The CEO Journey: A Letter to My CEO Self

12th July 2018

By Shirin Dehghan

Dear 33-year-old Shirin,

You are about to embark on a journey that will change your life and you as a person forever.  You have always been very competitive, hardworking, and tenacious and, believe me, these qualities will come very handy when running your business.

You are an engineer and, being a technologist, you have a blind belief that the best technical solution must win the market. Let me tell you that you are wrong.  Technology will only contribute to 10% of your company’s success. I know you are reading this with shock and horror but take it from your older self who learnt the hard way and nearly lost the company.  Technology is a really important 10%, without which you don’t have a company, but the rest is all to do with delivering value to your customers, go-to-market strategy, competitive/market positioning, sales and marketing, scalability and ultimately execution.  So, don’t get too comfortable when engineers praise and love your product, that’s not enough to make you successful. You need to win the market. You need to win executives and budget holders within your customer base. Pay particular attention to customer acquisition. You want to come across to your customer base as credible and the ones to work with. What you say publicly, your website and the buzz you create around your company and the space is critical to winning customers and the market.

Make sure you hire the best. Pay particular attention to your talent’s level of energy, work ethic, proactiveness, resilience, competitiveness – essentially, a strong entrepreneurial spirit. People with these qualities will fit in just fine. This applies across the board, whether you are hiring a great engineer or a great sales director. Avoid hiring those who have been in very large companies and held senior management positions. These executives may be suitable for your advisory board because of their industry knowledge and roller deck, but they are not suitable for running a small company’s sale or product. Only hire from big companies if this person has been personally responsible for bringing out new products. These folks are entrepreneurs within a big company. They don’t necessarily have big titles but senior management know who they are and they are always given the most difficult projects.

If you do everything right, you will see that the market is now coming to you. This is when you will discover how critical it really is that your product or technology is robust. Now is the time for that vital 10% to really work – and work at scale. Many start-ups fail at this juncture. The product starts creaking and technical debt comes back to haunt you. Every customer deployment is a painful process for the company and the customer. Reputations are lost, confidence in boards becomes shattered and, in extreme cases, your growth becomes limited leading to a frustrated salesforce, not to mention low morale across the engineering team. So, staying ahead of the curve and on top of your product’s scalability becomes an existential necessity.

In summary, keep these five things in mind and you will be fine:

  • Technology only contributes 10% to your company’s success
  • Hire the best talent everywhere
  • Focus on customer acquisition
  • Ensure your product is scalable
  • Enjoy the ride

Yours,

Shirin (48 years old)