“I’m CEO, Bitch.” These are, of course, the immortal words which adorned Mark Zuckerberg’s early Facebook business cards. And please, if you’re thinking of creating something like this, don’t. It’s definitely not how to be a startup CEO.

How to be a [good] startup CEO

Well okay, you can if you want. But make sure those ‘versions’ of your business cards don’t get circulated beyond friends and family. Or maybe just as a fridge magnet at home. Because there are much more important strings to your bow that you need instead of being cocky and overly self-absorbed or a maker of bold statements.

But, before you start letting your imagination run wild, stop. It’s actually not that complex. In stark contrast, it’s really quite simple. So much so, that some even question whether a startup or fledgling business even needs a CEO.

Before Starttech’s very own CEO and founder Dimitris Tsingos’ bum starts twitching on his ergonomic office chair, however, we‘d like to say that we definitely disagree with that last point. If any startup or organization is going to succeed and have direction, it does actually need a CEO. 😉 And a damn good one.

The question is how you define good.

How to be a startup CEO: an introduction

You may have been in a startup or business where these kinds of phrases have been uttered:

“This is our product, our baby, so we’ll make the decisions as a team”, or “we need to develop our product more, and a CEO isn’t going to help us to do that”.

If statements like this don’t make alarm bells go off in your head then Houston, we do indeed have a problem. A big one. Why? Because typically, those who don’t believe in having a CEO are probably hiding other issues in their closet. Such as fear of losing control, and conversely in a strange way, to avoid ownership and accountability. Or worse still, it’s a sign that the people running the startup are detached from reality. Not good signs at all.

So let’s be clear. Every ship needs a captain and a rudder. And this is what a CEO offers. The alternative means drifting along to… nowhere in particular.

A different beast

For a start, I think it’s fair to say that the startup CEO is a much-confused beast. And by beast I’m not implying that they are some kind of animal. Although clearly you may meet a few who fit that description in some shape or form.

Generally, there’s s a misconceived view that how to be a startup CEO is about sitting around checking data dashboards and playing ping pong in between chasing fundraising and pitching to investors here there and everywhere. And there’s another view that the startup CEO is an overworked, obsessive bully-boy. A bold, brazen individual full of hot air who barks orders around at software developers.

While, there may actually be some people out there like this, it’s certainly not how to be a startup CEO. Not even close. No, the startup CEO is a different kind of beast (there’s that word again) altogether. The truth is not even somewhere in between either. More like in another dimension. At least for startups and scale-ups which possess direction, strategy and success.

With great power comes great responsibility

How to be a startup CEO is about being the figurehead that everyone looks to for direction, inspiration and motivation. Especially in a small team. You’ll need to wear many hats (not of the baseball variety, although you can if you want – just not for meetings with investors 😉 ). You’ll need to be well-versed across various disciplines, such as finance, management, marketing, sales, negotiation techniques, organization, and human resources. And last but not least, you’ll need to learn as you grow. This should never stop.

We haven’t mentioned any qualities and traits yet. We’ll keep those for later. One other key aspect of how to be a startup CEO though, before we get to character, is quality, educational networking (vs. the partying, socializing #notworking version).

Start with forums, talk with other entrepreneurs, immerse yourself in the relevant reading material. Find real startup CEO’s and founders with different backgrounds. Ask (a lot of) questions. Find mentors. And don’t forget to take everything you hear with a pinch of salt.

What defines a good startup CEO?

Right then. Definitions time. During a visit to The Refiners, a San Francisco-based organization devoted to helping world-class entrepreneurs thrive in Silicon Valley, our CEO Dimitris received this definition while on his course at The Institute of Higher Studies for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (IHEIE):

A good CEO is…

  • decisive
  • knows how to recruit
  • a good salesman
  • a visionary
  • a risk taker

(+) a personal stress ball for employees (we may or may not have added this one ourselves)

Succinctly put eh? And more or less, it’s a solid summary of both the general skills and character required. But, it’s important to be more specific when we are talking about how to be a startup CEO, especially in the arena of tech startups and scale-ups.

So here’s some further explanations on each one:


All kinds of decisions have to be made, both on a daily and long-term strategic level. You have to be the one to make them, always with the best available information at your disposal of course. For example, the software development team may be behind on a vital new feature set, you will be asked to make the call on re-prioritizing other activities to get it done. And there will be important decisions to be made about where budget is spent (if you have any) and where and when to focus any fundraising efforts. Even down to which cleaning company or internet provider you select for the business, everyone will look to you.

