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You're not the CEO - You're the Fucking Janitor (zachbruhnke.com)
371 points by zbruhnke 1734 days ago | hide | past | web | 132 comments | favorite

Seems appropriate to quote an old HN comment (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3905794):

"After the first night of the 2008 SciFoo conference at Google, @gnat Torkington's twitter stream contained a gem: 'At SciFoo opening session. 300 people standing around networking. Meanwhile, Larry Page is quietly unpacking chairs at the back of the room.' (from memory, not exact)"

The CEO (or any leader)'s job is to make sure that whatever needs to be done, gets done. Sometimes, that means unpacking the chairs.

Another similar story that went around HN a year ago: http://thesash.me/wash-the-dishes-when-nobody-else-will and http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2193330

The meat of the post (very similar to this article actually):

  One day, I walked by the kitchen and saw Cary washing the 
  dishes. “Huh” I thought, “The CEO is pitching in. Cool.” 
  I figured it must have been his turn or something, and 
  sort of forgot about it.

  A week or so passed, and then it happened again. The 
  kitchen became a ginormous mess, and then one day, 
  there’s Cary, washing dishes. Then it happened again, and 
  again. Each time, he’d look up, and nod, then go back to 
  scrubbing dishes. One day, I walked by the kitchen and 
  noticed it was a huge mess. So I washed the dishes.

  Being the CEO of the company isn’t about power, 
  authority, or glamour, it’s about washing the dishes when 
  nobody else will.

  Be the CEO of the company. Take responsibility for things 
  that other people ignore. That’s the definition of 
  leadership, and if you make a habit of it, pretty soon 
  you'll be inspiring the people around you to do the same.

I'll share a story an interaction with a company that I worked heavily with while we were launching (this is a startup in a fairly niche, non-technical space. A smallish company with around 200 employees):

The "CEO": This guy had a large stake in the company. It was his baby, and while the "CEO" title (which I think gets way over applied) fits him, his official title is "managing partner". While we were in the process of build->launch, he was heavily involved in literally every single department. Not in a micro-managing way, in an "this needs to be done and here, I am going to help" way.

It would absolutely not have seemed strange to me, or anybody else, to see him out on a scissor lift with a hammer drill and some cables mounting something to the wall, if that's what was needed. When we did launch, some things went...wrong.

The night before we opened, he, as well as some of his friends, not even people employed by us, spent until almost-down doing "grunt" work. Dirty, tedious work moving huge heavy things around, and walking all over the place to get them.

That night he slept here (so did I)

The months leading up until that launch, and the months following it, he was here until well after dark because a lot of the people who had been hired were "green", and had no idea how to do their job yet. We were all figuring it out as we went.

The culture here at that time was addictive (and I wish we could get that feeling back of "making it up as we go". We've got everything pretty well dialed now). People throw the cliche of "we were a family" around pretty liberally, and I'm going to throw it around too.

We were a family.

We ate together, we drank together, and the "core" group always left together, meaning that nobody left until everybody's work was done. (including the managing partner, who absolutely didn't need to be, and was the one setting the example).

This has been an absolutely amazing company to work for. The culture here was, or is amazing.

The sad bit is that a lot of the culture that I fell in love with has faded. Yes, we're growing (rapidly! Awesome!), but we've more-or-less all hit our grooves. I know what I'm doing, the "CEO" does to, and there aren't really any scissors lifts or hammer drills left.


I guess I'll end the story with a question: how do I/we get back to that?

    I guess I'll end the story with a question: 
    how do I/we get back to that?
Should you tho? Sure it's a high and fun in a way, but can you really expect people to spend the night sleeping at the office on a regular basis and basically making their workplace their family?

What about people who have their own family (kids, spouse)? Would you still want to do this (I presume that also means working very long hours) in your 50s and 60s? Would you want to make everyone working there do it?

There are virtues to startup life but I'd get tired living it my entire career.

how do I/we get back to that?

If I am reading this correctly, you currently have around 200 employees and presumably started with less than that. If that is correct, break it up into two separate groups smaller than 150. Any time any part of the company grows beyond about 150 people, repeat. (Read "The tipping point" for longish explanation why. Short version: The typical human brain is designed for a "tribe" size of about 150.)

It's called the Dunbar number, and it varies:


Thank you. That is why I said things like typical human brain and about 150.

