As the CEO of a start-up, most of my time is spent helping my team figure out what we need to focus on and prioritizing everyone’s time. But as an engineer, my natural tendency is to deep dive and be hands on, to focus on the tasks themselves. I miss the solitary moments of coding. I miss putting on my headphones, tuning the world out, and deep diving into my text editor to hack a new feature or investigate a problem.
In a sense, I still “code” every day. I have an opinion about every little detail…the UI placement of a pixel, the efficiency of an SQL query, the conversion rate on a sale, or the tone of a press release. My personal challenge is knowing when to hold back vs. lead my team to an answer. This is not to say that “coding” is a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s a necessary skill for all start-up CEOs even if you don’t come from a technical background.
Striking that balance of when to “code” or when to lead is a skill I’ve learned from my experience starting and selling two previous companies and now working on my third.
The first year of a start-up is very hands-on. This is where the CEO must do the most “coding.” You are architecting the foundation of your new company and building the team that will take over your initial framework and the culture that you set at the earliest stages. You must love to “code” to be successful at getting a company off the ground as every detail matters at this stage. So be prescriptive, lead by example and make sure your team knows what your standards are and what’s important to you, because it sets the foundation for every success or failure that comes next.
Raising money and building a team requires you to lead rather than “code.” This may seem obvious and second nature to founders with business backgrounds, but this is actually something that engineer-minded CEOs like myself need to practice. In 2002, when I was pitching my first start-up, Transplay, one of the earliest pioneers of in-game advertising and commerce for online games, I was very much an engineer, knowing literally only how to code. Raising money and hiring people was hard. These tasks tested my ability to be more than just a coder –to be a leader and persuade others to believe in my vision and me.
Pitching to VC’s is also hard. Selling your company is even harder. When I sold Handipoints to Slide in October 2009, it required me to be both a coder and a leader. Slide bought Handipoints to leverage my team and technology to build a new virtual world on Facebook. Selling your company is like pitching to VCs and going to a job interview at the same time. Your ability to lead gets you the job interview, but it’s your ability to code that gets you the job.
Now it’s my third time starting a company and you would expect things to get easier. It’s true, prior experience is certainly a confidence booster, but I’ve set the bar higher and expectations of me to be both a great coder and exceptional leader are higher as well. But that challenge is the drive for why I do what I do.