Chief Customer Happiness Officer" isn't really an option for us. Or at least we don't believe it is. In the end, it really doesn't matter, because we're all supremely confident and scared humble at the same time. None of us would hesitate to give up our titles to someone more qualified should that need or opportunity arrise.


I think it's appropriate to have a title on a business card or whatever that describes your role in a meaningful way. "Principal", "Founder", etc.

Corporate titles sound silly in small businesses -- I had my driveway sealed by the "President and CEO" of a driveway sealing business the other day.

People in contact with customers should have flexibility or use multiple titles. If you're trying to get an audience with a Managing Director or a Deputy Commissioner in government, shitty titles won't cut it. An "Account Manager" won't get past a secretary, but "VP of North American Sales" might. In other contexts, the dramatic title is a liability.


Whenever I see a prospective startup founder with no product and no customers calling themselves a 'CEO', it triggers a little warning sign in my brain that this person may be too self-important to work with.

There are definitely times when you need the title to make meetings happen, so it's not a sure-fire guarantee of arrogance. But it's still a warning sign.

At the last startup I founded, both myself and my co-founder agreed to skip titles until such time as they were required. When pressed, we were both just 'founders'.


I never understood the point of having a title. I find the government is especially interested in my title/occupation and I never know what I should be telling them.

Professionally, I am a farmer, a programmer, a designer, an administrator, and was even a baker for a short while; though, sadly, I gave it up as it was too time consuming on top of the rest. Not to mention all of the business stuff that goes along with doing those jobs, like management, sales, mechanic in the case of my farm, etc, etc.

Why are people so hung up on them? They are pretty meaningless.


Government is very hierarchical. Everyone basically makes the same amount of money, so status is the only differentiation between people.

I worked for a government agency for a long time. At one point of my career, bigshots at the director level would not acknowledge my presence in a room. Later, they were my best buddies, because I was high enough on the ladder to be a minor "player" to potentially influence one of their peers.


I have never actually worked for government directly, but I was referring more to things like passports, where they are very interested in what I do for a living.

I don't even know what I do for a living, I just work on what needs to be done or feels right at any given time. My job is to solve problems and create value for others, just like everyone else. You can't be more specific than that.


Because labels are useful for quickly making sense of random data. (Pun intended but incidental.)



Wyoming.


> And if your early guys ask what they should put on their resume, tell them put anything down.

If you are called about a former employee and can't answer the question "what was their title" with something more concrete than "meh, whatever", you will sound like a fraudulent reference. You're inadvertently screwing over your employees if you don't pick something reasonable and stick with it (modulo actual role changes or promotions due to growth).


This is worth considering, but it depends on who's calling, what industry you, they, and the candidate are in, etc.

If you answer the question "what was their title?" with "they mostly did X and Y, they were incredible", I doubt that's going to cost them the job (assuming they'd put something like X and Y on their resume). Or at least, I wouldn't want to work at any place where the Levenshtein distance between the title on my resume and the title quoted by my supervisor was a critical part of the hiring decision.

For example, Yahoo lets technical employees choose their own titles, with a default of "Technical Yahoo". My ex-coworkers who chose alternative titles don't seem to have been handicapped in their subsequent careers.


I wouldn't want to work at any place where the Levenshtein distance between the title on my resume and the title quoted by my supervisor was a critical part of the hiring decision.

Well, "critical" might not apply... maybe it's just an early filter by HR. This filtering out of people who lie on their resume will have a few false positives, but even the best filters are going to have a non-negligible false positive rate -- it's enough that they mostly work, as long as you're swamped with mediocre and inappropriate applicants.

With thousands of resumes coming in daily for a position (I'm guessing), some semi-automated winnowing must happen, and any test you devise will have some potentially awesome candidate crying foul (though such an awesome candidate is probably not in your pool of applicants today, or tomorrow).


What's wrong with honestly saying, "I worked for a small start up and we didn't have titles". Why do you have to pretend it was something it wasn't?


Do most hiring managers believe that? I'd be fine with it but I'm not the one looking at whether they want a career path that isn't going to fit at our company, just whether I think they're capable of the work.


This is why I call my references and remind them of what I want them to say.

"Hi X, as we discussed I used you for a reference for a Quality Assurance Developer role from our time together at FooCorp. I mentioned our debugging of the priority inversion problem in our server, writing the kernel module, and working with you to integrate scripting. Thanks!"


