How to create a rocketship that won’t explode

Our society glorifies visionary founders who articulate a grand future their company is creating. These leaders get interviewed on CNBC and invited to speak at Davos. Everybody wants to be known as a visionary leader — everybody except me.

Every executive-level job description demands creative out-the-box thinkers. I think that’s a mistake that leads to chaos and poor execution. Every profile on LinkedIn claims to be a strategic out-of-the-box executive — except for mine.

I will loudly proclaim myself to be an inside-the-box thinker. I’m the guy who gets things done given difficult real-world constraints on time, money, employees, and physical reality.

Startups need leaders who keep the chaotic process of creating a new product focused on grinding forward instead of frequently changing the goal or pivoting to a new idea every month.

That’s not to say a startup doesn’t need a visionary. It does. The company needs a founder with an idea for a better way that breaks free of existing limitations. It needs a leader to set the mission and define the company culture. It needs a leader to inspire the troops and send them out on a suicide mission. It needs a leader to get investors excited about what this germ of a company will become in ten years. That’s the CEO.

Visionary CEOs abstract thinkers and good speakers who can build a reality distortion field that makes even the impossible seem easy.

They’re great with customers and investors. But don’t expect a visionary CEO to write code or implement the CRM system. If that’s on their Trello list, it’s unlikely to get done.

What a startup needs besides a great idea is perfect execution. And visionaries with brilliant new ideas every day can actually get in the way of executing the current project. That’s why in addition to a visionary, a startup needs a “builder.”

The role might be called president, COO, or chief-of-staff, but someone other than the CEO needs to be in charge of building the product and keeping the company on track.

That’s me. I’m not the idea guy; I’m the guy who brings ideas to fruition. I’m not the out-of-box thinker; I’m the person who can accomplish the most within the given limitations. I’m not the architect; I’m the builder. Just as every rocketship needs a visionary to decide where the rocket is going and why, every rocketship needs a builder to get it off the ground without exploding.

For established companies where there are already hundreds or thousands of employees, these roles are well understood. When it’s 3 friends building their first startup, everyone is expected to contribute to everything. And this often leads to conflict.

The builders, like me, expect everyone to “work”. Working means sitting at a desk writing code, calling customers, or refining the pitch deck. We have a long list of things that need to get done, and we want everyone to power through it. We tend to value people’s contributions by how many tasks they check off each day.

For architects, though, the only thing that matters is ideas. For them, work is discussing new and better architectures at the whiteboard. Everything else is the job of “code fairies” who come in overnight and magically build the product like elves who make the shoes for the cobbler in the Grimm fairytale. They tend to value contributions by their brilliance. Everything else is grunt work that can be done by elves.

With such polar opposite personality types, conflicts are inevitable. While the CEO is out wining and dining with customers and investors, the builder is back in the office running meetings and monitoring sales data. The visionary wants to create something new every day; the builder wants to keep everyone focused. Maintaining trust between these two founders is critical for the company’s success.

Building the Right Founding Team

There’s a strong consensus that the ideal founding team for a tech startup consists of one person focusing on the technology/product and another running the business side. I think it’s also important that the startup founding team consists of a visionary and a builder. Without one or the other, the company will either struggle to get off the ground or explode in flight.

One startup I built was with another builder-type founder. We got along really well. We built a really great product. We were great at making existing products better, faster, and easier to use. Customers loved us. But without a visionary, we became very focused on minutia instead of growth. It was easy for us to add new features requested by customers, but difficult to come up with new products that the customers didn’t know they needed.

I’ve also been responsible for sales & marketing at a startup founded and led by a single visionary founder. We started working on 3 different products that each became hundred billion dollar markets before anyone else. We didn’t finish any of them.

The founder had a habit of signing up customers before we figured out how to build the products. Some were impossible with the current technology; others were impractical with the resources we had on hand. Many looked great on the whiteboard, but the devil was in the details of security, administration, and data retention.

Customers hated us for not delivering on our promises, but they loved us, too; they desperately wanted the pie-in-the-sky dreams we promised even if we couldn’t make them.

Venture capitalists are suckers for visionary CEOs. They’re betting on the idea. They rarely dig deep enough into the internal operations to know if the company is executing well, even though that’s probably the biggest difference between success and failure once a company gets to Series A funding and beyond.

Many of the most successful companies, like Oracle, Apple, Google, and Microsoft, combined the brilliance of a visionary with the practical skills of a builder. But getting that balance right is difficult. A builder alone can make a successful small business, but not build a rocketship. A visionary at the helm without oversight can be a recipe for disaster like Theranos and WeWork.

An architect can design the most beautiful building in the world on paper. But it takes a builder to know what’s practical and what’s not, and turn a drawing into blueprints. Which is more important? The visionary may get the all glory, but it takes both the visionary and the builder together to create a rocketship that won’t explode.

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