One thing that people don’t know about me is that I played lacrosse for 18 years, and coached for 15 of them. Coached all kinds of players from 3rd grade to college; even spent a year coaching women (which is an unsurprisingly unique experience).
As I started companies, it was easy to believe that as CEO, I would be something of a “player-coach.” I would get my hands dirty when needed, but mostly would run the team and be a leader for the players.
Turns out, being CEO is none of that.
Over the past three years or so, I have been CEO of Graphicly. Until a few months ago when I walked into our Board meeting and informed the board that it was time for me to step down.
It was time for me to remove the “CEO” part of “player-CEO.”
Why? The simple, truthful answer is that it was the right thing for the company and, frankly, the right thing for me.
If you read all the blogs of the smart people, they say that a CEO’s job consists of three primary activities:
- Keep money in the bank.
- Recruit amazing people.
- Articulate the vision.
Which is cool. But what happens when the vision of the company no longer fits your skill set? It happens often. A company grows, it pivots and the product becomes something that is different?—?sometimes vastly different.
“Micah, there are so many ways to monetize our SaaS tool.”
“Micah, we need to drive sales. We need to understand pricing and build infrastructure and processes.”
“Micah, don’t you think it’s time to stop focusing on product and start focusing on scaling?”
Every athlete when faced with an unknown situation always falls back on their default strength. For some, that’s speed. For others, that’s brawn.
In terms of startups; I’m a maker. I build shit that sells. Graphicly is doing millions in revenue; our team is at 25. We have more than 7,000 customers.
But, if I just pushed through the pain, then Graphicly would not continue to grow as fast. My default is not scaling; my default is making.
And, in the world of entrepreneurship it is not if you can run fast; but how you can help your team run the fastest.
So I stepped down.
Ben Horowitz has a great post called Why Founder’s Fail: The Product CEO Paradox:
Then, as the company continued to scale, things started to degenerate. He went from being the visionary product founder who kept cohesion and context across and increasingly complex product line to the seemingly arbitrary decision maker and product bottleneck. This frustrated employees and slowed development. In reaction to that problem and to help the company scale, he backed off and started delegating all the major product decisions and direction to the team.
It was like Ben was writing about me. I was our biggest roadblock. The lack of production and delivery wasn’t because our engineering team wasn’t focused properly or our sales guys weren’t selling, but because I became an “arbitrary decision maker and product roadblock.”
So I stepped down. But not out. I just stepped from the sideline onto the field.
After an exhaustive (at least I was exhausted!) search, we found a guy that was everything I am not. He wears shoes, and a sports coat now and again. He has an MBA and lives in Woodside. He believes in and executes on process and communication infrastructure.
And, David Fox, the guy we brought on, is everything that I believe makes a great CEO. He is a leader. A serial entrepreneur. Three exits. His focus is on scaling the company. Our investors (both current and future) love him; he talks their language. And the team is at an all-time high emotionally and productively; he makes them happy.
We now have a vision that is awesome in its size. It is clear that we have stumbled upon an enormous opportunity that has been articulated by our customers and the marketplace. We have lots to share. Soon! (I promise).
For this to work, I have to take a major step back at Graphicly. I am no longer CEO. It is not my company to run. My job is to support David and his decisions. Yes, I am on the board, and yes, I am a large shareholder, and a contributor, which means I am deeply involved, but business decisions are no longer mine to make. It is David’s company.
But I am playing again. I am picking up the proverbial lacrosse stick and running; seeing the entire field and finding innovative ways for us to win decisively.
And, man, I couldn’t be happier.
I haven’t written much lately. Not sure why, there are lots of ideas in my head. It could be the travel (65 out of 90 days!), or maybe what is happening at Graphicly (change for lack of a better word, is good). Or maybe I’m hitting a down cycle and just want to live (bipolar is awesome!).
In the past couple of days, I have spoken with a friend that left the country in part to just disconnect, another friend that has a budding romance and an app that is soon to launch, and a third friend that is using some crazy computer chips and eInk to take over the world. The commonality among them?
About a year and a half ago, I was in the midst of doing Four Hour Body. One aspect of 4HB is the cheat day, which turns out to be the only part of the diet that I was amazing at accomplishing perfectly.
Near my house in San Mateo, I found a donut shop. It’s old school. No wifi. Cash only. Seats maybe 20. High School girl behind the counter still months away from graduation. And at the corner table, a group of about 6 elderly men and women that clearly have been showing up every Saturday for years.
This was my cheat place. A place that every Saturday I could disappear for a couple of hours and leave all the energy of startup life behind. And their apple fritters are fucking amazing.