Another three letter word - EGO - combined with delusion will get you all kinds of fancy titles.

My rule of thumb is that a business of less than 7 people should have 1 "Manager" (not CEO, President, etc), and everyone else should be an employee (plus additional reasonable titles such as co-founder, etc). As the business grows and more people are brought onboard you can start handing out titles.

This might not work in every situation, but it's a good starting point.


In military lingo, it's called Span of Control. 3 reports is the minimum, 5 the ideal, 7 the max.


I know of a company that has all CEO, CTO, Cxx people, and no actual employees (they take themselves pretty seriously about this too).

It's really funny.


Its a foolish dispute ... but the new hire's insistence on the CTO title is a red flag to me as well.

I'd just create a Vice President of Technology position, and offer it to the co-founder ... if he doesn't go for it ... offer it to the new hire ... if he doesn't go for it ... I'd keep looking.


I don't see any issues with C-level executive titles as long as EGO doesn't come with it. I'd prefer Chief Nerd Wrangler myself but more often than not (at least in my case) it would only fair so well when mingling with certain styles of companies.

To each their own really, it'll operate differently in different contexts. In the context of the article I would say it would be fair that none of them have titles to begin with, including the new hire.

Forego them temporarily & operate in a bit more 'round table' style if feasible. If the titles are a burden and getting in front of the work to be done, it's not the work that is about to be thrown out the window :)


When I launched my (non-startup - services) business I called myself CEO. This had some nice side effects,for some reason people (reporters, researchers) would call me for advice. But it seemed lame to call myself the CEO of one-person company. We are now more then one but I've taken titles off our business cards, instead just letting our clients know our roles ie "Technical, Design etc".

While we are still small, less then 10 folks, we're going to keep it that way since we all wear many different hats at this point. We'll get titles eventually - but we'll also get more structure as we grow so we'll wait until we need it.


I'm not sure for all countries but I registered my company recently and the default title the registering process allocates is "Managing Director". Which seems exactly the correct term.

I doubt I'd bother changing my title unless I needed to have a division of responsibility. And for that to occur I would need a number of staff which would get confused exactly whom they should be talking to.

I think for most companies I have dealt with CEOs start to appear over 20 staff members which may be the level where communication issues start, and division of responsibility need to be clarified.

I know a few people who use CEO title in companies with 1-3 people, most of the time its a projection thing, more of a sales tactic than anything. For a few its an ego thing, but usually they don't last long in community groups as everyone gets sick listening to narcissistic comments and they isolate themselves.


Having come from the social gaming industry and attended many a conference, this is one of my pet peeves. I can't tell you how many two-man operations I encountered where each person had a CxO title. It is utterly ridiculous.


This is partly the reason I didn't take the CTO title when I joined a startup years ago. They gave me the flexibility to essentially pick my own title; I eventually settled on "Director, Software Development".

In addition to avoiding the friction, I had hired (and rejected) several "CEOs" for entry-level student tech-support jobs several years previous, and wanted to avoid the presumptions that went along with the title. I was young, and wanted to be taken seriously when I introduced myself. "CTO" of a company no one had heard of didn't communicate that.


Agreed! There is no CTO, no CEO, no nothing until things reach a certain level of funding and traction. You're just a team trying to build a product that is useful. And like Eric Ries says, you may miss the target the first time. You have to rapidly iterate until you hit the mark - then maybe you can give yourself C-level titles. I personally think they're too snobby though - how about just 'Partner.'


Heh. I once worked in sales / technical support / geekery for a smallish computer/networking var. Since I was the only sales person other than the owner I was given my choice of titles. I chose "Vice President of Intergalactic Sales and Extra-Terrestrial Support". It barely fit on the business card.

It did win us some occasional business though.


A colleague once had his official title be "Keeper of the Magic." This was in a fairly large company to.


I used to enjoy the title "Hacker" at my previous job.

Was sad to leave it.


This is a symptom of a larger problem at many early-stage startups: that of merging your personal identity with your purported "company," "board of directors," etc. rather than running a market experiment as quickly and efficiently as possible.


I agree having a flat organization over a hierarchy should work better for start-up. Dropping the C titles is only opening a door for problems between co-founders and early employees.


My preference is to use the title "Founder". It explains who you are within the company, and what kinds of decisions you are able to make.


Thanks. I never knew what to tell people when they asked me my title. Now I can just say early employee.


No ego's, company first.




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