After a recent talk at a conference, a young man walked up to me and proclaimed to me, "I want to be a CEO, too!" I just about spewed the coffee I was drinking all over him. I asked him, "Do you know what that means?"
"Well, maybe you can tell me. You are the CEO of your company. How do I become one?"
Titles are loaded and, in a startup, they don't really mean much of anything except for creating some sort of illusion to the outside world that you have taken on a certain role. The truth is, if I were to list my actual title it would be:
Tara Hunt junior designer, marketing manager, PR manager, copywriter, blogger, product manager, assistant, business development associate, janitor, event coordinator, HR manager, gopher, researcher, analyst, strategic planner, fundraiser, etc.
The past two weeks, I've been elbow deep in Photoshop, laying out new pages based on specs provided from our hired design team. We could only afford a small number of pages to be laid out and general specs to be defined - in order to save $$, I took over from there. For the month prior to SXSW, I coordinated the Beauty Bar Event, including designing the schwag to specifications provided by the printing company (good thing I have experience with InDesign and Illustrator and have done print work before), budgetting with the vendors, coordinating staff, raising sponsorships, designing the schedule and layout and marketing the event.
Quite often I'm researching and writing blog posts, putting together pitch decks, pitching, writing job descriptions, interviewing, doing PR outreach, community management and emptying the waste bins in our office and cleaning the bathroom because we don't have the budget for a cleaner.
I'm lucky because I get to share responsibilities with my two co-founders, but I know CEOs that take on coding, budgeting, tax accounting, etc on top of my stuff.
So, what does a startup CEO DO? Everything except for what you'd imagine a CEO of a company doing. Sure, when you start to grow a company, you can also delegate, which is very much more Chief-Executive-ish, but before that time? You want something done, you need to do it.
I will tell you what a startup CEO doesn't do, though. We don't collect a big paycheck, we don't leave at 5pm, we don't get weekends or holidays or vacation days. We don't get bonuses, we rarely get kudos and we certainly don't get a big, gorgeous corner office and a secretary. We don't get power, prestige or any level of stability or certainty. But we continue to build and do this day in and day out. And we look forward to actually earning a title that means we're in charge, capable and responsible for the future of our companies.
So what did I say back to the enthusiastic young man who wanted to be a CEO?
"You become a CEO when you've earned the title. I'm still a long ways from earning mine, but with hard work and sacrifice, I know I'll get there."
He didn't look satisfied with my answer.