For better or for worse: Overcoming founder-CEO tensions within a startup

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“You’re going to hire a bunch of useless salespeople like in Oracle?

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It was the first of many unforgettable interactions I had with Eliot Horowitz. Eliot was the founder and CTO of MongoDB, and in late 2010 I was interviewing for the position of president. Product-driven growth was far from the buzzword it is today, but MongoDB’s founding team created a product that developers loved—the same developer love that fueled the company’s rapid growth in so many ways.

My topic today is not growth through product, but the relationship between a founder like Eliot and a hired CEO, and the key factors needed to make that relationship successful. These dynamics have always been important, but focusing on them is essential in today’s more volatile and rapidly changing technology markets.

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On the surface, Eliot’s question was about business models and hiring salespeople. But it went much deeper: our discussion was a living experiment on how we would work together, getting to the heart of the crucial startup partnership between CEO and founder. The area we covered that day included:

  • Was I open to unorthodox thinking?
  • Can I justify my plans on first principles?
  • Am I ready to talk to a young technical founder about business matters?
  • Finding out that the founders wanted to challenge the established way of doing things made me want to join in—or did I want to run wild?
  • Can I make a business decision that conflicts with the founder’s views and make both of us feel good about the process?

These are all valid questions and examples of potential points of tension between a tech founder and a new leader brought in from outside. How the founder and CEO deal with these pressure points can determine the company’s ultimate success.

Not only product-to-market fit

A lot of things can go wrong in a startup, but in order to succeed, two things must be met: first, the product must fit the market well, which is almost always the prerogative of the founder(s), and second, the company must perform successfully. which is sometimes the prerogative of a hired CEO.

In almost every case, the initial product and market vision comes from the founders. They started the company because they realized that something could be done better, and they figured out how to do it better. When this idea resonates with a broad audience, you have a core product and market fit. Without it, there is no company.

But this initial product-to-market fit is not enough. The company needs funding, a team, and ultimately needs to work on engineering, sales, customer success, and marketing. In some cases, the founder shows interest and initial ability to lead all of these areas. Other times they don’t, and in those cases they need a partner to guide the company’s operations.

The four years I spent at MongoDB – first as President and then CEO – were great experiences. The company grew rapidly and changed the database market and the way developers build web applications. Perhaps more importantly, we laid some of the foundations for what would become a hugely successful cloud business that changed the way businesses delivered and consumed infrastructure software.

We couldn’t have done this without the strong partnership between the founders and myself, especially Eliot and Dwight Merriman (founder and original CEO who later became chairman). The solutions were not clearly divided into product categories for them and operating ones for me.

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