We continue with the #InsightsPodcast Series with a conversation on the evolving role of a Founder-CEO with Elad Gil, serial entrepreneur, investor and most recently, author of High Growth Handbook.: Scaling Startups from 10 to 10,000 People.
Elad Gil has had a lot of experience with super-high-growth startups, having grown Google from 1,500 people to 15,000 people in just over three years. Following the stint at Google, Elad started a company called Mixer Labs, where he expanded the team from 90 to 1,500 in just a couple of years. The firm was acquired by Twitter in just a few years.
It was around this time that he started contemplating high growth and how to build a machine that can recruit 10 people a week instead of one person a month. What was supposed to be a blog post became a massively successful book. Elad is also involved as an operating executive, investor or advisor to private companies such as AirBnB, Coinbase, Gusto, Instacart, Optimizely, Pinterest, Square, Stripe, Wish, and Zenefits.
In this podcast, we talk about the role of the startup CEO. Until very recently, the Founder was CEO only until they could get the company off the ground. After that, professional management took over. Mark Zuckerberg changed that, establishing a tradition where the Founder and CEO became the mainstay with a very strong executive team backing them.
Elad tells us about the importance of the Founder-CEO, and the vision and entrepreneurial spirit they bring to the table. He also goes into greater detail about the evolving role of the CEO.
While hard work is important for success, avoiding burn-out is even more critical. It is important for founders to take a break and make some time for themselves. Founders should focus on building relationships outside of work, because this will be their support system when they go through really hard times at work. The typical image of a Silicon Valley founder is that of an individual who works very hard. What we don’t hear about is the vacations and breaks they take that allows them to push that hard.
As startups scale, it is important for the CEO to play multiple roles, but it is even more critical for them to realise their weaknesses and hire for those positions. They also need to be willing and open to learn from the next level. The “growth mindset” is extremely important for founders to lead the company and make it a truly generational one. Learning from your peers, and being able to trust them with their work and letting go is key to taking the company to the next level each and every time.
Accel shares such interesting entrepreneurial stories, with informative nuggets to run and scale your startup. Follow the links below and subscribe to our #Accel #INSIGHTSPodcast Series using the following links: iTunes, Google Podcast, Stitcher, Twitter@Accel_India, and the RSS feed.
Below, we’ve shared an edited transcript of the conversation with Elad.
Elad Gil: Make sure that you’re also taking care of yourself: exercise, it will help a lot with sleep. When I started Color, I was CEO there for the first four years. Frankly, one of my big regrets is there is a couple of circumstances where I worked through weekends where I really shouldn’t have. My first anniversary with my wife, we went away to Napa which is wine country in the Bay area. We were supposed to have a romantic weekend, and then I spent half of it negotiating a big deal on the phone that didn’t come through. Honestly, if I’d waited three days, that deal still would have ended up in the same result.
Anand Daniel: Hi and welcome to the INSIGHTS Podcast Series from Accel. I’m your host Anand Daniel. Hope you had a chance to listen to our previous podcast with Binny Bansal in which he recounted the journey of Flipkart. Today, we’re going to be chatting with Elad Gil. Elad is a successful entrepreneur as well as an operator in some of the high growth startups and also an active angel investor. Elad has written a successful book called a High Growth Handbook. It’s a must read for most entrepreneurs, and we at Accel India really like the book and gave it as a holiday gift to all entrepreneurs. Hope you get a chance to read it as well.
There are a lot of great lessons in the High Growth Handbook. Today, I focused on a few topics with Elad. The first is, how to figure out who among the co-founders should be the CEO, what are the key roles of a CEO, what are some of the skills both hard and soft that as a CEO you need to be working on. Also, what are the skills that other co-founders can be working on themselves as well. It’s a reasonably short, fast-paced chat that I had. Let’s dive right in.
I am super excited to welcome Elad Gil to this podcast. Welcome to the podcast Elad.
Elad Gil: Thanks so much for having me today.
Anand Daniel: Awesome. Thanks for joining in from San Francisco. This is the first time we’re doing a remote recording. Hopefully, this goes well. Before we start, just talk to us about your trips to India, maybe that’s an interesting one. It is great to hear that you’ve been here a number of times.
Elad Gil: Yes, sure, I’ve been to India multiple times. In a work context, I’ve been there for Google when I worked at Google. I visited the Hyderabad and Bangalore offices. Then I also have spent many months at a time in India doing yoga in Mysore, India or traveling. I’m a huge fan of the country and the startup ecosystem.
Anand Daniel: That’s awesome. We want to take some time off and go do some of these things, I’m glad you could do that.
Maybe let’s start out with your background. Tell us your story before writing this book.
