A CEO of a small startup is a Jack-of-all-trades. Unless you're incredibly well-funded, you need to be prepared to do everything. When Credit Karma began in 2007, I was running product, helping with sales calls and serving as de facto office manager.

When a small startup becomes a big company, the role of CEO is transformed into something entirely different. As your company takes on that sense of life and momentum you dreamed it would, as CEO you need to learn to adapt on the fly.

Other people need to share and propel your vision

As company founder, it's your vision and it falls on you to drive it forward. In time though, you have to switch your attention to higher-level concerns and trust others to advance your vision. As Credit Karma has grown past 250 employees, there are a few layers now separating me from many of the people in the company. Given how fast we've grown, new people are joining all the time. Decisions are sometimes made that I don't agree with, but I have to be okay with that. Micromanagement is damaging. People have to be allowed to fail and succeed and learn on their own terms.

The scope of your job will shift constantly

When you start a company, everything is new and fun. The CEO role is always in flux though, adapting itself to the needs of the company. Less exciting things will fall on you because you're not big enough to hire someone to handle them. At times I felt pulled away from my favorite parts of the job, weighed down by new responsibilities. Eventually, things swing back the other way. You grow enough to hire specialized people to handle things that aren't your strong suit and focus more on the parts of your job that you really love and can provide the most value.

Things will come up you don't have any background in

When your company is growing, as CEO you will find yourself responsible for things you have no training in, like finding office space, fundraising and building culture. To guide me through these challenges, I've become a big believer in context and perspective. I find out all the options and consider what I think is best for the company. After that, I look for perspective. I think about how Credit Karma employees might respond. I love getting our board and advisors to play devil's advocate and tell me what they believe is best. As CEO, you need to hear from people who may disagree with you and question your choices, and this is especially true when you are operating out of your comfort zone.

You need to constantly experiment with your management style

We're forever changing the format and frequency of our management meetings. At some meetings, we have nothing to talk about because we're over-communicating. In others, it can feel like we haven't met in weeks and we have a lot of catching up to do. What works with 50 employees won't fit at 100, so you need to experiment constantly as you grow. Likewise, your management style has to evolve as your relationship to the company changes. You need to be mindful of your impact on people you don't have a direct relationship with. As CEO, every off-the-cuff comment you make is going to be taken seriously.

The company will be fine without you

It's not always easy to take a step back from being at the center of daily operations. But accepting that the wider scope of the company is autonomous to you is a key part of successfully running a growing company. If something happened to me, Credit Karma would be fine. That's a good thing. It means my time is spent thinking about bigger picture strategic concerns over the day-to-day needs of the company. I think of my job now as being the man with the map, looking at what is coming up ahead and determining what turns we should be making.

Published on: Mar 17, 2015
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