As I understand it, Napoleon inspired such loyalty in spite of how he treated his people because he could greet everyone by name and ask how their wife Elaine was doing, etc. It made everyone feel he caredabout them personally. I had similar talents when I was younger but never really knew what to do with it as I was a homemaker, but I am familiar firsthand with the types of emotional responses it inspires from people.

My grandfather co-founded an engineering company. One of the things he had to do was sales. His trick was that the first time he visited the company, he'd ask to get a company directory. The second time, he'd review that directory (which in those days typically had pictures), and when he walked in he'd greet everyone by name.

He was a very effective salesman.

(BTW the company still exists, http://cmtengr.com/ is their website. My grandfather was Ray Tilly.)

I was talking to a friend of mine a bit ago; I was saying that I wanted some sort of wearable computer rig to do facial recognition for me; I thought that was one of the things holding me back as a bizdev guy. I'm bad with both faces and names.

My friend told me that he could remember faces well, but that more often than not it contributed to awkwardness when he could remember the other person's name, but the other person couldn't remember his.

My friend told me that he could remember faces well, but that more often than not it contributed to awkwardness when he could remember the other person's name, but the other person couldn't remember his.

I have been told that, in a sales context, this actually helps. It fires off some sort of feeling that you need to make up for the social faux pas.

(I am truly awful at remembering faces and names - so have never had the opportunity to find out myself :-)

Years ago I went on a course that covered all kinds of things related to dealing with people and this issue was one of them.

The awkwardness is easily removed simply by greeting someone by their name and repeating yours without giving them a chance to 'not remember'.

"Greg! Hi! Mike. How's Sarah? Did you find your dog in the end?"

My oldest son and ex husband are both really terrible with faces. I have gotten pretty bad at faces in recent years, but the evidence is that as my health issues resolve, some of my lost abilities are returning. I feel really weirded out when people talk to me like they clearly know who I am but I don't recall having seen them before. I try to not let it show and I try to interact in manner which honors their apparent assumption that we are acquainted. I also just tell people I have a medical condition/crappy eyesight/am terrible with names and faces, etc. I ask "What was your name again?" People seem to appreciate that I am interested and don't seem to hold it against me that I am handicapped.

My ex was career military. He relied on nametags. My son has done some reading on faceblindness. Faceblind people often identify people by voice or some other trait instead of by face. Sometimes it goes largely unnoticed because they find another means to recognize most people reasonably quickly.

I dono. The times I've played along were always really awkward. It's usually easier if I say something like "who the hell are you?" (I mean, in a joking way; and with a "I'm horrible at faces" and story about how I was calling the new guy at one of my jobs "David" for 6 months before someone else pulled me aside and told me he was really "dennis" - see, our email standard was first initial lastname, and I remembered people by email aliases. I then mention my desire for some kind of wearable facial recognition rig.) I mean, I cultivate something of a coarse image, and I think I can usually pull that off in a friendly and self-deprecating kinda way.

In general, the sooner I get it out there, the better off the conversation goes. The worst is when I get their name and I still don't remember context. I mean, an ordinary wearable rig with a twiddler and an email lookup would take care of that.

I am in a different social setting than you and I seem to have a different skill set. It wasn't exactly intended as advice. I am not fond of advice.

For me, getting to be on the other side of the equation has been a growth experience. People with the kind of innate abilities I had frequently become what I view as con artists and master manipulators. I think they don't necessarily intend for it to be that way. They just don't necessarily understand what it is like to be at the disadvantage. I hope more of my innate abilities return. But I cherish the lessons learned from walking a mile in their shoes. It has made me a better person.

Peace and best of luck.

It's why cities are stressful for the brain, I think. 99% of people we interact with are strangers, and we put up our social guard everywhere we go. Giving us a feeling of alienation, and increasing our fight/flight response.

I generally agree with you, and did upvote you, but I am currently in the largest city I have ever lived in and not really experiencing it that way. I suppose I need to think more about why that is, but I think part of it is that the gaslamp district was designed on a walkable human scale before the auto era. I am not a fan of cars and I find the modern American auto-centric lifestyle and urban design really stressful. Plus, I run into lots of people I know daily, in part because I walk everywhere. I actually feel less isolated here than in the last place I lived, though I had relatives nearby, grew up there, it is a smaller city, etc.

There is an effect, at least from my perspective, regarding size of cities. It really struck me during a vacation in Sydney. From a certain size on big, read huge, cities tend to break down to almost a cluster of "village communities". within these, you start to know each other. compared to munich for example, there were much more smaller stores and coffee shops right in the center of sydney then in some quarters of munich or any other random german city I know.

