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Managing Founder-CEO Tension in a Startup – TechCrunch


“Are you going hire a bunch of useless salespeople like they have at Oracle? »

It was the first of many memorable interactions I had with Eliot Horowitz. Eliot was the founder and CTO of MongoDB, and in late 2010 I interviewed to become president. Product-driven growth was far from the mainstream buzzword it is today, but the founding team of MongoDB had created a product that developers loved – the very love of developers that would drive a much of the company’s rapid growth.

My topic today is not product-driven growth, but the relationship between a founder, such as Eliot, and a hired CEO and the key factors needed to make that relationship successful. This momentum has always been important, but it’s essential to focus on today’s more volatile and rapidly changing technology markets.

On the face of it, Eliot’s question was about business models and sales hiring. But it went much deeper: our discussion was a live experience of how we would work together, getting to the heart of a startup’s breakthrough partnership between a CEO and a founder. The territory we covered that day included:

  • Was I open to unorthodox thinking?
  • Could I justify my plans on first principles?
  • Was I ready to engage with a young technical founder on business issues?
  • Did finding out that the founders wanted to challenge the established way of doing things made me want to join – or want to run for the hills?
  • Could I make a business decision that is contrary to the founder’s views and that we both feel happy with the process?

All of these are valid questions and examples of potential points of tension between a technical founder and a new leader brought in from the outside. How a founder and CEO work through these stress points could help determine a company’s ultimate success.

Beyond product-market fit

A lot can go wrong with a startup, but to be successful, two things must go right: first, the product must fit well in the market, which is almost always the domain of the founder(s), and second, the company must execute successfully, which is sometimes the domain of a hired CEO.

In almost all cases, the initial product and market vision comes from the founders. They started the business because they understood that something could be done better and an idea of ​​how to do it better. When that idea resonates with a large audience, you have the core of the product-to-market fit. Without it, there is no business.

But this initial product market adjustment is not enough. A business needs funding, a team, and ultimately it needs to run the engineering, sales, customer success, and marketing. In some cases, a founder has shown an interest and an initial ability to lead all of these areas. In other cases they don’t, and in those cases they need a partner to run the operations of the business.

My four years at MongoDB – first as President and then as CEO – have been a great experience. The company experienced explosive growth and changed the database market and the way developers built web applications. Perhaps most importantly, we laid some of the foundations for what would later become a hugely successful cloud company that transformed the way companies delivered and consumed infrastructure software.

We couldn’t have done this without a strong partnership between the founders and me, especially with Eliot and Dwight Merriman (founder and initial CEO, who eventually became president). Decisions weren’t clearly divided into product categories for them and operational for me.


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