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The Tech CEO Success Model:
8 Truths from Silicon Valley

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Tech CEOs face particular challenges. Venture Partner Pete Daffern has been a CEO three times over, and overseen US and EMEA operations for a handful of multi-billion dollar companies. Here, he sets out the 8 Truths that could bite any tech CEO where it hurts. Forewarned is forearmed.

  1. A buck is NOT a buck

Some dollars can really hurt your business. A strange statement, but think about it like this: what did you have to do to earn that last dollar?

Did you twist out of shape to get it? Did it hinder your roadmap or your product development? And what did you miss out on while you earned it? While you’re doing the ‘bad’ dollars, you’re not working towards the good ones.

Seeing the true value and cost of each strand of revenue as it comes in will encourage you to defend your most precious asset: the company’s core mission.

  1. Everyone has a shelf life

You’ll have your star players and your close confidants. But forget that everyone has a shelf life and you could one day find yourself on a raft of dead wood.

The hard truth is that no one is great at their role forever. People are organic, they rise and they fall (and yes, sometimes they rise again). Just because someone was great at your last company, doesn’t automatically mean they will replicate it in the new one. Motivations and energy levels change. This isn’t about back-stabbing or a culture of mistrust, but it is about realism. Staying alert, rational and objective will maintain exceptional standards. Just being aware of this shelf life fact will keep you alert to your team’s – and your company’s – health, day-to-day.

  1. Good enough is not good enough

When the pressure’s on – and when won’t it be – it’s easy to settle for ‘good enough’. Good enough… for now, is a particularly insidious version of this bear trap. The thinking is, “let’s put up with ‘good enough’ in this area while we double down on the bigger problem elsewhere”. In other words, procrastination is a necessary evil.

Unfortunately this is not an option. Toleration of mediocrity has brought down many a good company. Sales and marketing and key roles such as VP of Engineering are susceptible to this. They tick over, until they don’t.

  1. Saying No is hard, but do it often

There is such a thing as a ‘positive No’. While you get clear on exactly what your strategy is, what the product is, your go-to-market, your values, what your customers want… don’t be afraid of saying No.

It’s a positive affirmation of the value you place on staying focused at all costs. Jeff Miller, a veteran Silicon Valley leader, said No to a $1m deal in the early days of his company, Documentum. Why? Because it wasn’t on strategy. It spawned the legend, “we may not be right, but we are not confused”. Saying No, clearly, positively and often, keeps you safely away from confusion. You’ll be absolutely clear on what you’re saying Yes to.

  1. Being a CEO is hard: 25/8

Those numbers refer to the more usual 24/7. The sooner you accept that being a CEO is a necessarily consuming role, the better.

Some CEOs say that if they’re doing their job properly, they won’t be working late nights and weekends. That’s a nice thought – and could be true in some cases. When everything’s in place, and the right people are spinning the plates in the right way, yes, a CEO just needs to nudge the tiller towards the chosen point on the horizon. But then an IP infringement lands out of nowhere, or a key employee announces she’s leaving. Just when things are going well, that’s when something completely unpredictable blind-sides you. Accepting that your job is to be available and alert most every waking hour will mean you’re prepared and willing to stretch as required.

  1. You will likely not do this again

Startup founder CEOs sometimes talk to me about their “next idea”. It’s no surprise when they do. By nature, entrepreneurs are ideas people. They can’t stop having them, and nor should they. The difficulty is when the bright green grass of the “next idea” distracts from the job in hand. The single word question to ask yourself – and it’s a hard one – is “really?”. Think about the time and energy it took you to nurture this idea, the one you and your company are living now. Five years? Ten years? Do you really want to do that all over again? Serial entrepreneurs do exist, but they are rare. More common, is the dedicated, through-thick-and-thin pioneer, who builds up a wonderful, resilient company stemming from a single idea.

  1. There are no short cuts

It’s tempting. Outsourcing or selling through partners can seem to solve a myriad of problems, but a good rule of thumb is that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. A strong, lasting company is built not created. Brick by brick. It can feel like a slog, but as you look back, you’ll see how each incremental stage was necessary to construct what you have now.

  1. You can’t sell a platform

Business people buy solutions to their problems. You may think that a company like SAP sells platforms – it doesn’t. It’s a platform on which they’ve built applications that solve business problems. It’s a subtle but powerful difference.

As my friend Philip Lay says, “‘platform’ is practically a suicidal term until customers have shown that they care about what your product can do to help them solve at least one important, preferably urgent, business problem.”

If you hear any of your sales people saying, “it’s a platform, it can do anything,” have a serious chat with them.

Conclusion

They’re hard, some of these truths. But keeping them front of mind will keep you ever ready to face them, if and when (by which I mean ‘when’) they occur. And speaking as a three-times CEO, don’t forget – it’s meant to be fun!

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