Personally, I had two pairs of business cards during the first couple of years running the business. One of them had “Founder” engraved and the other one said “WordPress Architect” (since this was what I was doing on a day-to-day for the most part).
I was handing the latter to businesses in my field looking for a specific type of expertise. The first one was for everyone else – partners, potential employees, general contacts that were not leads, etc.
I’ve switched to CEO somewhere around our 10th employee. My responsibilities naturally evolved into a CEO role – spending the majority of the time refining the pillars of our business, the brand direction, and the growth hierarchy. I was still getting my hands dirty but my right hand was dealing with most of the tech-heavy lifting.
There’s another important aspect of postponing the CEO label for me. As a founder, you are involved in various activities around your business – including marketing, sales, finances, legal, pitching – you name it. But since you’re selling a product or a service, you still spend plenty of time doing what you love.
Working on your product or hacking solutions for your clients.
A CEO of a growing organization has tons of responsibilities unrelated to the actual implementation of your product or a service. A CEO of a large team wouldn’t actively package boxes for shipping, write code, design levels for games – or whatever the core business solution is.
The CEO’s Goals
They need to:
- Work on the long-term strategy.
- Implement the organization’s vision.
- Motivate and inspire the staff.
- Talk to shareholders.
- Build strategic partnerships.
- Participate in PR campaigns.
- Work closely with the board of directors.
- Oversee the high-end operations through the rest of the C-suite and the upper management.
- Build and grow the management team being their most trusted advisors in different departments.
- Make financial and growth decisions along with the CFO of the organization.
Let’s say you’re a passionate developer who managed to build a small team of developers and designers. You soon realize that you need a couple of project managers. You can handle all leads yourself and appoint one of your best folks with soft-skills as a sales director (or hire a suitable salesman with relevant experience).
Scaling a Company
Soon, your organization employs 30–50 people and you realize that you haven’t done any development yourself in months.
But you love the craft and truly enjoy being hands-on.
Essentially, your options are:
- sticking to the self-appointed CEO role,
- promoting some of your best hires who can take over the high-end strategy.
- or bring an external CEO to your team.
As a founder, you still carry a lot of power to your organization. But someone who truly excels in growing teams, inspiring your team members, and managing capital can build a better working environment that lets you work along with your technical team and do what you love.
I know several successful founders who have promoted some of their best employees as CEOs or appointed an external person. Two of them went public and keep growing steadily. The founders took a leadership role in their corresponding departments and spend less time overseeing operations and dealing with bureaucracy.
Stepping down as a CEO doesn’t mean losing all control of an organization. The question is whether you would rather spend all of your time on strategic vision, managing capital, and defining various processes for your organization – or rather doing what you love and letting someone else handle the heavy lifting.
It’s likely that you may offload the CEO responsibilities to someone else later on and still coordinate the internal activities in-house.
While I do believe that CEO is appropriate for a growing business, I’d still go for a “Founder” until I build a small team and start working “on” the business more than “in” the business.
I’m also a solo founder of another startup of mine and a co-founder of a team of 3 (with another founder). Until I decide on pushing harder and allocating additional resources on growing these steadily, I’d still stick to “Founder”.
Also, early on, I was avoiding any title when talking to people. I was also referring to myself as a solopreneur, “I run X”, “I provide Y” and so forth. This is a good way to work around the title – except when you need to design your business cards or prepare the slides for a conference event.