You Were the Founder. Now What Are You?
As the founder of a start-up, defining your job is easy: You do everything. But what happens when your tiny start-up grows into a larger organization? Your job description will change as you balance leading the team with the need to transfer critical roles to others. How you use your unique skills as a founder will determine whether you can build a truly great company.
Those of us who have built a company from the ground up into a mid-size or large organization understand this challenge well. When you start a company, you wear many hats: setting strategy, building relationships with customers, hiring employees, keeping the books, and taking out the trash. But, as you start to build a larger organization, it’s important to transfer these roles to others. The goal is to build an organization that is not dependent on you as an individual to thrive.
The two of us have struggled with this as we’ve built Avondale through the “small business” phase into the “small organization” phase. We noticed that somewhere between 15 and 20 people, things started to be different. We had to step away from the day-to-day tasks, and even cede some responsibilities that were fundamental to growing the business. As we transferred many of our previous job descriptions to other team members, we both needed to seek a new job description that fit our skill sets and unique experience.
This task is a healthy part of building the team and the business. It’s also a uniquely personal process. There’s no one right answer, and each founder should tailor his or her job description based on individual strengths. Plus, the job description will likely change as the company goes through various stages of growth. Here are seven roles we’ve seen founders play once their company has matured:
The Product (literally)
Some companies are built around an individual–think Oprah, Martha Stewart, and even Warren Buffet. Oprah is the reason her customers watch her shows or TV channel. Warren Buffet is the stock picker behind Berkshire Hathaway’s success. Their jobs are critical to the companies’ existence and growth.
Chief Product Officer
Steve Jobs was the best example of this. Although he played many roles during his time at Apple, Pixar, and NeXT, his passion and unique skill was product development and customer experience. He ceded other leadership roles to Tim Cook and other executives.
Founders are often uniquely suited to act as the key point of contact with customers. This is difficult in companies with many customers, but some do it well. Joel Gascoigne, the founder of Buffer, offers “a direct line to the founder” for Buffer’s top-tier customers.
Many companies rely on their founder to be the chief salesperson. This is difficult as the company grows, but the founder is often uniquely suited to convince customers of the company’s dedication.
Many founders will tell you that they spend 80% or more of their time on people issues. Kevin Ryan, the founder of Gilt Groupe, says he spends almost all of his time recruiting, developing, and evaluating his team.
Founders often find that, once the company gets to be a certain size, they are most helpful taking an investor perspective, rather than an employee perspective. This allows them to step back and advise the company from afar rather than within.
Some founders decide that it’s best to get out of the way, take time off, or even start another company. Many founders are good at founding, not building, and know they should leave the growth to someone else.
This is just a starter list. There are probably as many founder job descriptions as there are founders, since each is unique. The important thing to remember is to take on the role that allows you to best use your strengths to help your company succeed and grow. Trying to be everything to everybody, as you were when you started the company, will just ensure that your small company stays small.
KARL STARK AND BILL STEWART | Columnist | Co-founders, Avondale
Karl Stark and Bill Stewart are managing directors and co-founders of Avondale, a strategic advisory firm focused on growing companies. Avondale, based in Chicago, is a high-growth company itself and is a two-time Inc. 500 honoree.