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The difference between being a founder and a hired CEO

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When I founded my own startup, I thought I knew what I was getting into: after all, I had been a senior manager at eBay (s EBAY), managing director at Gumtree and chief operating officer at Zoopla. But since starting Adzuna in 2011, I’ve realized that being a founder can be very, very different. Here are some things I’ve learned in the past two years.

Learning to sell

As a finance guy who became a general manager, I’ve always been driven by strategy, product and marketing, and never valued sales. Sales was something I looked down on — a commodity role staffed by poorly qualified “liars for hire”, something you didn’t need if you had good product and marketing, or a necessary evil to get the word out.

As a founder, I sell every day, to investors, to staff, to the government, but also to customers, so that we can earn the revenue to pay the bills. And you know what? I’m not great at it, but I’ve started to like it. There’s the feedback you get from talking to clients that helps mould the product strategy, the thrill of the chase, and the buzz of making a sale or hearing that one of our job board customers is so satisfied that they want to double their spend with us. That’s real validation of all your hard work.

Yay, now I don’t have a boss

My first day working full-time on Adzuna, I felt a great sense of freedom. No more boss, no more targets, we could do what we wanted and take the business anywhere. It was a naïve excitement.
The reality of course is that everyone has a boss — even venture capitalists have their Limited Partners — and as a founder I find that position has been divvied up between my conscience and those I am responsible to. Mine are my investors (angels and VCs) whose money I took on a promise; my co-founder, who foolishly decided I was the right person to go into business with; my employees, whose livelihoods and future careers depend on our success; and my family, who tolerate my crazy desire to stop being a responsible breadwinner and play at being Richard Branson.

The emotional rollercoaster

I worked damned hard at eBay, Gumtree and Zoopla: don’t doubt that for a second. I worked at evenings and weekends, I had sleepless nights, I freaked out when the servers went down or we had a DDOS attack. As MD or COO, I felt complete ownership of my role and the success of the business.
But even after all that, the position of actually being a founder changed things. You take things more personally, you worry more, you try even harder, and it’s more of an emotional experience. It’s like having kids. When a new product feature that makes job hunting better goes live, I feel proud and elated; when a big partnership deal falls through I fall briefly into a black pit. And like being a parent, it’s really hard to explain to people who’ve never done it.
Switching off is harder. I find that I have to trick myself through exercise or an activity so absorbing that I have to stop working through the next seven things on my to-do list in my head. Skiing and running seem to do the job.

Trusting your gut feel

The big companies I worked for, and even the startups, suffered a bit from analysis paralysis. The employment relationship, processes like assessments, pay rises, targets and quarterly earnings, and just the sheer energy required to co-ordinate hundreds of people make it hard for big companies to move quickly. They also tend to overvalue analysis and consensus decision-making.
A new startup can bypass a huge proportion of that lost energy. Some of that comes from taking more risk, some from an ability to change direction quickly, some from entrepreneurial spirit. But a chunk also comes from founders just trusting their gut feel when there is no data. When you are spending someone else’s money or working for someone else’s company you feel like you need to analyze and justify decisions, but as a founder it’s easier to just go for it. If the Prime Minister’s office wants to use your economic data in his iPad app, you just say “hell yeah”.
Of course, if you’re successful and your business scales, some of those corporate processes start to creep back in — and they need to. But still, the crazy founder as ultimate decision-arbiter can help cut through the chatter, just as they do at Facebook (s FB) or Amazon (s AMZN).

Making a dent in the world

Most people are content to be part of the flow of the world: to fit in, to meet their boss’s expectations and get a bonus at the end of the year, to make a bit of money so they can enjoy spending time with their friends and the beauty of the world as it is.
Entrepreneurs want to make a dent in the world. They want to change it. That takes enormous energy, vision, powers of persuasion and persistence in a world full of people who are afraid of change. But it is a beautiful thing when it happens. At eBay, Gumtree and Zoopla I was lucky enough join businesses early enough in their evolution that most people I spoke to hadn’t heard of them, and asked me skeptical questions about why they were needed or useful. In a handful of years, they each became household names and those conversations with friends or acquaintances completely changed.
At Adzuna, we believe that classifieds search is broken, that we can make it better for billions of people from our tiny office in South West London, and that in the process we can move a whole industry along with us. For all the thrills and spills, I love what we do and there’s no other job in the world I would trade it in for.

11 Responses to “The difference between being a founder and a hired CEO”

  1. Love your comments…I too have start up and would not change for a second…if you are someone that “likes to have the ball” (popular US term for basketball and control) then you may have the stomach to launch a start up…good luck in your endeavor.

  2. Tammy Kahn Fennell

    I really enjoyed this piece. As a founder CEO myself I totally understand the “Switching off is harder.” Sometimes it’s impossible. When you build a company from inception, it is a bit like having a child. In my case, I launched my company and had my child at pretty much the same time, so I guess they are growing up together! It’s hard, very hard, and it’s even lonely at times, but when you love what you do, and the people who do it with you, it’s the best.
    ~Tammy, CEO @MarketMeSuite

  3. I started my business 30-some years ago. I’ve often said that starting a business is like a scuba diver who goes underwater and says he is looking for interesting fish. He is suddenly surrounded by sharks. Now, instead of “I’m looking for interesting fish,” he says “I’m just trying to survive.”

    Welcome to the world of entrepreneurship!

  4. Richard D

    Well written and spot on – just reposted your blog on mine – also, funny enough, I am following an opposite path having spent last 12yrs in startups and now find myself in leadership function at eBay! :-)

  5. Reblogged this on NikiVallwaysMyway and commented:
    i bit 2 many words for me to “Like”, but the point is important. Are you an artist or are you someone that just can do a job? And, knowing that in the life of a reality, there is a time when one or the other is more effective. The key to doing anything well is to be in the moment.

  6. This is a great piece — and having worked as a manager for several small companies and as the owner of my own small business, I relate with just about everything you say here! Another thing I also realized in the transition, I work because it’s what I do (it’s just an imperative), not because it pays (which is a nice result of hard work and long hours, but it’s not necessarily a directly proportional relationship). It’s great — in a scary, risky, unexplainable, and you-have-to-do-it-to-know-it sort of way! Thanks again!