One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard, which I first heard years ago from my friend and Senior Advisor to Restive, Tom Brown, is that a founder has only three jobs: set a vision; hire great people; and raise money.
Intellectually, I knew this as a founder, but looking back I did not really embrace it. Like the smoker who knows smoking is bad but puts off actually quitting, it is easy as a founder to accept this advice as a somewhat hazy suggestion for how to prioritize one’s time but much harder to put it into practice. In retrospect, I think founders should treat it more like an iron law. The more time I spend with founders, and reflecting on my own time as a founder, the more I’ve realized how many of us neglect these critical tasks in favor of much less important (and distracting) tasks, especially as the business starts to grow.
Without a vision, it is very difficult to raise capital and hire excellent talent. Early on, you have so few proof points that being able to explain how and why your business will soar is almost the only thing that matters.
Remaining focused on that vision only increases in importance as you continue to build. In my startup, we treated “vision” like a to-do item: articulating it, putting it on a slide, getting everyone’s buy-in, then filing it away. That was a mistake. The early growth stage was hard on the team, who was putting in long hours without much external validation. In hindsight, I wish that I had done more to articulate and advance our vision of the company. Continuing to sell it constantly as we grew should have been an every hour of every day consideration.
As businesses grow and really start to accelerate, the goal, truly the only goal for the founder, is to keep the talent and capital flowing. There are certainly myriad other things that need to happen, but they are all downstream. A great product is a necessity, for example, but if you build a great team, then they will build a great product. You get a great team by being the kind of founder that can articulate a vision and raise capital. You raise capital by building a great team and articulating a vision for success.
There is another risk of losing focus: undermining your team. It is subtle but actually more damaging to the company. It is often shocking to founders how far their voice travels in their companies. I never really thought of myself as “the CEO”; I was just me and my cofounder, trying to build a scrappy little startup with a group of like-minded people. To our team, though, my cofounder and I were the bosses. If we made a comment—even a minor, superficial observation about the shading in a dialog—the team very often prioritized addressing it over far more important things. Looking back, pointless work ended up being done because we lost focus and communicated too casually.
In most organizations, the people closest to the work tend to know best what needs to be done. There’s a reason “micromanaging” is a derisive term. Almost everything you say can be interpreted as some kind of request or demand of your team, even if you personally see it as a triviality.
None of this means that you can’t engage with certain aspects of the business or provide product feedback, but it is critical to do so in the context of these broad “CEO jobs.” Does the product violate the company’s vision? Is it user-hostile? Does it impede the values of the company? Then absolutely push back and constructively criticize the team. If the border color looks slightly off, though, that’s probably something for your design team to handle.
The lines here can, admittedly, get a bit blurry. Steve Jobs would probably argue that the shading on a dialog box did actually impede his vision. The critical insight, though, is that the comment wasn’t some drive-by remark but rather came from a deep concern for the vision of the company or concern about the team’s ability to execute on that vision. The question for the founder then becomes: is what you’re doing really related to vision, team, or fundraising, or is it a convenient distraction from those harder tasks? Getting back in the weeds can be comfortable, it can feel like real work, but it’s not.
While limiting yourself just to these three things can feel constricting, probably the most exciting thing about running a startup is how well aligned all three of your responsibilities are. In large part, this convergence is why building a new company is so much fun: everyone is pulling towards the same goal of building a delightful experience and helping your customers thrive. As a founder, you have an opportunity to build a cohesive, compelling vision for yourself, your investors, and your team. It’s hard work, but really, it’s all that matters.