In between small and huge you get this ackward feeling anonoumity which stresses you, you get shopping malls out of town, something impossible in Manhatten for example since driving hours to do grocery shopping is just inconvinient. And all that is, I think, not natural to us humans. where this limit between big but not big enough lies, i don't know, maybe it depends on culture... but that's something I tend to see all the time i spend time real big cities. But maybe it's just me.

I am currently in San Diego and really really liking it. I am homeless and can't imagine affording a home here. But I love the weather, the walkability of the gaslamp district and just a whole lot of things. I have never lived in a large city before and disliked most of the ones I have been in. I have toyed with the idea of doing a kickstarter project related to the city (and county?) of San Diego.

I have looked around and asked around a smidgeon for online resources related to San Diego. I am getting the impression there isn't all that much, at least not anything really good. I wondered if people would be interested in having something better. I am still toying with the idea. At one time, I wanted to go into urban planning or something related. Urban planners tend to be career bureaucrats, many working for government. That is not my comfort zone. Before life interrupted my career plans, I was increasingly wondering what that "something related" part might be. I am wondering if I might be in the process of stumbling into it currently.

This is very true, if the city is built and cultivated on the proper scale.

There's a long video on Prarie Home Companion (on YouTube or Hulu), following Garrison Keillor around as he does the show, and at home in both Minnesota and Manhattan. As he's going through New York, he observes, as you've noted, that it's really a collection of villages.

I've had very similar experiences myself.

Richard Bransons Virgin group does this, although their groups are smaller. Around 20 people if I remember correctly.

Iirc, according to "The Tipping Point", the company that makes kevlar does exactly what I suggested. Their method: They build a building and put 150 parking spaces out front. When people start parking on the grass, time to build a new building.

Very car centered.

Funny, I had not thought of that (funny since I live without a car). Just repeating what I recalled from the book, not reccommending it as a method. :-)

Reminds me of "Beyond Civilization" by Daniel Quinn. In the end, most of us just want to join the circus.

We want to be a part of something special, where everyone is working towards a common goal. We join the circus to be a part of something, not to get something from it.

What's the modern day version of a circus (the old-fashioned type, not the commercialized circus)?

Thank you. That's exactly it, from my PoV.

larry is a billionaire, his sense of things is different than ours, money is not an issue anymore for him, or at least not the same type of issue

it really piss me off, when we ask an employee who is being paid peanuts to show the same dedication to his work place as the ceo or the owner, and claim this is the ethical thing to do

Right but the post is about ceo's and their behavior. You're veering into a completely different tangent.

Not saying what your saying isn't true, but you might have misunderstood the message, nobody mentioned employees or how they should behave.

Now imagine that Larry pays this employee a billion to unpack chairs or wash dishes. Would employee take? Definitely. Would he be doing this all the time from now on? I don't know.

I get very upset when junior employees try to keep me from doing the 'dirty work' I'm preparing to do or already doing.

I'm not sure where this whole nonsense of "people who lead can't get dirty or do menial work" comes from. If I had something more important to do for sure I would have delegated, but seeing that I didn't, ask why is this particular thing important or, at most, offer help. Don't tell me I shouldn't be doing this!

Context: I lead a team of 4. And by 'dirty work' I mean plugging up servers, doing maintenance on them, physical networking stuff, cleaning up debris after an installation, etc.

Is it possible that your team wants to demonstrate some level of ownership? Maybe prove to you that they have what it takes?

I don't do things because my boss is a vp and is above the work. I do things because I fully own my job and gobble up as much responsibility as I can get.

Are you any good at it? Maybe they don't want you to do it for a reason :)

Yes, don't forget that they may be afraid of telling you you're not helping.

That's not the case, I'm sure.

That's a really cool story. He saw something needed to be done, so he did it. That's the kind of person I want to work with.

"In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself; you will see it, perhaps, often in this history; for, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility." Benjamin Franklin (emphasis mine, and added only semi-seriously: how do I discuss the humility I take pride in?).

[From a senior devil, instructing a junior in the temptation of a human:]

"Your patient has become humble; have you drawn his attention to the fact? All virtues are less formidable to us once the man is aware that he has them, but this is specially true of humility. Catch him at the moment when he is really poor in spirit and smuggle into his mind the gratifying reflection, 'By jove! I'm being humble', and almost immediately pride--pride at his own humility--will appear. If he awakes to the danger and tries to smother this new form of pride, make him proud of his attempt-- and so on, through as many stages as you please. But don't try this too long, for fear you awake his sense of humour and proportion in which case he will merely laugh at you and go to bed."

