Some entrepreneurs can turn a dorm room idea into a multi-billion dollar company (AKA Mark Zuckerberg). But serial entrepreneur and Stanford consulting professor Steve Blank says great ideas don’t necessarily forecast success in the CEO seat.
“People think, ‘Because it’s my idea, I guess I’m the CEO,’” says Blank. “It’s not necessarily the case. Just because you have the idea, you may not also have the skill set that ought to make you the person running the company.”
In fact, Blank says the just-right founding CEO probably isn’t even the smartest team member – they just happen to have one special trait that makes them the best executive.
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“The person who’s the founding CEO is usually the dumber one! Look at Jobs vs. Wozniak, or Ellison vs. Miner,” says Blank.
“The founding CEOs have different skills,” he says – and they’re generally not tied to computer science skills.
Instead, Blank says successful founding CEOs need to have a “reality distortion field.”
Similar to the concept of a cult of personality, Blank says, “The reality distortion field makes people believe an insane idea might come true, and they’re willing to quit their jobs and join you on a quest.”
Blank once again points to Steve Jobs, who was successfully able to get John Sculley to leave his job as an executive at Pepsi to join the fledgling Apple by asking him if we wanted to sell sugar water for the rest of his life – or change the world.
In addition to recruiting talented staffers, Blank says the ability to project a reality distortion field also helps founding CEOs attract investors – another big plus when trying to get a startup off the ground.
The second most important characteristic for CEOs is the ability to feel comfortable in chaos.
“With an early-stage venture, things don’t go per plan,” he explains. “If you’re not comfortable operating and leading through that, you might be a good co-founder … but not a good CEO.”
A Hacker, a Hustler and a Designer
Aside from a compelling and persuasive CEO, Blank says the ideal founding team has two to four other co-founders. Any more than that, and Blank says you’re just kidding yourself – some should really just be considered employees.
“A ‘founder’ is somebody who you can say, ‘Would you have a company without them?’ ‘Is this the best person for the job?’ If no, they should just be employees,” he explains.
While there’s no real magic number, Blank says there’s a lot of truth to entrepreneur and investor Dave McClure’s saying that every team needs a hacker, a hustler and a designer.
“These are the core skills. If you don’t have this, you’ll be at a competitive disadvantage,” says Blank, especially in the tech space.
“The hacker should be someone who’s great at writing code – better than anybody else, and the hustler tends to be the CEO person, with the reality distortion field, who can run experiments,” says Blank. The designer figures out user interface, which is especially important for both the web and mobile.
Blank says outside the tech industry, the exact specifications may vary a little bit (“If you’re building a drone, a designer isn’t a big deal,” he says) but the fundamental message is clear: members of a founding team should have complementary skills, rather than similar attributes.
That said, Blank cautions that all founders do need to be resilient, agile and ready to forge a new path.
“Startups used to think they were smaller versions of big companies,” says Blank, and founders would have titles like vice-president of sales, or vice-president of marketing.
“These are execution titles for companies with known business models and known customers and known pricing structures,” says Blank – very different from a startup, which has to constantly test new ideas, throw out the bad ones and figure out a solution that works.
“If your founding team starts looking like IBM? You’re out of business,” he says.
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