Elad Gil : Sure. My career has basically been split between operating and investing. On the operating side, I’ve started two companies. One was acquired by Twitter, and one is still up and running, it’s called Color Genomics. It’s raised about $150 million to date. I actually started my career at Google where I started the mobile team there. I joined when there was about 1,500 people. By the time I left, three and a half years later, it was 15,000 people.
Similarly, when Twitter bought my first company MixerLabs, which is an early developer infrastructure company, Twitter was about 90 people and about two year later, it was 1,500. In both cases, those were very high growth startups. It went through all the turbulence of those things growing very quickly. Then as an investor, I’m involved with companies like Airbnb, Coinbase, Gusto, Instacart, Stripe, Square, Pinterest, Wish and the like as an angel. I’ve been involved with a number of companies that have more recently broken out and seen growth from the angle of a investor, adviser in companies.
Anand Daniel: Congratulations, that’s amazing. Maybe that leads me to the question of what made you want to write the High Growth Handbook?
Elad Gil: I think the primary driver — Originally, I was actually going to launch it as a website versus a book. I sat down over Christmas break a few years ago, maybe two year ago now, and just as there are very common questions that arise for early stage companies, as companies start to scale and break out, there’s common questions that founders start to ask in terms of, how do they hire executives for the first time, especially for roles like a CFO or a GC that they’ve never actually worked with or hired for? Or how do they buy other companies, or how do they internationalize? How do they raise late stage rounds? How do you manage your team? How do you communicate effectively at scale?
The same sets of questions kept coming up over and over and over again. I just really sat down to try and write a guide to answer those questions. It was almost like an FAQ for high growth companies. The focus was very much on tactical advice. I tried to avoid platitudes, telling somebody that A players hire A players and B players don’t isn’t really helpful because nobody ever writes I’m an A player on my resume.
I think really what you need to do is ask, “Well, how do I build a recruiting org that can hire 10 people a week instead of one person a month?” Really, I thought that the tactical advice would be really valuable and in parallel, I started interviewing a number of people who’d been through the high growth road themselves, Rita Hoffman or Marc Andreessen or Claire Hughes Johnson from Stripe or the like. I thought that overlaying their stories on top of tactical content would help bring it to life and provide other perspectives for my own.
I wrote all this up. I ended up with 100–150 pages and I had the website coded and ready to go. Then I had dinner with John Collison, one of the founders of Stripe, and I mentioned to him that I was working on this. He asked to see it and he circulated it to a couple of his friends and then a day or two later, he wrote back and asked if Stripe could publish it because Stripe had already been issuing different guides on the Atlas side or they have a quarterly for developers. This, eventually, led to them launching a publishing imprint called Stripe Press which has now published books from Tyler Cowen and a variety of other luminary authors. It was very organic honestly in terms of how it all came together.
Anand Daniel: You got Stripe to think about publishing seeing your manuscript. That’s amazing. Congrats on the first book becoming out to be so well written and so very thoughtful. It’s amazing. I hope you write many more.
Elad Gil: Thanks. The next one will be a romance novel. I’m very excited to — No, I’m joking, to change direction.
Anand Daniel: I was starting to think that you are.
Elad Gil: It’s a Silicon Valley romance. It’s very exciting.
Anand Daniel: That’s a different side of —
Elad Gil: Yes. I’m not going to write that.
That would be awful.
Anand Daniel: In this series we are focusing on founder scaling and what are some of the key skills for the founders to be working on. Before we get into that, I want to spend a lot of time today on what is the role of the CEO, which you have written a chapter on in your book. Even before getting into the role of the CEO, let’s start with how do you figure out who should be the CEO? I want to start with that question.
Elad Gil: It’s a great question and I think it’s a tough one because it’s actually evolved quite a bit in terms of what people think best practice is. If you go back into the ’90s, for example, often the founders ended up not being the CEO. They ended up getting replaced pretty quickly by their board with a “grey-haired” person or professional CEO or adult supervision.
Oddly, what was found is that the companies that organically kept the founder as CEO or one of the founders as CEO, in general, tend to do best and build truly generational companies. Often, the ones where they hired in somebody, eventually lost that entrepreneurial pizzazz. I think the big transition really happened and Bill Gates and Microsoft would be an example of that or-
Anand Daniel: Steve Jobs.
Elad Gil: -Steve Jobs or Michael Dow. There’s actually quite a few of them. In the ’90s, everybody got swapped out as CEO, unless they were a profitable company or unless they had additional leverage. Jeff Bezos obviously stayed on as CEO and has done amazing things at Amazon. I think, really, the transition that happened was in the mid-2000s, Mark Zuckerberg really negotiated a strong position for himself for board seats largely because Sean Parker had gotten fired from a company called Plaxo before joining Facebook as founding President.
He basically convinced Zuck that he should only raise money in a way apart from Accel actually, that would allow him to maintain board control so he can never get fired. What Zuckerberg ended up doing is hiring Sheryl Sandberg as COO and that really flipped the whole model of Silicon Valley because that company was very successful. Suddenly, there is a new model for investors and for founders in terms of having a founder CEO, but then hiring a COO to cover all the functions that the founder really didn’t want to deal with. Those could be people issues, it could be sales and marketing, it could be a variety of things, obviously the CEO should be involved with those things.
In terms of who should be CEO, I think part of it comes down to what’s the CEO job and what type of company do you have? If you have a developer-centric company, you may need a very different CEO than if you have a consumer products company. When all is said and done, I think that the role of the CEO is, number one, to set the strategy and direction of the company. Number two is to make sure that the company can hire and retain great people and then allocate them against their strategic directions.
Number three is making sure that the company is well capitalized, either through fund raises or through making money off of its customers. That means that the CEO often has to be good at selling because they have to sell to people that join them. They have to sell the company for capital and then they have to sell to their end customers. It needs to be somebody who can be very convincing. That doesn’t mean charismatic, but it means convincing.
Lastly, I think, the unwritten rule of the CEO is that almost like a chief psychologist. Eventually, as a company scales you deal with more and more people issues and people are upset about not getting promoted or whatever it may be. Often, that’s not mentioned frequently enough for the role of the CEO, at least until they build out a stronger management team under them.
Really, what you want to optimize is for the person who can do all those things. When all is said and done, I would choose a more product-centric CEO who can sell effectively over a very technical CEO who can’t do those other things or a very sales-centric CEO who lacks the product sensibility that will really set the right strategy up for the company. Obviously, it’s very contextual because it really depends on what the company is actually doing. I’m not saying that a product-centric CEO isn’t very technical, I’m just saying, say that you had three engineers starting a company, I’d bias towards the one that had the strongest both products sensibilities but also is very effective at selling.
Anand Daniel: Selling doesn’t necessarily mean only selling, it’s also for hiring and all kinds of selling.
Elad Gil: Yes, it’s convincing. Can you convince people to join your company? Can you convince investors to give you money? Can you convince customers to take a shot on you? Often that ends up being a very crucial component. It doesn’t have to be that way. I know of founding situations where the more effective founder at selling is not the CEO and those companies do perfectly fine too.
Again, it just comes down to what sort of company it is. To take a bigger step back, I think the most important things are: number one, you just need somebody in charge. One of the myths of Silicon Valley is that you should always have equal co-founders and I would separate equal in equity from equal in decision making. Ultimately, you need somebody to make a decision and a lot of the founder blow ups I’ve seen have been due to the fact that you don’t have clear decision making.
People say, “Well, I make the decisions on product and this other person makes decisions on business and therefore it’s no big deal and we get along great.” That doesn’t really work because eventually the product and the business will conflict on something. The technical side of the business will conflict on something. You need somebody who can just make a final call with the agreement that everybody just moves on.
Anand Daniel: The one almost, for lack of a better way, the deal breaker, where the buck stops with them. If there’s any any conflict, they should be able to resolve that.
Elad Gil: Exactly.
Anand Daniel: Actually the framework you mentioned is very good for the listeners listening, so overall the skills needed or overall strategic direction, hiring and allocating resources, raising capital be through either fundraising or sales, and then the final one is act as a psychologist. That’s pretty unique. Maybe talk a little bit about that. That’s not often heard.
Elad Gil: I think it’s a little bit of an add on simply because what a lot of founders find themselves doing or how they morph, how their role morphs over time is that eventually a lot of their job is one, strategic direction and weighing in on things, but two is really managing teams at scale and communicating effectively to those teams. What that means is you really have to get in touch with how do people view the world, that may be very different from your own view as a founder, and how do you ultimately encourage and nudge them to do the right things for themselves and for the company and simultaneously, how do you just align people against a goal.
Part of that alignment means that there may end up being some pretty high touch interactions with people on your team around different things that they’re thinking about or facing, almost psychologically in the role that they have. Similarly, can you identify when an executive is reaching the point of scale at which they’re going to break? What are the warning signs of that. Those are often almost psychological cues. Somebody always late to meetings and seeming very flustered. Is somebody starting to micromanage because they are out of time and they’re just jumping on everything. You start to see these patterns. I do think that’s another role that a CEO can play over time.
Anand Daniel: Got it. That’s really good advice there. You give some really good tactical advice in the first chapter, the role of the CEO. Could you talk about a few of those for the founders listening in. Which of those, in your opinion, is a must do? I’m sure all them are, but if you could talk about a few of those.
Elad Gil: Sure. I think one thing I’ve seen a lot of founders struggle with is ultimately they are very used to, as a founder, having to do everything themselves. That’s everything from writing the code for the product initially to all the hiring, to customer calls, to everything.
Anand Daniel: Superman.
