Question from an entrepreneur in his 30's: I have found that being a CEO is a lonely job. Do you have someone you ask for advice? Have you ever received really beneficial advice? If so, from whom?
Thank you for your question. Being a CEO is tough and lonely and it's often difficult to find people who understand our problems. For example, I find that the air conditioning in my Gulfstream G550 jet sometimes dries out the handmade Tuscan lip balm I have brought in by courier twice a week. Is there anything worse than brushing off the press in Davos with chapped lips? Sometimes I wonder why I even bother leaving my hyperbaric oxygen rejuvenation tent in the morning.
Don't even get me started on the lackadaisical state of modern day attack dog training…
But lets not discuss such matters in more detail here, since I think many of the other readers are not CEOs and we don't want to bore them with our troubles.
All joking aside, I owe my mentors a lot
Instead, let me answer your question about mentors earnestly: Yes, I have had the great honor to have many amazing mentors. In fact, the most surprising, and rewarding, part of my journey as a CEO was finding out how easy it is to get legendary people to help you. All you have to do is ask.
One of my most influential mentors is Hiroshi Mikitani from Rakuten. Mikitani-san really focused my thinking on what it means to be a global company; how to make global part of your very DNA. Jerry Yang, from Yahoo, gave me great advice on how to maintain startup culture through periods of explosive growth. Marc Benioff, from Salesforce.com, inspired me to think about the cloud and made me fall in love with Japan. Steve Balmer, from Microsoft, gave me the clearest and most startlingly useful explanation of how to structure a top management team that I've ever heard. Loic Le Meur, from Seesmic, keeps trying unsuccessfully to make me a better statesman. I appreciate it.
All of these people, and many more, have been enormously generous with their time, often as a result of nothing more than a simple request: "Hi, I'm Phil Libin, the CEO of Evernote and I would really love to get your advice on building a company." Remember that most great CEOs got to be that way because they got great advice along the way, are passionate about building lasting value, and like to talk about the craft. As long as you don't have a hidden agenda, these kinds of meetings can work really well. I've formed many relationships as a result.
What I learned, most of all
I find that talking to people like this to be simultaneously humbling and inspiring. Humbling because when I look at their achievements, I realize that everything we have built so far at Evernote is just a tiny drop in the ocean compared to what we still have left to do, Inspiring because you realize that before each of these people built world-changing, multi-billion dollar companies for the first time, they'd never done it before either.
Of course, your first stop for advice should be your board of directors. It's their job to give a CEO guidance. Your most reliable, daily, source of counsel and mentorship should be your employees. Especially if you've had the good sense to hire people smarter than you. Being transparent with your management team, even on subjects you may think are for "CEOs only," will make you all happier.
Most important, if you do manage to find great mentors, remember that it'll now be your responsibility to help younger entrepreneurs when the time comes. That's why, even though my accomplishments are nothing compared to my mentors, I try to give good advice to everyone who has honest questions about launching a startup to prepare them for what lies ahead. For instance, I've just learned that the real solution to my lip balm problem may be a new clinic in Singapore that will surgically implant atomically pure platinum nano-beads directly into your lips, keeping them perfectly smooth under any aircraft or ski resort conditions… Maybe I've said too much.