A second aspect of this is learning to say no. You will get loads of requests from team members, investors, employees, and potential partners (among others). Everything will sound great, especially when you are scaling up and getting some money in. Don’t let such things distract from your company’s vision. Learn to say no, and say yes only when the time is right.

Knows how to recruit

As the saying goes, if you’re the smartest person in the room then perhaps you are in the wrong room. This can not be emphasized enough, and should be central to your recruiting. How to be a startup CEO is a lot about getting the right people on board and the right time. Usually typical startup CEO’s are good at this part. Why? Because they will usually hire people who are much smarter than them on specific topics where he/she has a clear knowledge gap.

Also, it’s important to place other values above qualifications. Such as character, personality and the vibe you get from a potential employee. Being a startup CEO means you have the ability to find these types of people and make faster decisions (see point 1) to hire them. Being a great salesman (see next point, #3) means that a good startup CEO also possesses the passion, charisma and enthusiasm to convince top talent targets to join.

A good salesman

We’re not talking about the suited up fella with a briefcase here. We’re talking the kind of “sell me this pen” salesman in the Wolf of Wall Street, but without the drugs, illegal money-making and ultimate financial ruin, however. You have to be able to sell first yourself (i.e. your credibility), as well as the product. This is where finance also plays a key role. You need to be able to talk confidently about supply and demand. You need to know your business model inside out, as well as the product-market fit. Armed with this, you can sell to anyone.

A visionary

Well, that’s maybe an overly grand word but what it means in practice is that you as the CEO are the keeper of the startup’s vision. And not just for the launch of the business or the first months or quarter, but the long-term objective. As the captain of the ship, how to be a good startup CEO here is being able to keep everything on track for the current week/month/quarter. And that what’s being executed is relevant to the overall vision. And here’s where patience comes in. As you have probably guessed, realizing a startup’s vision may take years, even decades.

Risk taker

An obvious one but it’s worth exploring what we mean here. Where there are any risks involved, you will be the one to take the lead in taking them. You won’t be afraid to experiment, and to try things that may seem bold, difficult and unconventional. In fact, ignoring conventional wisdom is often the way to success. Here is where it’s sometimes better to have no experience of being a CEO. If you have, or have done courses on the subject, chances are it’s been and geared toward larger companies. And you’re less likely to take such risks. How to be a startup CEO involves having an alternative leadership style, and in turn a different kind of company.

And, last but not least, the stress ball thing. Remember those squeezy plastic stress balls that you may or may not have – or have had – on your desk? You also have to be one of these. Well, not literally, that would be a bit too much. But how to be a good startup CEO means being the one to take on the burden of stress, setbacks and problems that come along the way (and believe us, there will be plenty). This means that you are the shock-absorber for the tough times, and you’ll have to take one (or several) blows after another for the team. Why? Because you need your other team members to be fully focused on their roles – if you want to be successful.

Ready to be a CEO?

Whether you possess all of the above qualities or not, the great thing is you can work and improve on most of them. And that’s another point worth adding as an appendix. Learning. As a contemporary entrepreneur, you need to be obsessed with learning as you go about everything. You can learn a lot from your smarter colleagues – as we mentioned, as well as mentors and workshops – but self-study is also recommended.

Are you ready to be a startup CEO then? We hope so.

We know, there’s a lot to take on, but one last thing that’s worth mentioning is integrity. You’re setting an example for others to follow, and if you don’t have integrity, everything else is much more difficult.

What does a perfect startup CEO look like? Is there even one? The jury is out on that. But, and please humor me here, if Shakespeare can compare a lover to a summer’s day, then surely I can compare a startup CEO to love? Wait, stay with me here. How about if we replace the word “love” in the renowned passage from the Corinthians 13:4-7.

“A startup CEO is patient, A startup CEO is kind. A startup CEO does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6. A startup CEO does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

Now I’m not a religious person, but if that doesn’t ideally describe how to be a startup CEO in 2019 then we’re already lost. 🙂

Graham Wood Graham Wood

The Starttech Ventures Storyteller. Studied Journalism with Business at the University of Central Lancashire. Has worked in various product marketing management positions for the likes of Nokia, Samsung and Vodafone, as well as in several journalism and media roles since 2000.