The failure rate for startups is a staggering 90%.
There are many reasons for that statistic, from failing to find a market to simply running out a cash, but almost every excuse stems from a common problem: A CEO who didn’t use their time productively.
From focusing on the wrong things to not focusing at all, it’s obvious what makes an unproductive CEO. But what does it take to be a productive startup CEO?
Here at Mindmaven, we call these CEOs “operators;” men and women who operate at high levels of productivity. To find out what makes operators so effective, I sat down with six of Silicon Valley’s top venture capitalists. According to them, these are the six habits shared by the most successful startup CEOs.
1. Make timely, data-driven decisions
Effective startup CEOs know that procrastination is the enemy of progress. When they have a decision to make, they make it as quickly and intelligently as possible.
Procrastination is the enemy of progress | Tweet this!
Phil Black, founding partner of True Ventures, says the most productive startup CEOs, “make reversible decisions quickly and irreversible decisions with a little more thought.” Here’s what that might look like in practice.
- A reversible decision, such as changing the color of your office chairs, should be made as soon as the change is deemed necessary, while
- An irreversible decision, such as raising capital from a VC partner, should be approached with more thought, planning, and preparation
David Hornik, general partner at August Capital, added that while operators do make quick decisions, the decisions they make are always informed. He says, “By the time they [startup CEOs] make a decision, it’s actually a good decision as opposed to making a quick and stupid decision, then having to fix it constantly.”
2. Eliminate distractions and focus on progress
Ever wondered why Mark Zuckerberg always wears the same gray t-shirt? When asked about his wardrobe, he said, “I really want to clear my life so that I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except how to best serve [Facebook].”
To Zuckerberg, making a daily decision about his wardrobe was a “silly” investment of time. He went on to say, “I’m in this really lucky position where I get to wake up every day and help serve more than 1bn people, and I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life, so that way I can dedicate all of my energy towards just building the best products and services.”
Bill Trenchard, partner at First Round Capital, believes the best CEOs are like Zuckerberg in that they, “ … have an incredible ability to cast aside and ignore the distractions that inevitably come up and just focus on what really is going to drive results for the business.”
One of the most important focuses of productive CEOs, according to Mike Jung of Founders Circle, are their teams. They want to know how the team is performing and organizational culture is developing—because they know they need to be able to make quick decisions if things aren’t moving forward.
Jung also believes that, like many relationship management experts, the best CEOs don’t focus their attention on mass networking or industry/press events. Instead, they “ … pick a very small group of people that they have a high degree of trust in—often no more than 15 people they can confide in and seek out for advice.”
3. Delegate everything
It may seem counterintuitive, but the best CEOs consistently look for ways to manage themselves out of a job.
The best CEOs consistently look for ways to manage themselves out of a job | Tweet this!
Tomasz Tunguz, partner at Redpoint Ventures, says operators, “figure out what it takes to be successful, and then they hire someone who’s much better at it than they are.”
The trick to successful delegation is understanding the job you’re outsourcing. Tunguz finished by stating that effective CEOs understand every job well enough to, “recognize excellence when they need it.”
4. Build results-driven teams
It’s so well-known it’s almost cliché: The most productive startup CEOs build teams so effective they don’t need a leader.
Aaref Hilaly of Sequoia Capital drives this point home by saying, “[operators] try to build a core executive team that is cohesive and completely on top of its own function.”
Hornik added, “When it comes to scaling, the best entrepreneurs are really good team builders … they hire people whom they trust.”
The best team builders are also relationship management masters. Lazslo Bock, head of Google’s People Division, proved this in Project Oxygen, a 4-year study on productive teams.
Among Bock’s findings was the fact that how a team interacts with each other is more important to productivity than who is on the team. Bock went on to share what he considers the five traits of the most effective teams:
- Psychological safety | Team members must emotionally trust each other.
- Dependability | Team members must be able to rely on each other.
- Structure/Clarity | Team members must know their role and the roles of everyone else.
- Meaning | The work of each team member must be personally meaningful.
- Impact | Each team member must believe they’re making a difference.
Early on, it’s important for the CEO to personally interview every candidate as a way of influencing company culture. However, as the business grows, the CEO needs to delegate that task to the teams they’ve built.
5. Say no. A lot.
Steve Jobs once said, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”
Productive startup CEOs are masters of prioritization, and mastering prioritization means saying no. A lot.
Mastering prioritization means saying no. A lot. | Tweet this!
Hilaly illustrated this point when discussing the most common mistake new entrepreneurs make. He says they, “ … care so much and they feel such a level of responsibility to make the company successful that they take too much onto their plate.”
Sure, it’s tempting to go to conferences and have meetings with every potential business development partner, but you can’t. And even if you could, most of those things are just distractions.
Jung advises startup CEOs to “learn to say no to attending every event on your calendar, and focus on the people who have the biggest impact on your organization.”
That’s true for meetings, but it’s also true for favors, features, and other unproductive distractions (like personally responding to every email).
6. Commit to relentless proactivity
It’s no coincidence that the most successful startup CEOs are also the most proactive.
While there will always be parts of a startup that are reactive, CEOs need to be above that. Tunguz suggests following the lead of one CEO he knows who keeps two days a week free from meetings. He uses the time he’d normally be in a meeting to think proactively about the future of his startup.
CEOs who do this are able to anticipate what’s around the corner, then position the business for what’s to come. This allows them to not only illuminate the path ahead, but also create the confidence that the path they’re on is the right one.
There you have it.
According to some of Silicon Valley’s most successful VCs, the most successful operators:
- Commit to and follow-through on decisions,
- Focus relentlessly on progress,
- Delegate as many of their responsibilities as possible,
- Build progress- and results-driven teams,
- Reject more meetings, favors, and tasks than they accept, and
- Dedicate themselves to relentless productivity