There are few well-documented examples of a founder taking a company public and sticking around to run it successfully for years thereafter. Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Larry Ellison and Marc Benioff come to mind.
But how does the world look to an entrepreneur who is making great progress towards that goal but is not there yet?
For answers to that question, I spoke with Art Papas, CEO and founder of Bullhorn, a fast-growing provider of cloud-based customer relationship management systems owned by Vista, a private equity firm.
Papas makes a compelling case for Bullhorn’s success. As he explained, “The company started the year at 400 employees and hit the 500 mark in June 2015. We're not just riding the growth of the market--we're winning 75 percent of the deals when we compete, against some huge companies. I find this incredibly exciting.”
1. Do work that inspires you.
Many aspiring entrepreneurs are not sure what they want to do when they grow up. If they are lucky, they will have an experience before they get out of school that helps to focus them on the right activities.
For Papas, he found that getting people to work towards a common goal was immensely satisfying. As he explained, “I remember in college when I was given the opportunity to run a small team for the first time. I had never thought of myself as a boss, I didn’t see myself as being above my peers. But I loved setting a goal, rallying everyone around it and seeing us hit it. It was a rush. I realized that I didn’t have to fit a stereotype to be a leader.”
2. Know what you’re good at.
It is good to be passionate about your work, but to start a company and remain CEO as it grows, an entrepreneur ought to be one of the world’s best at a skill that is crucial to the company’s future.
After all, it stands to reason that as long as the founder can excel at a mission-critical activity, she should be able to lead it to higher ground.
This comes to mind in considering Papas’s strength — which lies in developing systems that make business processes much more effective for workers and customers. As he explained, “I created my first software application at Thomson Financial Services (now Thomson Reuters) in 1997. It was an application that helped a big customer service team track and manage customer issues. I watched the way that team was working and I was amazed at how laborious their jobs were. They spent so much time keying data and clicking around in an incredibly complicated user interface.”
Papas realized that he could make those people happy by designing and building a new process that would make their lives easier. As he said, “It was clear that no one had thought about the people who actually had to use the software. I knew that I could fix it. I’ll never forget how the people on that team reacted when I showed them the new version I had written. It was as if they had been rescued from prison. I was hooked.”
There is a danger that a founder might have an unrealistically high opinion of his abilities. That’s why it is important to get an objective assessment. And for that, it helps to ask your boss.
And Papas seems to have done well, while being a bit of a pest. “My early bosses always appreciated my output, but I was constantly pushing for more responsibility, autonomy and control. I probably drove a couple of them nuts,” he said.
3. Learn from role models.
Many entrepreneurs look to those who have gone further along their path as sources of inspiration. However, most founders are sufficiently independent in their thinking to want to avoid copying what those role models have done.
Papas views role models who are founder/CEOs as people who can build and reinvent their companies well. As he explained, “There’s no one I’m actively seeking to emulate. I’m always competing with my own accomplishments. I really want to do things in my own way. It’s part of my identity.”
Nevertheless, he seems to find some inspiration from the most famous founder/CEOs. “If you look at the most successful entrepreneurs in technology--Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs--they're all founders who continued to lead their companies as CEO. A founder/CEO isn’t the sole ingredient, but it’s a critical to long-term success. If you can create the right innovations at the right time along with a culture that builds a winning team, you can create enormous value.”
4. Spend Your Time On What Matters Most To You And Your Company’s Future
A founder will only be able to stay on as CEO if there is a good match between what the company needs to grow and what that person can do well.
Papas believes that he has found that by focusing on developing new products and adapting to change. As he said, “I love my job. It is the best job I could ever imagine. I really try to avoid doing anything that doesn’t play to my strengths. I work hard to make sure I don’t consume my time on things that I don’t enjoy.”
As a result, he can spend his time on what matters to Bullhorn’s future. “I get energy from spending time with our customers, employees and product designers. I structure my schedule around these things. I’ve built a team of incredible leaders to make sure that we’re executing on our goals and I can spend time where I can have the most impact on the business,” said Papas.
To boost your odds of becoming a Founder/CEO, follow his four principles.