Put Me In, Coach!
Stepping Back on the Field
One thing that people don’t know about me is that I played lacrosse for 18 years, and coached for 15 of them. Coached all kinds of players from 3rd grade to college; even spent a year coaching women (which is an unsurprisingly unique experience).
As I started companies, it was easy to believe that as CEO, I would be something of a “player-coach.” I would get my hands dirty when needed, but mostly would run the team and be a leader for the players.
Turns out, being CEO is none of that.
Over the past three years or so, I have been CEO of Graphicly. Until a few months ago when I walked into our Board meeting and informed the board that it was time for me to step down.
It was time for me to remove the “CEO” part of “player-CEO.”
Why? The simple, truthful answer is that it was the right thing for the company and, frankly, the right thing for me.
If you read all the blogs of the smart people, they say that a CEO’s job consists of three primary activities:
- Keep money in the bank.
- Recruit amazing people.
- Articulate the vision.
Which is cool. But what happens when the vision of the company no longer fits your skill set? It happens often. A company grows, it pivots and the product becomes something that is different — sometimes vastly different.
“Micah, there are so many ways to monetize our SaaS tool.”
“Micah, we need to drive sales. We need to understand pricing and build infrastructure and processes.”
“Micah, don’t you think it’s time to stop focusing on product and start focusing on scaling?”
Every athlete when faced with an unknown situation always falls back on their default strength. For some, that’s speed. For others, that’s brawn.
In terms of startups; I’m a maker. I build shit that sells. Graphicly is doing millions in revenue; our team is at 25. We have more than 7,000 customers.
But, if I just pushed through the pain, then Graphicly would not continue to grow as fast. My default is not scaling; my default is making.
And, in the world of entrepreneurship it is not if you can run fast; but how you can help your team run the fastest.
So I stepped down.
Ben Horowitz has a great post called Why Founder’s Fail: The Product CEO Paradox:
Then, as the company continued to scale, things started to degenerate. He went from being the visionary product founder who kept cohesion and context across and increasingly complex product line to the seemingly arbitrary decision maker and product bottleneck. This frustrated employees and slowed development. In reaction to that problem and to help the company scale, he backed off and started delegating all the major product decisions and direction to the team.
It was like Ben was writing about me. I was our biggest roadblock. The lack of production and delivery wasn’t because our engineering team wasn’t focused properly or our sales guys weren’t selling, but because I became an “arbitrary decision maker and product roadblock.”
So I stepped down. But not out. I just stepped from the sideline onto the field.
After an exhaustive (at least I was exhausted!) search, we found a guy that was everything I am not. He wears shoes, and a sports coat now and again. He has an MBA and lives in Woodside. He believes in and executes on process and communication infrastructure.
And, David Fox, the guy we brought on, is everything that I believe makes a great CEO. He is a leader. A serial entrepreneur. Three exits. His focus is on scaling the company. Our investors (both current and future) love him; he talks their language. And the team is at an all-time high emotionally and productively; he makes them happy.
We now have a vision that is awesome in its size. It is clear that we have stumbled upon an enormous opportunity that has been articulated by our customers and the marketplace. We have lots to share. Soon! (I promise).
For this to work, I have to take a major step back at Graphicly. I am no longer CEO. It is not my company to run. My job is to support David and his decisions. Yes, I am on the board, and yes, I am a large shareholder, and a contributor, which means I am deeply involved, but business decisions are no longer mine to make. It is David’s company.
But I am playing again. I am picking up the proverbial lacrosse stick and running; seeing the entire field and finding innovative ways for us to win decisively.
And, man, I couldn’t be happier.