"Screwtape Letters", C.S. Lewis

Reminds me of the end of The Devil's Advocate, conveniently available on Youtube:


Pride is not the opposite of humility, arrogance is. Otherwise they would not be calling it "gay pride".

Pride is actually a good thing in many situations. It's good when father is proud of his children and almost always when someone has pride of someone else. It's good when employee takes pride in his/her work, as it's kind of proof of motivation. Could Olympic athlete enjoy victory fully without feeling little proud? I bet it's then mostly "I did it!" not "others suck!".

I think there is a basic feeling that can surface as pride or arrogance. Pride is the positive side of this. Usually no feeling is bad, it's what you make of it that can be bad.

Humility isn't thinking poorly of yourself, humility is not thinking of yourself at all.

The exact quote from "Mere Christianity":

"Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody.

Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him.

If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all."

This particular quote of Lewis'(in face the entire chapter on Pride from this book) has always stuck with me. I am always amazed on how right Lewis can be on things regarding human nature. When I first read this passage I immediately realized that I had met such people. And I had liked them a lot and enjoyed their presence and conversation greatly. I never understood why I found spending time with them so uplifting until I read this, and then I got it.

Yes. More from Mr. Lewis:

". . . . a man is not usually called upon to have an opinion of his own talents at all, since he can very well go on improving them to the best of his ability without deciding his own precise niche in the temple of Fame."

Until or she has to write a C.V. It's the worst thing in the world. I hate it. "I achieved the following..." well yeah, but with quite a bit of help from the people around me.

...what's wrong with pride? In the context of this post, you could certainly be proud that you do whatever it takes to make your company successful.

It's important to remember that the CEO/founder role is where the buck stops. You're ultimately responsible for every mistake and fixing it. He's right that it's not glamorous. I think that if you're a sole founder you figure this out pretty quickly though. And as a rule of thumb: Always ignore Silicon Valley hype.

By the way: writing words in ALL CAPS, italicizing lots of things, and saying 'fucking' a lot made it painful to read that blog entry.

Thanks for the feedback.

I typically italicize and bold things in an effort to break up the black/white monotony of my site but I'll keep the advice in mind and maybe go back and make some edits.

As for the 'fucking' I agree, it was actually pretty hard to write too. I grew up in a middle class family in the South most of whom would be appalled by the way this post was written(the language) but I thought it put some fire to the post, and the title as well.

My reaction to your use of "fucking" wasn't that it appalled me in some moralistic or linguistic sense. Rather, I felt like it (partially) undermined the point of your post.

The post is about how being CEO isn't all glamor, and includes doing dirty work as well. And you make clear that you feel the janitor, unlike a figurehead who merely signs documents, contributes something useful and necessary to the enterprise.

Unfortunately, denigrating the janitor by tagging the role as "fucking" just buys into the CEO-as-glamorous-leader mindset that the post argues against. It transforms the title from a correction ("You think you are the CEO, but in reality you are in charge of the dirty work") into a put-down ("You think you are the CEO, but in reality you are the lowest of the low.")

Yes, it sounds stronger-- but, in my mind, it shades your meaning in ways you probably don't intend.

The fuck.

What is up with this opinion? Fuck means sex. Why do we call these words obscene? Do you honestly think those words entered daily use? "Grab the fucking milk" said without any emotional meaning. People would actually reason more.

It's a prohibition on words, that makes them mean more artificially while contributing no logic to the discussion.

How dare ye try to elate an emotion in me! How dare ye!

Edit:I'm an idiot and wrote an argument to something you didn't say, but I'll leave it here cause it took me 5 minutes to write on the phone keyboard.

> Edit:I'm an idiot and wrote an argument to something you didn't say, but I'll leave it here cause it took me 5 minutes to write on the phone keyboard.


EDIT: In other words, it's even more idiotic to leave it here after you've determined it was a mu post.

Hey I'm happy to live in a world of honest assholes.

Yeah, its the dishonest ones that fuck it up for everyone else.

Don't change it. People on here have weak stomachs. I like a bit of strong writing once in a while, especially after having to sift through all the "I'm a CEO too lol" garbage that makes it to the front page. It's not out of place here.

I completely share your view on this one. I'm not a CEO (CTO, heh) but leaders do what it takes. While ego can have its place in business, being the CEO of a shitty little startup is nothing to brag about. Once you're making millions a year in profit, then I think you're allowed to let it get to your head (although the best ones don't).

