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Essential Leadership Tips for First-Time Startup CEOs

As a founder myself, I’ve learned that being a startup CEO is not about glamour; it’s about grit. It’s essential to acknowledge that this role can be incredibly challenging and thankless at times. So, buckle up and grow a thick skin. While there is scope to learn all functions, here I’ll focus on your personal leadership rather than broader operational strategies.

In most startups, your co-founders and initial hires are likely to be your friends and people you know well. You don’t hire your enemies. Be aware of this fact. As a result, what happens at work may affect your social life and friendships. So, it’s crucial to have clear rules on decision-making and finances. More than profit sharing, it’s important to have clear ideas on who will fund the losses. In my experience, it’s best to state clearly that the CEO (whoever it is) has the veto power and everyone should accept it from day one. This same friendship-work equation continues with new hires. If they see the CEO playing favorites with friends, it will affect morale from the start.

Being a CEO is a lonely job. Not everything happening in the business can be shared with everyone. It’s not hiding; it’s ensuring the team can focus on their work without worrying about other things. Get used to this ‘selective’ sharing. Have one or two advisors available for quick calls to help with tough decisions or to guide you when you’re new to an area and have to make a quick decision.

Learn to make quick decisions when needed and own up to the consequences. Without making mistakes, no CEO has learned the job. You can never be a perfect CEO from the start.

You have to be a multitasker par excellence. Just when you’re writing an important proposal, problems like the coffee machine running out of refills or a cloud subscription stopping due to a credit card issue will land on your desk. Be mentally ready to handle it, not necessarily by yourself, and return to the proposal without missing a beat or losing your temper.

venkatarangan thirumalai startup's first anniversary
[Picture taken 25 years ago at our startup’s first anniversary. Naïve but excited, sharing my vision]

Lastly, have “me” time for personal learning and relaxing. I took up blogging twenty years ago as a way to offload work-related items to my blog. Over the years, I have written over 4,000 posts on various subjects, including movies I enjoy, books I read, and places I visit. It helps me a lot in de-stressing and decluttering my mind.

Remember, one of the main perks of doing a bootstrap startup is the fun you and your co-founders will have during the journey. So, don’t miss it by having too many rules and being rigid. At the same time, laying a few ground rules will help the startup and your friendships not impact each other.