Over the course of the next few months, I started to invite friends to join me on Saturday. The rules? Had to be a founder or VC, and couldn’t live in SF or Palo Alto (they have enough meetups). And in a nod to Francisco Dao and 50Kings – no pitching, no selling and no dicks.
What happened was amazing. All pretense disappeared. People began to talk about the best and worst of being a founder. It has become, in the words of one attendee, Founder’s Anonymous.
And now, a year or so later, 10 or 12 people come every Saturday and hangout at this little donut shop with really shitty coffee (but amazing apple fritters) for hours. Like 3 or 4 hours.
Because in order for founders to exist, we need pals.
Peers that are our equals. Not cofounders that are selected based on skill set (which happens way too often), but people who will stand with us in the dark times and we will stand with them under their clouds.
We need to understand that we are not alone. Not because we are “all in this together,” but because the difficulties and successes we face are not unique. We are, after all, members of a local and global startup ecosystem where the interaction between the members of that ecosystem are more important than the actions of the individuals. Yes, we are the sum of our parts.
It has become clear that our donuts meeting, our Founder’s Anonymous needs to scale. That for startup communities where a similar gathering exists, the general happiness factor within that community is higher.
Imagine scaling donuts to each community? How much value would that bring? Knowing that every week you had a place to go where everyone knew your name and nobody cared about your level of success? That sharing a donut would drive the ability to get invaluable advice that was virtually impossible to access anywhere else?
Communities need places like Pilgrim Kitchen. They need places that are so stripped bare that the people who come equally strip their pretense and focus on the betterment of each other.
If you happen to be in the neighborhood and want some good donuts and conversion, swing by. But more importantly, find your own donut place and invite some founders. You might be surprised at the power of shitty coffee.
A few weeks ago while in the midst of a silent Bikram class, the instructor, who clearly didn’t understand the true meaning of silence said:
Success is found in stillness.
And while I dismissed the statement, as I did for the vast majority of the touchy-feely things yoga instructors say, that simple statement found a spot in my brain and just stuck.
One of tenets of being a founder is to keep moving. To do more faster. There is a reason accelerators are not called meanderers. And, after all, we are the Juggernauts, bitch.
Sharks die if they stop swimming.
I was chatting with a founder today, and he talked about how the common trait of founders was that they worked in a direction until they meet a wall, then adjust and move in a new direction. That decisions are made on the move, that the past is forgotten and the focus is only on the future.
There is no present in building a startup.
Perhaps the lie we have been told — that hard work = success — isn’t the only lie. What if in order to move forward, you had to also stand still?
After that class, I started to try and be still. I noticed that it was nearly impossible. I fidget. I am in a constant state of motion. I don’t stop; won’t stop. Even my brain never shuts the fuck up.
So I forced it. I started by keeping my hands still. Then my shoulders. I started to feel my shoulders relax. I focused on a single point in the mirror. And my brain slowed down.
And for a brief moment, I was perfectly still.
Then I lost it.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have worked on being still. Interestingly, the more still I became, the better the following pose became. I strained less. I was in better control of my breathing. I enjoyed it more.
I suppose it’s easy to understand why. Being perfectly still allowed me to think about what was next and my focus cleared. But it was more than that.
I did something I never thought I could. In fact, I did something that I was taught was a detriment to my ability as an entrepreneur. As a entrepreneur, I moved fast. I never stopped. Still? Stillness was death.
As I started to get better at being still, I started to notice how much my friends were not still. Ever. Phones, cigarettes, keys, pens, tapping feet, people walking by, email, tweets, and all the other standard and unique distractions that we gravate to like cats after shiny objects. And it’s not just motion, but noise and lights. Things blinking and beeping. Even in my house, with everything off there was a constant sound. I finally walked over to the fuze box, and turned the main power off.
And then the sound stood still.
It is clear that we live lives of distraction and constant motion, and while everything is moving at the speed of life, we are required to make important decisions about ourselves and our companies.
The more I felt the power of being still, the more I no longer wanted to make decisions on the move. As the next decision loomed, I stopped.
As the voice in the back of my head increased in volume at my apparent indecision, I sat still. As the eyes of my coworkers began to burn with the need for a decision, I closed mine.
After about 30 seconds of thought, I opened my mouth.
And a question popped out.
Not a decision, but a question.
My entire life when asked to make a decision, I have done just that. In fact, most founders when asked to make a decision, so just that. But we do it because that is what is expected of us. That is just what we do.
It is not true that hard work always leads to sucess. In fact, working less is a much more likely path to success. Focusing on you versus your company drives you to do better, and therefore see your company grow faster and smarter.
But stillness? How can doing absolutely nothing help you succeed?
Because it’s a choice. Because it’s the ultimate control. Because, just once, you aren’t doing for the sake of moving; you are stopping for the sake of progress.
Stillness is where success begins.