I think the best leaders in the world recognize that being a leader is just another job. It doesn't make you better than anybody else, and it's not an excuse to look down on people, whether they're willing to learn from you or not.

The 'fucking' in the title is most of the reason I read and upvoted it.* It's a reality check, such things are never polite. And I got tired of seeing the "I'm CEO, Bitch." style posts just as much as you did.

*(In this context of course. Swearing in the title isn't enough to get me to click; but that message sure as heck is.)

Wouldn't worry about the F-bombs, but IMO italics, bold, and the like should be used quite sparingly, and typically only italics should be used for emphasis purposes (there's a reason the <em> tag typically renders as italics). I think typography should be visually monotonous so that it's not distracting.

I actually appreciate the breaking up of monotony with italics/bold when done well. You didn't do it poorly, but it could probably be toned down a bit.

I wasn't sure why the 'F' was capitalized, that choice made both occurrences very odd with or without the bold/italic artistic license. I would assume someone with the title of 'Fucking Janitor' would be in a very different line of work than what tends to be talked about on HN.

I also though the Fucking Janitor was some kind of special job, like a personal coach, a do-not-fuck-in-the-peeroom guard or shit. You know, because of the cap letter. But it's just another case of cussing, how disappointing.

You should certainly increase font size though, that might make the italic/bold thing less necessary

I don't mind seeing The F Word from time to time in blog posts. It just expresses the frustration. It adds some kind of personal touch. Adds some... Naturalism? Obviously, using 'fuck' in every post (or especially post title) would not be appropriate or if you are some kind of role model/super-star who's posts are quoted in the press and etc. Oh well maybe the fact that English is not my native language changes something.

So can we start a discussion on the use of those "no, no" type things. Is there any time they are worth using? (By the way, i really liked the title, I think this idea applies a lot of places outside of just CEOs)

It's not so much that I disagree with it, as I just get tired of seeing it brought up every single time a blog post has a swear word in it.

Seriously, does anyone take anyone seriously who calls themselves CEO, CTO or CFO of a 5 man company? How about owner or founder. Maybe it's a cultural thing but here in the UK we'd definitely laugh at someone calling themselves that unless it was a company of a considerable size.

There was a similar phenomenon some years back when Linux (and other systems which could run on ordinary computers) started getting big. People thought running their own machine and/or having root was a big deal.

They had to be reminded that "you aren't really a sysadmin until you have some users". It seems the same would apply here.

I don't understand this phenomenon either. The 5-man company of all C-level executives. Or the software shop with only "Senior" developers. I suspect it might be peacocking in an attempt to make the company appear bigger than it really is, or to have structure in place when the company grows (see: premature optimization). In the case of the "senior developers", I imagine it might be to instill a kind of trust with the company's clients that their business is being handled by 'senior' employees. Either way, I think it's silly.

My boss (at a 3 person company) calls himself the president. I laugh at him for it, but ultimately I can't really criticize. Solo founder is a hard job, and if you're doing it why shouldnt you be able to call yourself whatever the hell you want? It's not like there are a whole lot of other perks, and what's the harm?

The harm is it often comes with a bad attitude, whether on purpose or not.

It's merely a difference in titles -- in the UK it's often 'managing director' or some variant. Here in North America, it's CEO. Size is irrelevant: it just so happens that is the title on my shares, thus I adhere to it.

I go by 'Chief Nerd Wrangler' nonetheless, as it's more appropriate of a job description. It still doesn't make it any less of a janitorial position.

I think it's more about the way you say/use it rather than the name you use. All those sayings would be equally (more or less) stupid/annoying if you replace C by (co-)founder.

> I want you to think about this, how many interns get to go sit down and talk to the FOUNDER of a company about its inter-workings every day? it just does not make sense”

I was thinking of having business cards printed up that said "CEO/CTO/CJO". When anyone asked me what the "J" stood for, I would of course answer "Janitorial".

Or how about just CE... Chief Employee.

Yes, some people do, which is why as the owner / founder / 'CXO' you should use whatever title's best for the situation you happen to be in at that moment.

A friend of mine is a multi-millionaire from running her own chain of nail salons. She is always going from store to store, checking on each store and if the store is busy, she'll be the first one taking the used foot water used for pedicures, sweeping, etc, doing whatever it takes to make sure the nail salonists can do their job, and also so that the customer is happy.

She deserves every penny of her wealth.

