The toughest transition for a #startup founder: From a position of control to one of influence

One of the toughest transitions most entrepreneurs have to make when their organization becomes bigger is to move to being a leader with influence rather than control.

They will no longer be able to have the command and control over their product, customer relationships or employee engagement as they did when the company was smaller, when they did all those things themselves.

The most critical milestone is when you raise your series A. That’s typically only 10% of companies that start, or about 3000 companies a year in the US, about 100 in India, each year.

Of those, there are less than 10% of the founders who are engineers or developers.

They have the toughest time transitioning from being a founding entrepreneur to a CEO.

The series A typically involves getting institutional or professional investors on board, who have critical milestones they set and also help set the pace for the next set of milestones.

Usually during this period, many (not all VC’s) will have the conversation about bringing on a professional CEO on board.

Most investors will give the founding CEO a chance to make mistakes – usually 2-3 times before they start talking to one another about bringing “outside help” with “grey hair”.

The challenge I have seen most developer / hacker CEO’s have, is in understanding the move from being a founder with control to a CEO with influence.

If you have been lucky enough to hire smart and talented people on board, you will realize quickly that they have ideas, thoughts, vision, direction and strategies of their own as well. Which is why you hired them.

Unlike the first few “believers” they are more likely to join because of the market opportunity as well as the “founding team”.

So, as a founder you have to quickly adopt the influencing approach to leadership.

The most important thing to learn about influence is changing how you communicate.

Making room for other ideas, giving them space to voice their opinion and also get their thoughts heard is going to be the most important element of your leadership.

You no longer need to have all the ideas or solve all the problems.

There are others, many who are likely experts in their area of work, whose role it is to solve the problem.

Here are 3 examples of what the change means:

1. Asking more questions than giving answers. When folks come to you with questions, it is extremely hard to not get into a “brainstorming” mode and help think through the problem. Unfortunately, what they really want you to do is to help them come up with the answer.

2. Giving perspectives they have not thought through, than giving advice. People who work for you will come with a plan, strategy or a roadmap for implementing a program. Rather than give them your perspective, which is in most cases your opinion, you are expected to give them a 360 Degree view of the problem with perspective they have not yet thought though, so they can make a well rounded decision, instead of advising them on the way forward.

3. Encouraging problems to be brought out, instead of beginning with solutions. You will be given reverence as a founder, and most people wont want to call your baby ugly, so in many cases you will get a varnished view of the world. Instead you have to encourage problems or challenges to be brought forward so you can help the best minds come up with a solution.

All of this takes more time than before, which I believe is the biggest challenge for most founders. When things were smaller, you could move fast, but now that you have a series A and a larger organization, things might seem to move at a glacial pace.

That’s okay though, since you have more people to work on bigger initiatives than smaller problems you had to tackle earlier.

If you want to still be productive I suggest you always be an individual contributor as well.

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