When I started my first company, “Blue Diesel”:http://bluediesel.com/, we were a Web development company at the dawn of the Internet age. (Remember 1994?) Not only was the company young, so was I– just 19. As the Internet matured, so did our Blue Diesel, from a scrappy kid in a college dorm room to a company that was banging out code to over 100 professionals at companies such as “Best Buy”:http://www.bestbuy.com/, “BMW”:http://www.bmw.com/, and “Chase Bank”:http://www.jpmorganchase.com/cm/cs?pagename=Chase/Href&urlname=jpmc/about.
*Along the way I learned a painful lesson as a founder.*
Being so young, I assumed the path to success would need to be paved with a long line of executive managers brought in from the outside to improve upon the work I’d done on my own. Over time we brought in the “best and the brightest” to do design work, outside sales, client management, marketing strategy, and, of course, technological development. Such seasoned professionals would have to have more experience, more talent, and more capacity than a 20-something kid possibly could offer, right?
I was wrong. In the end I relied too heavily on these people to do what was inherently my job – leading the company.
Let me pause to say that the growth of any great company is not a single-person effort. It’s the work of many great people who propel the company forward. There are, however, aspects of the business that no one can do quite as well as the founder can.
I never got this one right. In my eight-year tenure at Blue Diesel we went through four presidents in an effort to disconnect myself from the day-to-day operations. Every time this failed.
It wasn’t because we hired the wrong people – they were all good candidates. The strategy failed because we ignored the reason why my leadership worked where others could not. *My leadership worked better simply because I cared more about the company than anyone from the outside possibly could.* I couldn’t replace that qualification no matter whom I hired.
Leading the company was my job, and I made the continual mistake of trying to force someone else to perform a role cut out for only one person, me. This isn’t the case for every company, but if you look at a company like Apple, before and after Steve Jobs, you can see why at point, a founder is irreplaceable.
We also hired more than a dozen salespeople to find new business and reel in the big fish. Time after time we were disappointed with the results of our hires. Again this was not because we hired the wrong people, but because *they couldn’t sell with the passion of a founder.*
In the process I probably slowed my company’s growth down by about two years, hoping like hell someone else would be able to hop on a plane every week and bring home more deals. I was wrong. I’m not the world’s greatest salesperson, but *in the end, no one else could sell my vision like I could.*
I lump product development into a general category to mean every other working aspect of our business, from our technological innovation to the creative output of our design.
I ran out and hired creative directors, technology directors, directors of client services, and the like. They were all smart, talented, and motivated professionals. The technologists wanted to build cutting edge technology. The creatives wanted to craft award-winning design. Client services wanted to cultivate overjoyed customers. But *none of them cared as much I did about how all of those elements, together, would produce an amazing interactive design agency.*
What I learned is that the complete evolution of your product is something so close to your vision as the founder that it’s nearly impossible to divide and distribute among a team of people—no matter how talented they are. *Someone has to pull all of those elements into one cohesive vision.* At least at Blue Diesel, that someone had to be me.
*’I’ at the Center, if not Alone*
The point here is that in my haste to divide my vision and responsibility among many people I ended up diluting my responsibility to all of them. A founder’s job is to convert his/her vision into a working organization that is capable of realizing that vision.
*When you take the founder out of the equation, the formula breaks.*
These days I work differently. I stay very engaged in every aspect of the business, not because I can’t figure out a better way to spend 80 hours per week, but because I know it’s my job to pull all of those pieces together.
If you’re growing your own startup, by all means look for great people. Just don’t lose sight of your true responsibility within the organization to knit it all together and keep the vision alive. *_It’s not an outsourceable job!_*