I heard an anecdote a while back. One day, the employees of a small company arrive at work to discover that someone has taken a shit on the floor. Who's going to clean it? The owner of course. He didn't hire anyone whose job is to clean shit up, he can't reasonably expect any of them to do it, so he has to do it.

At the last small company I worked for, I came in one morning to find the CFO plunging the toilet and mopping the floor where it had overflowed. I laughed and made some comment about dedication to the company, he laughed and said well we don't have a cleaning staff so someone's gotta do it.

My dad owns a janitorial company of about 15 employees who service one local area of commercial offices. The janitorial service of the warehouse is paid separately to the employee who handles it. I always thought this was funny, but I appreciate the fairness.

Great comment. Funny and true. A CEO's job is also to clean up the metaphorical shit that gets dumped: I had one of those days today. Someone's got to do it.

If you can make a definite judgement of someone based on their job title alone ('Intern'), you're already lost.

Could not agree more Max

This is also a famous quote from Steve Jobs[1]:

Steve Jobs: (what the CEO does) I don't know. Head janitor?

[1] http://hot-facts.blogspot.com/2011/10/facts-about-steve-jobs...

Actually, Steve Jobs' most famous janitor analogy takes it in completely the opposite direction - CEOs aren't like janitors, he says, because janitors are allowed to have excuses when things fail, and CEOs aren't.


I work with a small pharmacy that only has 5-6 employees. Every time I go there to meet with the owner hes on his hands and knees vacuuming or cleaning something. The last time I saw him there he was calking a chair back together. His exact words were, "Back to basics."

In the UK we tend not to use CEO, we tend to use the term director or managing director.

In my day job I'm the technical director at Mandalorian. It's a cool job, but I'm generally pretty overloaded and usually underpaid. I don't do it for the cash or free time, that's for sure, but I do love making a difference for our customers. In a strange way I took this approach to 44Con. Everything I do at 44Con is about making sure the delegates have a good time and learn something. If we need to put leaflets on seats, I'm out there. If a delegate has a problem, I want to know so I can fix it.

A large part of startup success seems to be sales, but we shouldn't undersell the delivery and relationship aspects. If your customer is struggling to deal with you, then you're doing it wrong. If your customer has problems that you just can't fix, you're doing it wrong.

I'll be the first to admit I've failed on both parts on occasion, sometimes simultaneously, but it's our ability to learn from these things that sets the smaller guys apart from the bigger.

I'm the equivalent of a CEO at Mandalorian, but I'll proudly clean toilets if it makes for a better experience.

There was a startup I did some work for a few years back.

The CEO attempted to remove himself from the washing up rota in the kitchen when a new employee came on board.

At this point I knew the company was doomed :-)

My Wife owns a cafe underneath some flats.

Occassionally the flat sewerage backs up and effluent pours into the cafe basement.

My Wife as the owner is the one there ungumming the pipes until a plumber can be hailed.

"You're not the CEO - You're the Janitor" Would have been a perfectly fitting title. The use of the metaphor 'Janitor' was enough. Honestly does the profanity really add to the impact of the message?

In the UK we tend not to use CEO, we tend to use the term director or managing director.

In my day job I'm the technical director at Mandalorian. It's a cool job, but I'm generally pretty overloaded and usually underpaid. I don't do it for the cash or free time that's for sure, but I do love making a difference for our customers. In a strange way I took this approach to my other thing, 44Con. Everything I do at 44Con is about making sure the delegates have a good time and learn something. If we need to put leaflets on seats, I'm out there. If a delegate has a problem, I want to know so I can fix it.

A large part of startup success seems to be sales, but we shouldn't undersell the delivery and relationship aspects. If your customer is struggling to deal with you, then you're doing it wrong. If your customer has problems that you just can't fix, you're doing it wrong. If you're sat in an ivory tower and refuse to get out and fix it when these things happen then you're doing it wrong.

I'll be the first to admit I've failed on all parts on occasion, sometimes simultaneously, but it's our ability to learn from these things that sets the smaller guys apart from the bigger ones. Startups can make small mistakes, the established companies make far bigger ones without noticing.

I'm the equivalent of a CEO at Mandalorian, but I'll proudly clean toilets if it makes for a better experience for our customers. Hoops? I live to jump through them, and I expect that from everyone I work with.

My company went through TechStars this Spring and on Friday closed a respectable seed round. On Sunday I was scrubbing the floor in our office.

