Start-Ups

The three traits of a successful startup CEO

Being the CEO of a startup requires a distinct skill set. Here are three traits that differentiate startup CEOs from their corporate counterparts or other startup roles.

fastbusinessman.jpg
Image: iStockphoto/alphaspirit

Successful startup founders are a rare breed with a knack for finding ways to disrupt a market.

The team dynamic, especially among executive roles, plays a huge role in capturing the lightning in a bottle for startup success. For a startup team to triumph, it needs members with complementary skills that support one another as the business is built. With a small team, the lines are often blurred between certain roles and their responsibilities, but it is important to understand what separates these roles and how they should operate.

In startups, few roles are as misunderstood as that of the CEO. Often, a founder ends up assuming the CEO role, but that isn't the best course of action in every company. Startup CEOs need the same business acumen of their corporate contemporaries, in addition to a specific set of traits that are more startup-centric.

Here are three attributes that set apart startup CEOs from the rest of the pack.

1. Boldness

The first defining trait of a strong startup CEO is the the ability to act boldly. For a startup to be successful, it requires at leader at the helm who understands how quickly a startup must move to survive and eventually thrive.

"Start-up CEOs must be bold, both to make sure they have a better chance of any big success, but also to keep up with expectations," said Todd Krizelman, CEO of MediaRadar.

One example of these expectations, according to Krizelman, is that VC-backed companies are expected to be able to grow sales by at least 50% per year. Successful startup leaders, he argues, embrace this expectation and make the big moves necessary to meet it.

"As a startup CEO you need always to create new opportunities and situation. Constantly move on the field," said Adi Pinhas, CEO of Superfish.

This echoes the entrepreneurial spirit of carving your own path and making your own way. It's up to you to make it happen.

As Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson once tweeted: "When you walk up to opportunity's door - don't knock on it. Kick [it] in, smile and introduce yourself."

2. Adaptability

Leading a startup is a job that is equal parts proactive movement and reactive agility.

According to DoubleDutch CEO Lawrence Coburn, being adaptable allows the ability to make important iterations to your product or service.

"While a more established company may have set protocol for making changes and shifting course, we have the ability to be extremely nimble," Coburn said. "If we see that our customers are interacting with a certain feature in a particular way, we are able to make changes to improve upon that experience with incredibly fast turnaround."

Adaptability can lead to some of the important breakthroughs with your product and your customers, but it is also needed for when you play defense against the plethora of factors that could lead to the failure of your startup.

In a startup, nothing is certain. In a year, you can grow to a billion dollar valuation or you can flop. Startups typically have only one product or a small group of products and don't have anything else to fall back on. According to Pinhas, a good startup CEO can "manage and prepare for extreme situations."

Be the kind of person who crafts a contingency plan, and know how to shift your company's direction if that becomes a necessity.

3. Willingness to learn

Startups are built on disruption — on changing the status quo and introducing a new way of doing things. As the chief disruptor in your company, there's no manual to reference as you come up against obstacles.

It would behoove you to learn as much as you can, as quickly as you can. Books and blogs are a good first resource, but they won't provide the full picture. Look for learning opportunities in every situation you find yourself in, even failure.

"A key trait of startup CEOs is the ability to bounce back from, and learn from, failure," Krizelman said. "Entrepreneurs are told that 'failure is great,' but in practice no one wants to fail."

For most startup CEOs, learning from failure isn't a novel concept. Everyone knows that you can learn from failure, but successful CEOs also look for other ways to create opportunities to learn in their daily workflow.

For Coburn, this comes with who he hires. Startups founders are no strangers to hiring outside the traditional knowledge worker, but Coburn said that he specifically goes after the rule-breakers and folks that don't always take his word and run with it.

"While in most more established companies, what a CEO says goes, I will often get a fair amount of pushback from my team — I really need to sell my agenda," Coburn said. "And, while that can present a challenge at times, it also forces me to check myself every step of the way and act with total transparency and accountability."

You don't want to surround yourself with people that question everything you do, but a healthy dose of friction can force you to make sure you are certain about the vision you're casting and the decisions you're making.

Also see

About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox