What does it take to be a CEO? Here is what I am learning on the job.
For the longest time at Frappe, I was the lead developer. Most of my mind-space and effort was concentrated on making the software better. My diaries from the initial days are filled with use cases and design mockups. Building a generic business software is deceptively hard. The underlying structures have to be highly abstracted, loosely coupled, yet the number of connected events can be very high. Making this system work reliably took our small team the better part of the decade. On the side, we were doing sales, customer support, documentation, marketing, and general administration. Most of these activities did not take my bandwidth until very recently.
Frappe is now 40 members strong and there is a responsibility to “guide the ship” and make sure everyone is moving in the right direction. The key problems are not about software anymore but how to make the software more reliable, consistent, attractive to a larger audience and build a model for us to deliver services at reasonable rates. This is a much bigger responsibility than just writing software.
Running a company like Frappe requires the CEO to play multiple roles:
- Visionary: Create a long term vision of the organization and communicate it
- Entrepreneur: Make things happen
- Motivator: Find what motivates people and align them to the organization's goals. Make the team exceed its own expectations.
- Teacher: Mentor and guide the team to up their skills.
- Selector: Hiring the best talent to run the company.
- Critic: Identify the weaknesses of the team and call them out.
- Cheerleader: Boost the spirits of the team when they are down.
- Marketer: Become the voice of the organization to the outside world.
- Investor: Make the right investments in assets and team.
Playing so many roles means one has to keep switching their hat, to keep checking if the team is balanced. It takes intense concentration, connecting and understanding many things and is also exhausting. It also means zooming in and out from the operational activities to "see" the bigger picture of how micro-actions connect to make the entire canvas.
This seems like a really really hard job to me. What if I am doing this all wrong? What if there is another way of thinking?
Very recently I read an interview of a CEO, who talked about only having a dozen people reporting to them. It struck me how far from the ground the CEO is. I gave this a lot more thought and realized that it is the defined model of doing things. From this model, the company CEO only decides the direction of the company and higher top talent from top business schools to run the show.
For this model to work, it is important that the top layer of management is from top tier Universities like the IIT, IIMs, Stanford, Harvard, etc. This is because people who graduate from these universities have demonstrated two things:
- Very high IQ and EQ - ability to think analytically and have strong emotional ability to connect with other people.
- Ability to completely submit to the system: It takes a lot of "will" to submit yourself completely to a system to ace it. University education does not promote original thinking but reinforces the knowledge that is already given. People who ace this system, don't question what is given to them but execute it to the best of their ability.
I have never graduated at the top of my class, nor did I go to a top tier university, so this was not clear to me. I have had several friends who have graduated from these universities and I personally know how talented and hard-working they are.
Once we accept that we need only these people who can commit themselves fully to a machine, then the next thing is to get the resources to hire these people. They are the most highly paid people in the industry and it would be really hard for a bootstrapped company to make that kind of an investment. So the next logical step is to get investment to hire these people.
Now to get an investment you need to demonstrate that an opportunity to serve a largely underserved market exists (by launching an MVP) and that you have the capability to hire the best people to make it happen. There is no magic sauce here. This is the fundamental game of capitalism.
The rules of capitalism are simple:
- The Entrepreneur identifies an opportunity, discovers a Model, and gets an Investor.
- The Investor brings in Capital.
- The Capital buys Top Talent.
- The Top Talent hires Minions and executes the Model.
- The Minions work and bring Profit.
The role of the entrepreneur here is to handover the model to the Top Talent and then walk away and enjoy the benefits of profit based on their share.
In the amazing Steve Jobs movie by Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle, there is a scene when Steve Wozniak accosts Steve Jobs and asks him that he is neither an engineer nor a designer, then how come he gets all the credit? What does he really do?
"I play the orchestra", replies the fictional Steve Jobs
Thinking again, the job of the CEO is probably much simpler than I think. There will be better teachers, motivators, cheerleaders, critics, marketers, and visionaries than me. My job is probably just to hire the right people and let them run the show.
But then Frappe is not a typical organization. We don't distinguish ourselves as Management and Minions. So the role of the CEO is even tougher and it won't fit the Model. Till we find the model that works for us, I will have to keep learning on the job!
Rushabh is a software developer and founder of ERPNext. He usually writes about the startup experience, open source and the technologies he is working on.