Being a startup CEO is glamorous only in the movies or in overly hyped bits and pieces. It doesn't completely suck, it's awesome at times and on average is more interesting than anything else I've done. But worthy of sharing intimate details as if I'm some amazingly interesting creature to be worshiped and followed? Please.

Customers make a successful company, not CEOs.

Good post Zach. In fact, even though the CEO is company leader and the vision, if you got a startup of five I'd say everybody's the janitor! Titles mean very little in the early days when you're trying to launch a product. Everybody needs to be marketing, sales, product development, finance and legal - and of course the janitor crew. btw, good content outweighs format any day...

Enough with the articles with curse words in the title. Grow up, little boys.

I find it ironic that you have a problem with curse words as they represent immaturity, but you're fine with throwing demeaning insults at people.

No irony in called a spade a spade. In my opinion, it the sign of a weak mind to need to use profanity to express strong emotion, of trying to 'write with fire' but failing utterly. A great writer never will need to resort to that so frequently, and then, when used super rarely, it is powerful. Used a lot, just meh -- and weak. Like an unrefined learner, a boy.

Only a child responds strongly to the world fuck. Most teenagers go through a phase of using it every third word. But, most adults I know only revert to peppering there language with it when they feel a type of mild annoyance. Normal speech and strong emotions evoke their own unique responses, but dealing with self absorbed idiots for to long and you think they might have Tourette syndrome while they unwind.

Not all of us are prudish Americans.

Fuck is a useful word.

I've made a policy of routinely downvoting anyone who complains about those naughty naughty swears, and I hope others will too. Enjoy!

I almost completely agree with this post.

However, if you spend a huge chunk of your time as a CEO (or founder/owner/whatever) performing a single task (or multiple rudimentary tasks) that could be performed better and more efficiently by a hired employee instead of using your experience to grow and propel the company, then you're doing something wrong.

This article reminds me a bit of 'the parable of the silver bowls:' http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VjzqO6UOPFQ -- regardless of the size of the organization, its leaders are the ones who must deal with the stuff no one else can or wants to tackle.

Working in a cubicle isn't glamorous either.

At my last job I took out the trash when it needed to be taken out and I was a software engineer, that's just common courtesy.

Being a CEO would be an upgrade for me in every way no matter how many articles swear that it's the worst thing in the world.

The problem doesn't just exist with small companies and startups. I've worked with C-level people from established companies who are no more self-aware; they feel the job title makes them important rather than responsible. They feel the job title means they work less rather than work more. In both cases the latter is true.

I'd take someone seriously as a CEO if they behaved like one and that includes involving your colleagues in what you do, be they the board of a fortune 500 company or a few interns for a bootstrapping startup. The arrogance that you are the only person who has good ideas is what kills companies and that goes double for startups of any ilk.

I just saw this at my job last week - literally.

Walked into the bathroom and the CEO was in action with a mop in his hand. He looked up and said "Oh hey I'll be out of the way in a few seconds, sometimes the toilet in here leaks."

This really struck a chord with me. My Job title on my public facebook page has been CEO/Janitor for about a year now. It started off as a joke, but eventually I came to realize the truth behind it.

I love this post. We romanticize startups too much and I've seen too many people drunk on cheap venture capital and a C-level title on their business card.

Some of it is inevitable because if we saw what being a CEO really is then less people would try it. Being a CEO is always hands on. You can't just manage from behind with a small team. Dave McClure recently said something like, "if you're the CEO and can't code, market, sell, or design then fire yourself now or we will."

What's wrong with being a janitor?

Nothing at all. That's something I think I did not portray clearly enough in this post. There is nothing wrong with being a janitor. Someone has to do it, the point was really to display that you have to do anything and everything necessary to make your company successful. Titles are bullshit and egos should be checked at the door.

In that case it would be nice if people would stop bashing janitors.

Who is bashing janitors?

I think it's more that people don't aspire to be janitors.

Nothing, that's the point. Did you read the article?

I did. The comparison seems to imply that being a CEO is not all that it's made out to be. It's like being the fucking janitor. Which is why I ask what is wrong with being a janitor.

That's not what I got from the article. I think it says that titles are bullshit, and that you do what has to be done to make a company succeed.

In my opinion CEO title should almost never be applied in a startup environment. It just shows how small you really are when you talk to people. I remember was working for one startup where we had CEO, CTO and me. How ridiculous it was before I came when the company consisted of exactly 2 people - CEO and CTO?

