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The 10 Essential Roles of a Startup CEO

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Startup founders wear a lot of hats. Here are the ones I’ve found to be most important.

I have a general philosophy about ALL roles in a startup.

This can be applied to any organization, but in a startup, I think it’s especially critical (and probably a lot more realistic):

Every member of the team should be making the highest-value use of their time, always.

It sounds simple and obvious, but so many of us don’t do it.

Take expense reports, for example. They need to be done for accounting purposes.

Let’s say an employee’s time is worth $50 per hour. If I can hire someone to do all of our expense reports for $25 per hour, then no $50/hour employee is ever going to be wasting time doing their own expense reports.

These smaller wins add up.

But as this philosophy pertains to roles, the highest-value use of everyone’s time will be to spend their productive time doing what they were hired to do. That is, the highest-value use of a developer’s time will always fall under the scope of doing development, marketers will do marketing, etc…

For a CEO, the scope of what they’re “hired” to do is much, much bigger. And that’s why the job looks like it’s always changing.

But ultimately, I think the job of a CEO, at least for a small-to-medium-sized startup, can be divided into ten roles.

The 10 Roles of a Startup CEO

The amount of time you spend on each role will change every day, and it’ll certainly change depending on the stage of your business – for example, you’ll spend a lot more time on customer support at $0/month than at $1M/month – but the roles themselves are constant.

1) Recruiter

Startups need people. Amazing people.

At a bigger company, finding amazing people is the full-time job of multi-person departments.

At a startup, it falls on the CEO.

Everything from figuring out where your biggest needs are, to sorting through the weeds to find extraordinary candidates to figuring out how you’re going to pay them, all falls under the role of the Recruiter.

If you fail here, your startup will, too.

2) Cheerleader

If you’re building something from nothing, there will be times when things suck.

Not “having a bad day” suck, but “the world is ending” suck.

Your team, at times, is going to feel like you have no shot at succeeding.

Those are the moments when whether or not you actually do succeed is determined. Keeping morale high and keeping your team excited are critical to productivity and growth.

But it’s not just cheerleading during the worst of times that’s important. Giving your team positive feedback and showing them how much you appreciate them is an invaluable role that needs to be filled every single day in a startup CEO’s life.

3) Coach

Just as you need to show your team that they’re appreciated, you also need to push them to succeed.

Great CEO’s are great coaches. They help their team set goals, plan for the future and realign them when they veer off course. If and when you don’t hit your goals, you help everyone step back and reassess what’s realistic and what can be done better.

I’ve learned that being accessible to the team and scheduling regular one-on-one’s with every single person is a huge factor in being a successful coach. You can’t coach a player unless you understand their skills, goals, challenges and concerns. It’s your job to know that about everyone.

4) Dealmaker

Partnerships can be a powerful way to grow at any stage of your startup.

When you’re a startup, many companies will only work with you if they’re dealing directly with the CEO. Being able to sell the vision of your company and the benefits of working with you to potential partners, just like you did with your customers, investors and employees, can lead to huge boosts in exposure and growth for your business.

5) Student

If you’re not learning, you’re stalling.

Books, blogs, advisors – these are all resources I find myself tapping into constantly to learn. It’s where I get ideas for everything from marketing and positioning to product design and management.

Aside from a tiny percentage of top CEO’s (who aren’t reading this anyway, because they don’t need to), it’s insane to think that you already know everything you need to know to be a great CEO.

None of us do. And we likely never will. Because great CEO’s – the ones I admire most – know how much there still is left to learn.

6) Firefighter

It’s unavoidable: there will be times when the shit absolutely hits the fan.

A giant service outage. A PR crisis. A team issue.

As the CEO, you’re an on-call firefighter, 24/7.

No matter what you’re doing when that happens, your job is to immediately pick up the hose and start putting out the fire. And then improving that part of your business so that it can’t catch fire again.

7) Strategist

In a startup, much of your day is spent bogged down in tactics. But while tactics can drive small day-to-day wins, strategy is what informs those tactics and ultimately fuels long-term growth.

That’s why as CEO, one of your roles is to deliberately take time to think about strategy from a 40,000-foot perspective.

Where would you like to be in 12 months? In five years? And what are the big picture strategic decisions you need to make (and actions you need to take) to get there?

8) Salesperson

From the very first day that you hatch your idea, you become a salesperson.

You sell to investors, to recruits, to partners, to customers, to influencers and to anyone else who can help you grow.

Even if you “hate sales,” you’re doing it, and getting better at it is one of the biggest leverage points you have.

9) Customer Support Champion

If your customers don’t succeed, you don’t, either.

In the earliest days, your role as support champion means holding every user’s hand as they struggle through your crude prototype.

It means listening very hard and learning everything you can about your customers’ needs, challenges, fears and hopes.

It means being the voice of the customer in every product development meeting, and gathering the feedback you need to make smart decisions about the future of the company.

The customer development side of things never stops, and the one-on-one ticket support might slow down, but that shouldn’t completely stop, either. Some of the most valuable support I ever did was spending 20 hours each week doing customer development when we were already closing in on $100K in MRR.

10) Decider

One of the most dangerous places for a startup to be is in analysis purgatory.

When the team can’t come together and make a decision, everything slows down, and that’s not a state you can stay in and hope to survive.

As the CEO, you’ll need to step in and make difficult decisions. Sometimes, they’ll divide the team, or piss off customers. And you’ll have to figure out how to fix it and move on.

It’s probably the part of being CEO that I like least, but it’s also the part where you probably make the most impact.

Finding the Right Balance

You can’t be amazing at 10 roles. You simply can’t.

But understanding all of the different roles you need to fill is the first step in figuring out which ones you’re best at, and which ones you need to improve.

If you’re great at something, play to your strengths and make it an even bigger focus. If you’re bad at something, work hard to improve, and if you can’t, hire someone else to take over that role.

Being a startup CEO is a constant push to align the needs of your customers, your business, your team, your investors and yourself.

On the best days, you can perform all 10 roles in perfect harmony and everything runs smoothly.

On the worst days, being able to identify the role you’re not fulfilling well is the first step in getting back on track.

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About the Author

Alex Turnbull is the CEO & Founder of Groove (simple helpdesk software for small businesses) who loves to build startups and surf.