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October 28, 2009

When Should a Founder Find a CEO?

Catherine New
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Last week, Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, spoke with Columbia Business School students about his experience as an entrepreneur and in social enterprise. He recalled the moment he realized that he wasn’t cut out for management early in the firm’s history (today he calls himself a customer service representative) and selected Jim Buckmaster to run the company as CEO in 2001. “The decision made me wince because I had to relegate control,” Newmark said. “But it worked. You need to know when to get out of the way and stop talking.”

So how does a start-up founder know when to get out of the way? We asked Brendan Burns, adjunct associate professor in the entrepreneurship program and who teaches the course Launching New Ventures, for his insight. This is what he told us:

In general, company founders fall into two simple categories: (a) first-time founders, and (b) repeat or “serial” entrepreneurs. In both cases founders tend to be special individuals whose idea(s) are spawned from a unique customer insight (often from a sales background), technical innovation (technology background) or a perception of a future opportunity (futurist/evangelist type). Company founders are not usually people who excel in process, building of an administrative infrastructure, compliance with various regulations, etc. That is not to say they are cavalier about it, it is just not at the top of their mind or specifically germane to building a company.

Since companies typically grow in phases, or between inflection points that call for different levels of infrastructure, a lack of process refinement usually helps, not hurts, in the earlier stages. Creativity, flexibility and openness are crucial to success in these stages. As you add more people (employees and partnerships), customers and the overall number of transactions, process and discipline become hugely important parts of “scalable growth.”

For every company, reaching that inflection point where things start to fall through the cracks is a true test of long-term viability. The exact metrics are different for every company, but the ability to anticipate these issues, add professional management to negotiate them and put ego aside in the pursuit of supporting the right outcome determines success or failure.

Not surprisingly, first-time founders fail more often than serial entrepreneurs at navigating these growth pains. Serial entrepreneurs more often have the self awareness to step aside or recruit executives with complementary strengths to support scale. Also, serial entrepreneurs more often go out and attract advisers who help hold them accountable to making these changes.

Photo credit: JD Lasica