“I’m a product guy.” That’s pretty much how I used to start any “about me” dialogue as a way of setting the stage for what type of CEO I was.
I liked making it clear that I was a CEO who knows product, knows design, knows how to code and still spends a considerable amount of time doing all of those things.
I’ve always been a product guy.
When I was 9, I started a t-shirt business with a friend. Business plan: make one-off shirts with detailed hand-drawn designs. My first (and only) shirt was a Ferrari F40 painted on a white T.
We sold that shirt for $20. In today’s dollars that’s around thirty seven bucks. Not bad.
When I was in my early 20s, I became obsessed with building and tweaking Media Center PCs (or HTPCs -- “Home Theatre Personal Computers”). I built a crazy rig from scratch, followed by another even better one. It then dawned on me that everyone would want one of these. I poured endless hours into logo design, marketing materials, and (some) inventory deals. I distributed flyers to all the wealthy people I knew (these things were expensive to build) and waited for the sales to come in.
I sold one! But installing and servicing it was a nightmare. Time to move on.
After acquiring a computer science degree and settling into the workforce, I started writing software; some of it freelance work. One project involved “automating an email flow” so that prospects would be emailed three times in a certain sequence until they responded. Oh man, were we ever on to something.
The transition to entrepreneur begins.
I got paid to write software, which was cool, but (with permission) I decided to try and market this software as a product. I spent more time writing code that would enable this software -- initially designed for one user -- to be capable of supporting multiple users/companies. I cared just as much about UX/UI as I did about functionality, but most of this software was written in classic ASP with an Microsoft Access database (if you can call it a database). So it wasn’t exactly set it up to scale. It was an MVP (“Minimum Viable Product”).
By the time my MVP was ready for customers, I started making cold calls to businesses that would absolutely need this kind of email automation. Well, actually I made one cold call. I can still remember how flustered I was even though the lady was nice and willing to hear me out! Time to move on…
This happened with a handful of other software projects that, in retrospect, would have all been viable businesses. Some were entrepreneurial attempts, others were products I built for my family’s business to use internally.
First, there was a resumé site that would allow users to create their professional profile (this was pre-LinkedIn): total fail.
Then, a sophisticated employee/vendor training system that rewarded users with a certificate and prize: internal success.
Next, a shipping-information system that was actually used by some of the biggest brands in the world: another internal hit!
Finally, a movie site dedicated to finding movies based on the cast members you liked: my favorite personal project -- it started going viral so I took it down.
Growing up, I was always a fan of the designing, building, and marketing, but wanted little to do with selling or supporting.
Fast forward a decade.
Today, I am a co-founder and CEO of an amazing, fast growing, SaaS company where my responsibilities have predominantly been product vision and execution. Although in the early days I was doing everything including selling, supporting and operations, my co-founder and COO handles those areas of the business much better than I ever could. And with a team now of over 65 incredible employees, I have the freedom to focus on what I love -- product.
But a CEO who still codes is total taboo. I’m sure it happens more than we know -- the CEO of New Relic is the only well-regarded CEO I’ve heard speak openly about coding -- but it’s definitely not something you go around bragging about. I’m a CEO -- I should be doing “CEO things”!
I haven’t written a line of code in four months.
It’s been four months since I’ve contributed directly to our product. Before that, my longest stretch was probably four days!
So, what changed?
- I finally realized that product evolution never ends and is only one facet of the business. Other departments need me too.
- I brought on a VP of Engineering that I felt I could trust with running the product to my satisfaction. He started just over four months ago.
- For the product to evolve and meet the vision, the vision itself needed my full attention.
I ventured out.
I started spending a lot of time thinking, speaking, presenting, and formulating a thesis around Uberflip’s business and surrounding landscape.
I started going to every sales meeting to be fully informed about the sales process. I was always interested in it, I just didn’t want to do it myself.
I started checking in with my management team more frequently to learn about, and contribute to, the day-to-day evolution of each department.
I started writing more articles instead of lines of code.
I created a framework for content marketing that not only helped to express my thoughts, but also enabled us as a team to more easily make tough decisions regarding what our product should and shouldn’t do.
I’m doing a lot more “CEO things” and loving it.
Related: 4 Things That All CEOs Hate
That doesn’t mean I’m done coding.
I still believe in keeping that part of the brain operating effectively.
However, I feel like I’m finally using my skills as an asset for working on the business instead of in it.
I was nervous that by not being involved in the day-to-day of product that I wouldn’t get to scratch my creative itch. But in reality, I’m able to create even more across the whole company -- with better clarity on what needs to be done -- and still feel like I’m making my mark.
As one of our advisors helped to describe it, instead of getting my hands dirty, I’m now “painting with influence.”