After a recent talk at a conference, a young man walked up to me and proclaimed to me, "I want to be a CEO, too!"
I just about spewed the coffee I was drinking all over him. I asked him, "Do you know what that means?"
"Well, maybe you can tell me. You are the CEO of your company. How do I become one?"
Titles are loaded and, in a start-up, they don't really mean much of anything--even if they do create the illusion to the outside world that you have taken on a certain role. The truth is, if I were to list my actual title it would be:
junior designer, marketing manager, PR manager, copywriter, blogger, product manager, assistant, business development associate, janitor, event coordinator, HR manager, gopher, researcher, analyst, strategic planner, fundraiser, etc.
The past two weeks, I've been elbow deep in Photoshop, laying out new Web pages based on specs provided from our hired design team. We could only afford to have a small number of pages laid out and the general specs defined. To save money, I took over from there. For the month prior to SXSW, I coordinated our Beauty Bar Event, which included designing the schwag to specifications provided by the printing company (good thing I have experience with InDesign and Illustrator and have done print work before), budgeting with the vendors, coordinating staff, raising sponsorships, designing the schedule and layout, and marketing the event.
Quite often I'm researching and writing blog posts, putting together pitch decks, pitching, writing job descriptions, interviewing, doing PR outreach, managing the Web community, emptying the waste bins in our office, and cleaning the bathroom because we don't have the budget for a cleaner.
I'm lucky because I get to share responsibilities with my two co-founders, but I know CEOs who take on coding, budgeting, tax accounting, etc. on top of my stuff.
So, what does a start-up CEO do? Everything except for what you'd imagine a CEO of a company doing. Sure, when you start to grow a company, you can also delegate, which is very much more Chief-Executive-ish, but before that happens? You want something done, you need to do it.
What Start-up CEOs Don't Do
I will tell you what a start-up CEO doesn't do, though. We don't collect a big paycheck, we don't leave at 5 p.m., we don't get weekends or holidays or vacation days. We don't get bonuses, we rarely get kudos, and we certainly don't get a big, gorgeous corner office and a secretary. We don't get power, prestige, or any level of stability or certainty. But we continue to build and do this day in and day out. And we look forward to actually earning a title that means we're in charge, capable, and responsible for the future of our companies.
So what did I say back to the enthusiastic young man who wanted to be a CEO?
"You become a CEO when you've earned the title. I'm still a long ways from earning mine, but with hard work and sacrifice, I know I'll get there."
He didn't look satisfied with my answer.