First time CEO? Be humble, but have balls!

Tine Thygesen is an accomplished startup founder, brand builder and mentor with over 10 years experience in internet businesses on senior executive level, that I’ve met while attending Startupbootcamp in 2010. Back then, Tine was the CEO of 23 and already a seasoned entrepreneur and mentor. At the beginning of this year we finally reconnected and I had the chance to pick her brain about her experience as a CEO of several startups (including her latest company — Everplaces) and the toughest decisions she had to make along the way.

Tine is creative, smart and ambitious, and a model that all first time CEOs should aspire to. I know that her journey wasn't easy and for those people that look for shortcuts on becoming a successful entrepreneur over night — well, there aren't any shortcuts, only a path made out of tough decisions.

“Saying No is the hardest thing to do as a CEO”

“Saying No is the hardest thing to do as a CEO, because sometime you have to let people go who are good, but not great, let opportunities go because they are not at right timing or in the right direction, and say no to investors and partnerships where you just not sure if this is right. So saying No are always the hardest decisions, but also the best ones for the company as they give direction and focus.”

Can you imagine yourself saying “No” to an investor — yes, someone that wants to give you money, but isn't right for your company? How about going the extra mile and sacrificing a job that you love for the sake of a dream?

I've met countless people who juggle the idea of starting their own business in their heads, but never actually do anything about it. It’s easy to say that you don’t have enough money or enough time and the reality is that being part of a startup is tough (I have also met someone who said that a company with 200 employees and millions of dollars in revenue is also a “startup”, but I’m not talking about those). So, yeah, being your own boss is a lot more work than fun and you’ll quickly discover this fact, as the haze of enthusiasm will wear off with the same speed as your savings account. Either way, Tine says that “playing it safe” is no go.

“Go all-in”

“I believe in going all-in. It is tough to start a business, so if you’re to have a real chance I believe it needs to be you only focus. That gives you a much better chance. A friend of my just worked super hard for a year and saved almost all his salary. Now he can afford a year without salary, that’s a perfect position to start with.”

For me, combining outsourcing (a relatively stable source of income) with a startup was a failure, so I really resonated with this conclusion. I’ve found out that our development intensive product requires full attention and expert-level skills.

“[…] While we are all people, this is business, and we have to take a step back and look at what makes sense. This may take some time, and some working through. But it has to be a smart decision, not an emotional one.”

Sadly, people without experience in the startup world will often underestimate the amount of time and effort required for their business to take off the ground. So, talking with a great mentor like Tine would really help in setting realistic goals.

Patience might be a virtue, but not in the startup world

“By nature I have a great sense of urgency, because I am ambitious and impatient. So I guess I always have a number in my head (of a limited number of years in a startup/company). However, till date I haven’t behaved according to the number, I just go all-in on the journey, and then when its right to move on I can feel it in my stomach.”

Back to go-all in, a stable income also means that there isn't a sense of urgency. If you think about your time as a very limited resource, you quickly realize that you don’t have all the time in the world. If your startup fails or succeeds, it will not be the end of the life and it’s much better to move fast than drag things along until forever.

“Luck doesn't just happen, you have to put yourself in a position where you can move on. Start doing free courses on the internet to get better, start applying for jobs or start building a useful network. So move to a position where luck can hit you.”

I have a lot more appreciation for people that try something (even if they are juggling with a full time job) and fail than for those who do not try at all. Just beware — sooner or later, it will get ugly and keeping your motivation will be crucial.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

“This is an important thing for an entrepreneur to understand about themselves; where do you get energy, what keeps you going etc. For me, there are several; amazing feedback and letters from users and clients is one of them, that makes it all worth it when someone writes from the other side of the planet that your product has made their life better. In addition, my cofounders and I have been good at picking each other up, when something doesn't work out we tend to look at each other and say, “shame, how do we move on from here”, so none of us dwell on it. We were three founders so in that way there is always at least one person positive who can pick up the others.”

A strong team is the base of future success. I put very little value on a product idea — are people still hesitant to talk about their idea for fear someone might steal it? I strongly believe that the right team will find a way to execute or pivot to success. If the idea is bad, they can also drop it and create a new one. So, when it’s time to move on, the people that you leave behind will be missed the most.

“I will miss the people the most. You become a bit like an army battalion, or a football team, in a startup because you fight side by side everyday. So I am very fond of the people in my team, and I it is sad not to be working with them any more.”

There “is a challenging time where you as the CEO have to listen more than you talk”

“There is a considerable difference to entering a company as a CEO from the outside, to building a company where you are the CEO. Firstly, when you enter from the outside you have a starting period (100 days in my way of thinking) where your employees know more about the business then you. This is a challenging time where you as the CEO have to listen more than you talk, and where you have to be careful to double check your decisions because you don’t know the history of the company and what has been tried before. On the other hand, when you build a company you have the chance to build the culture from scratch, you hire your own team, and you know more about the business than anyone else. But here you have to attract people who are willing to take a risk with you, so that requires humility as well.”

I have never worked in another startup except my own, so I never had to think about the situation being different. I had just assumed that being a good CEO meant to show no weakness ☺, but I now understand that being a founder is different from being a CEO.

“Be humble, but have balls”

I know for sure that Tine is one of those people who stands out because she’s not afraid to go all the way, relentlessly following her goal and keeping her head straight when times are tough.

The most important lesson I've learned from Tine is that if you want something to happen, you have to make it happen. And her advice for first time CEOs? “Be humble, but have balls”. I believe that says everything.

Learning from mistakes is overrated

In their book “Rework”, Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson said the following: “People who failed before have the same amount of success as people who have never tried at all. Success in the experience that actually counts.” That phrase really stuck on my mind (and not in a good way), before I finally understood its meaning. It’s true that failures won’t teach us everything there is to know in order to get it right the next time, but they will teach us something and that something will translate into experience.

Of course, not everyone will learn from their mistakes and especially not those who are good at blaming others for their own failures. But, when I look at Tine, I realize that she already has that maturity I’m hoping to reach one day, because she knows how a successful startup should look like and more importantly — she knows how to make it happen.