6 Critical Lessons Learned as a Startup CEO

Experience in leadership positions, including chief executive officer of an augmented-reality business and VP within the cyber-security sector, prepared me for this challenge. While I knew I would be CEO, it meant more responsibility, risk, and a more significant impact on the team. But you don’t know until you step into that role.

The last three years have seen us emerge from stealth, launch several great products, increase our team by 4x, close two rounds of funding, and navigate through a global epidemic. These are my top three lessons from my first three years of being a startup CEO.

Don’t compromise on talent.

The talent of people is key to innovation, success, and culture. The most important job you can do as a CEO is recruiting and hiring “A” players throughout the business.

Why is this important? It is up to “A” players to take over. No one at a startup can say, “That is not my job.” Every challenge demands all hands involved. Everyone needs to work together to take responsibility. You will see the potential for growth in your business, even if it is not possible. These people are trustworthy, and you can trust them.

Other “A” players attract “A” players. This cycle is continuous and must be maintained in your mind. You may need different employees at different stages. This means that you should never stop hiring (but not necessarily have to).

The book who Geoff Smart and Randy Street is a must-read. I pass this to hiring managers before they even begin creating their job descriptions. This allows them to adopt this strategy of hiring “A” while also building their teams.

Sell, not stealth!

Too many businesses fail before they ever get off the ground. Why? They waited too much to get started selling. The problem is that the product can’t be perfected without receiving feedback from real customers. Beta customers will not give you the feedback you need to assess if the product is marketable.

Waiting until the product is perfect will only make it harder to move out of stealth mode. Make sure you get your product to paying customers as soon as possible. You can send Net Promoter Score (NPS) surveys to assess customer satisfaction, invest in market research, gather feedback often, and then make educated choices on improving the product based upon customer input continually.

Take quick decisions and make changes if needed.

It’s okay for you to make mistakes. It would help if you embraced them as an opportunity for growth and learning. You must be ready to make fast decisions, and you should not delay the inevitable when something has to change. It is much more damaging for a company to postpone making decisions than to make the right ones. Recognize it immediately and make the necessary changes.

Have one-on-one meetings with your team and look at the data presented. Then make your decision. You won’t be able to tell if this was the right decision unless you make it. Failure to make the necessary changes can lead to stagnation and slow progress. Did the shift go as you planned? Reevaluate your situation, then repeat the process.

Encourage teams to work together, then step back.

You cannot be everywhere, and you shouldn’t from the start. It’s not feasible or sustainable. Encourage your team to work together, discuss, and make decisions for themselves without relying on anyone. Only then can your company scale.

Encourage colleagues to look beyond their departments and think about how their actions could impact others. The new iOS update will affect marketing, support, and sales.

You can foster a culture of collaboration and communication by encouraging everyone to get on the same page. When you do this correctly, your teams will naturally collaborate. Too involved can cause delays in decisions as the teams wait for your response or decision. This requires trust, which is why hiring “A,” or better, players is crucial.

Get mentors and meet other CEOs

I believe in having mentors and connecting to people who have been through similar experiences. Talking to these people will help you make quick decisions and open up your eyes to possibilities.

As much input as possible, but make your own decisions. Not being a sheep means you have to follow every word of advice from mentors. Trusting your gut is essential because you know the business better than anyone.

When the pandemic struck, I kept hearing that I needed people to go. It didn’t feel right. People must innovate and make the necessary changes to support our customers in this new reality. The pandemic didn’t cause me to fire one person. It paid off. We were able to innovate more quickly and had three times the revenue in the first year.

Keep moving forward

This year was our biggest challenge as CEO. We were just a few weeks away from showcasing our new product in Las Vegas. The news about Covid-19 spread around the globe, and everything was upended.

The show was canceled. Working from home put our culture, communication, and collaboration to the test. Unfortunately, some customers had to close. The future was uncertain. I learned more in the past year about being a leader than I did the last three.

There will always be ups and downs. Keep moving forward. Do not dwell on setbacks. See them as an opportunity to improve. This was a time for us to be more focused on our customers’ needs right now. The platform was designed to help businesses reopen and run their business more efficiently. It was a huge success. Be proud of those critical milestones, but quickly shift gears and get on with the next one.

While these past three years were hard, I found being a CEO more rewarding than anything. Be focused on your purpose, and enjoy the journey! As CEOs, our ability to make a difference in people’s lives is unmatched. You can do anything you want to make the world a better place.

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Samatha Vale
Samatha a senior writer for HC's entertainment team. She is an entreprenuer, mother and an excellent writer. She's also an avid reader, music enthusiast and all around inquisitive person - which is just a nice way of saying she's nosy.

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