With all due respect, when you submit your own blog post to HN, you could at least have the courtesy to take 5 minutes to proofread it. And when you don't, it comes across as unprofessional and undermines any ethos you may have had, and I am very unlikely to read past the second paragraph.

Really great post. The only thing I was expecting that wasn't there was something about having to be the janitor when it came to cleaning up other messes, like having to let people go, and then having to keep yourself from getting jaded and not taking firing someone seriously enough later.

Your point would be more clear if the article wasn't troubled with spelling and grammatical errors. Just like a programming language, English has a syntactical and grammatical form for a reason: it makes it less likely to be interpreted incorrectly.

Not a fan of the title.The post doesn't even go on to argue that "you're" not the CEO, just that "you're" ALSO the janitor. So "You're the CEO - but You're Also the Fucking Janitor" would be more accurate.

OP here: Sorry about that, really what the post was meant to say is that if you think of yourself as the CEO there is already a problem, but if you think of yourself as the Janitor you're probably in the right mindset for success.

Did not really expect the post to trend up HN so fast, but thanks for reading and for the feedback!

Nitpicking. The loss of punch with the more accurate title would not be worth the hat-tip to pedantry.

When you finished being the janitor, you could be the web developer for a moment and fix the navigation which floats above the text of the article on my Android phone when zoomed in via double tap.

Second that. Was pretty annoying during my commute.

Starting off with a strawman is a good way to write a bad blog post.

I was impressed a while ago when a CEO actually named himself the "janitor" Check out:


Scroll to the bottom

when I started my company (telecom supplier). I was the CEO (company of 5 at that time). I was also the sales guy, and very often the technician who was installing what was sold.

If you really want to succeed you really need to do anything, once your company grows, you will have other people doing those tasks for you. Not because it is not good for you to do them, simply because you will have no time anymore.

As an engineer, I still miss installing what we sell now a days.

Great post, fun read. It's great to have a team where everyone contributes even if it includes cleaning up the office space and throwing out the trash.

:( another Wordpress site not ready for prime time. :(

Ichiro Lambe of Dejobaan Games actually goes by the title "CEO & Janitor", which I've always liked a lot.

all this talk about pride is hilarious. if you're the CEO of a startup or small company, you're not working for a paycheck - you're working for a payout of millions of dollars.

I'll do the dishes if it leads indirectly to a $1.2bn exit. I'd do them twice.

I completely agree which is why I always refer to myself as the monkey and not the CEO.

Anybody else think this guy seriously needs to pipe down? He sounds like 37signals minus the success. Every pleb thinks they can do a better job than the king. Nero thought that too...

Did not realize we were comparing successes. But just for your information I am 25. I had a seven figure exit before I could legally buy beer. I am a ycombinator alumni and I am building another startup right now that I hope will have it's own unique impact.

So maybe I'm not DHH but I am certainly not just some guy with a big mouth and no track record

We weren't. I also didn't think we were parading our medals though clearly I was wrong in that regard. Is it janitors I'm thinking of that arrogantly brag about successes? After all, you seem to be the expert on them ;) I have no desire to take shots at you, so please don't make it so goddamn easy.

37Signals is just a metaphor for any established company. Since you clearly know of them, you also know they take a lot of shit for claims they make. The only reason I would so much as give them a second thought is because of their track record, which, as you noted, isn't yours. In retrospect DHH is far from the idealistic person to ask this which by pure luck, supports my argument even better. Don't take it personally as some sort of attack: I'm just making the observation that there are people who fly around in jets and you are not one of them. Quite simply, this means your really not in the position to make assertations about them.

You're giving marriage advice without ever being married. Any ideal is meaningless until it is thoroughly tested. Your post seems as childish as when people claim: "I will never steal". I call bullshit. Morality is nice and all but until you hold it up when you're fucking starving and have reason to steal, everything you said before is just words on a page.

Empathy points for the average janitor: zero.

Is it possible to brag about humility?

At my previous company (where I stayed for 7 years), I remember seeing our CTO doing the dishes in the kitchen/break room once. This wasn't just in the first year, but about 5 years in. It didn't surprise me, it was more of a confirmation of what I already knew about him. The company is pretty successful today.

That was a great read and thank you! BTW - I recently made some new biz cards and switched "owner" to "CEO" (because I had my QR code printed on them :) and I still clean toilets and whack weeds...

I think it is all in the mindset. I've met CEO's that think they can walk on water "Oh, Calgon - take it away..." And I've met CEO's who actually still do the grunt work. I prefer the latter because you should never forget where you began...

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