“Do you go hire a bunch of useless salespeople like Oracle?”
This was the first of many memorable interactions I had with Eliot Horowitz. Eliot was the founder and CTO of MongoDB and in late 2010 I was interviewing to come on board as president. Product-driven growth was far from the usual buzzword it is today, but MongoDB’s founding team had built a product that developers loved — the developer love that would drive much of the company’s rapid growth.
My topic today isn’t product-driven growth, but the relationship between a founder, like Eliot, and a hired CEO and the key factors needed to make that relationship work. Those dynamics have always been important, but focusing on them is critical in today’s more volatile, fast-moving technology markets.
At first glance, Eliot’s question was about business models and hiring salespeople. But it went much deeper: our discussion was a live experiment about how we would work together to get to the heart of a startup’s decisive partnership between a CEO and a founder. The area we covered that day included:
- Was I open to unorthodox thinking?
- Can I justify my plans based on principles?
- Was I willing to talk to a young tech founder about business issues?
- Did the discovery that the founders wanted to challenge the established way of doing things excited me to get involved – or did I want to run for the hills?
- Can I make a business decision that conflicts with the founder’s views and make us both feel good about the process?
These are all valid questions and examples of potential points of tension between a tech founder and a new leader brought in from the outside. How a founder and a CEO handle these tensions can help determine a company’s ultimate success.
Beyond product-market fit
A lot can go wrong with a startup, but to succeed, two things have to go right: first, the product has to fit well in the market, which is almost always the domain of the founder(s), and second, it has to running a business successfully, which is sometimes the domain of a hired CEO.
In almost all cases, the original product and market vision comes from the founders. They started the company because they had the insight that something could be done better and had an idea how it could be done better. When that idea resonates with a broad audience, you have the core of product and market fit. Without it there is no business.
But that initial product-market fit is not nearly enough. A company needs financing, a team and ultimately it needs to perform in engineering, sales, customer success and marketing. In some cases, a founder is interested in and has shown an initial aptitude to lead all of these areas. In other cases they don’t, and in these cases they need a partner to run the business of the company.
The four years I spent at MongoDB – first as president, then as CEO – have been a great experience. The company exploded and changed the database market and the way developers built web applications. Perhaps more importantly, we laid some of the foundations for what would later become a wildly successful cloud company that transformed the way enterprises delivered and consumed infrastructure software.
We couldn’t have done that without a strong partnership between the founders and me, especially with Eliot and Dwight Merriman (founder and first CEO, who eventually became chairman). Decisions were not neatly divided into product categories for them and operational for me.