The Founding CEO Dilemma

by Marti Nyman

Founder CEO fork in road

As I look through the business cards I’ve collected over the past decade, one of the rarest in the collection is that with the title of “Founder & CEO”.

Not by accident, it’s one of the toughest acts for any talented individual to pull off.

The founder’s role requires a multitude of key character strengths and skills – vision, creativity, passion, drive, tenacity, etc. . Beyond the ability to see the potential of an unmet need in the marketplace, founders need to have vocational skills such as subject matter expertise, industry experience and competitive awareness.

Great CEO’s on the other hand, may be strong visionaries, but their primary role is to guide and oversee the effective execution of the corporate strategy. Their skill set includes organizational leadership, talent management, operational execution, financial, strategic and operational planning in addition to governance and exceptional communications skills.

It’s not a coincidence that while somewhat complementary, these skill sets are quite different and unique to each of the two roles:

It’s hard enough to generate an idea big enough to build a business around. It’s even harder to build a successful business around a big idea.

To expect a single person to do both is, in most cases, is unrealistic and a mistake many startup founders make is to not respect this reality. All too often, I’ve seen startups with great potential self-destruct because of a founder that fails to recognize — at the right time — the need to bring in a business builder, a.k.a. CEO. They (sadly) become so emotionally attached to their baby and can’t bear the thought of handing it over to someone else to raise it.

As a result, heels get dug in. Teammates and investors get irritated. If not addressed soon enough, it all falls apart and Junior is now left screaming, abandoned and alone.

There’s plenty of dynamics involved in this transition, but one of the most crucial, yet very rare of these is humility. It takes a ton of it. Founders, by their nature, have to have a pretty solid sense of self-confidence to do what they do, but humility calls for them to put all that aside and let someone else drive. Not easy.

When done right (and I emphasize right), it’s both liberating and life-saving. Liberating because it frees up the founder from the minutia of managing a company and enables them to focus on the art of creating. It matches talent with task (in theory) by bringing in a proven business building leader who knows how to effectively scale a high-potential business.  It can dramatically improve the probability of successfully navigating that next level of growth.

For those founders out there who envision themselves running a multi-million dollar business, be comfortable with the notion that there’s someone just as talented as you out there who knows as much about building a business, as you know about great ideas.

You’d be surprised at what you may find.


  • Darren Cox

    No truer words were ever said Marti. As a multiple start-up founder, one of the things that I have learned is that I am not a CEO. I am equipped to be a great founder but I now know that I need to build a solid team, starting with CFO and VP operations, in order to make my companies A) attractive to investors and B) able to survive and thrive long enough to get them to the point that we need to go out and hire a real CEO.

    My goal now is always to get the company to the point where I feel comfortable enough that it is on solid ground that I can fire myself, then become the Chief Evangelist/EVP Sales and Marketing. I think the more times you are a founder the more skills you pick up and eventually, you can justify staying in the CEO role for a long time, but most oftent, once the company is solid and functioning well, the CEO role isn't that fun anyway. Going out and talking to customers is the fun part, so why hang on to a dream that isn't even making you happy, just to massage your ego.

    • Marti Nyman

      Well said, Darren. You're at a unique place where you've identified what you're really good at and perhaps if not more important, what you have fun doing. If any job, regardless of your role, stops being fun, it stops being a career and sadly become just,,, a job.