The 10 essential roles of a startup CEO

From recruiting rockstars to putting out fires, being a startup CEO demands constant learning, strategic thinking, and unwavering customer focus. Here are the 10 essential roles that can make (or break) a startup leader.

Alex Turnbull

If you’ve ever tried your hand at becoming a startup founder, you know you wear a lot of hats.

And I mean A LOT of hats… too many to include in this post.

Today, I want to go through 10 of the ones I’ve found to be most important and crucial for success.

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.

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…

But for a CEO, you don’t get the luxury of having one area to focus on…

The scope of what you’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 primary roles.

The 10 Roles of a Startup CEO

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

A startup is fast-paced and exciting, but there’s times when things flat out suck.

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

Those are the moments when whether or not you actually do succeed is determined.

Keeping morale high and keeping your team excited about the future 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.

A high support, low challenge environment is fun, sure, but not going to help you reach your goals.

Great CEOs 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.

As the CEO, 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.

Get familiar with the different:

  • Books
  • Blogs
  • Advisors

to help you grow in your industry.

Even at this stage of the business, I find myself constantly tapping into these different resources 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 CEOs (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.

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

Even if you “hate sales,” it’s one of the biggest leverage points you have.

9) Customer Support Champion

If your customers don’t succeed, neither do you.

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.

The customer development side of things never stops. 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) Decision Maker

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 make the most impact.

Find the Right Balance

You can’t be amazing at all 10 roles.

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

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, it’s possible to be firefighting all day and not even getting to the other 9 roles.

But hey, that’s what you signed up for, right?

Alex Turnbull
Founder & CEO, Groove
Alex Turnbull
Founder & CEO, Groove

Alex is the CEO & Founder of Groove. He loves to help other entrepreneurs build startups by sharing his own experiences from the trenches.