Elad Gil: Yes. They’re basically Superman and as the company scales, a lot of founders keep doing things that they actually shouldn’t be doing. It’s not the most valuable use of their time. Often what I end up eventually doing with some of the founders I work with, is I literally sit down and say let’s go through your calendar day by day for this week and talk about the things you actually shouldn’t be doing.
A friend of mine has this really interesting framework which is the way that you become successful early in your career is you say yes to everything. You take on more responsibility, you go to networking events, you take on more meetings, you do whatever you can to scrape your way in, but then once you become successful you will have to switch to saying no to almost everything. It’s a very hard mental transition for people, because it’s the opposite of the thing that made them successful.
I think in the context of a startup, the version of that is you’re used to do everything yourself, but then you suddenly realize, do I really need to be in the weekly sales meeting that’s getting into the nitty-gritty of every single thing or do I really need to be in the meeting that’s discussing the exact technical architecture of my back end? Related in the flip side of that is, you don’t want to get rid of all the stuff you enjoy however. I think the biggest reason that founders eventually burnout is in their role as CEO, they take on more and more stuff that they don’t want to be doing day by day. In some sense, those are the things that you should most actively delegate. If you really hate having to sit in the sales comp meeting, delegate that and then discuss it with your VP sales.
On the delegation side, I think the one other thing that is a good thing to do besides the auto-editing of your own calendar, is try to leave meetings without any action items as much as possible. There’s lots of times that I’ve seen CEOs jump in and take action items that really one of the people on their team should be doing instead. First and foremost is delegate.
Second big transition is growing skills as a manager. There’s tons of say about that. Third, is focusing on communication. I think fourth, which is another thing that a lot of people don’t talk about is becoming more commercial if you’re a technical founder. Really start teaching yourself what are the different pricing models in the world? How should I actually price my product? Think more strategically about that. There’s all sorts of online content around that or people you can talk to.
A lot of people will see organic bottoms up success for an enterprise SAS company now, and they’ll just take a very long time to build a sales team because they just don’t think it’s needed, but they could have been growing two, three times faster if they actually thought about sales and marketing more as a tool. I think it’s almost like forcing yourself to fill out your weaknesses.
That doesn’t mean you have to know how to do everything. It’s more just educate yourself and then maybe hiring the people who can do it because ultimately, startups are a team effort. You should figure out the one or two things that you’re exceptional at and then hire out a team that can do all the things that you don’t do well.
I’ll give you an example of that. There was executive at Google who I worked with, who’s one of the best people manager I’ve ever seen in my life. He was extremely detail oriented and an amazing operations person. This was somebody on the sales and operations team, but he was very non-analytical. In other words, he just wasn’t very good with data.
Anytime a data-centric project would come up, he’d put up his hand and want to do it because he thought that he’d be rounding out a skill set, but really he just wasn’t very good at it, he didn’t have the right skill set, he didn’t have the right instincts. Frankly, he was very good at managing the people who could do it very well. Sometimes, if you’re weak at something, it’s okay to be weak at it. Just find somebody who’s good at it and let them do it. You don’t have to be great at everything.
Anand Daniel: Hope you’re taking notes there. There were a lot of deep points there, first on the role of the CEO and what are the four main things that the CEO should be focusing on: strategic direction for the company, focusing on hiring great talent, raising capital be it through fundraising or through customers and finally, being the psychologist for the company.
Then he went into a series of tactical advice on starting from auditing the calendar and figuring out where you should be actually spending time and delegating the rest of your tasks to other people as well as leaving meetings without action items, unnecessary action items, working on your communication skills, developing managerial skills, developing good commercial acumen as a founder and figuring out what you are as a founder exceptional at, and figuring out other team members to compliment you and round out the team.
At the end of the day, startup is a team sport, as he pointed out, and you as the CEO, need to develop a team around you that can really make you shine together as a team. Now, in this next section, Elad is going to be talking about how do you take care of yourself as a CEO? This is not often talked about, but very important for the CEO to be working on.
Elad Gil: I think a related point is take care of yourself. If you’re working seven days a week, 10 hours a day, eventually, you’re not going to be able to sustain that. You should also figure out how to carve out time. Do a date night with your spouse once a week and make sure that you make that 80% of the time or 90% of the time or whatever. Do take occasional long weekends. Make sure that you’re also taking care of yourself. Exercise, it’ll help a lot with sleep [chuckles].
When I started Color, I was CEO there for the first four years and frankly, one of my big regrets is there was a couple of circumstances where I worked through weekends where I really shouldn’t have. My first anniversary with my wife, we went away to Napa which is wine country in the Bay Area. We were supposed to have a romantic weekend and then I spent half of it negotiating a big deal on the phone that didn’t come through. Honestly, if I’d waited three days that deal still would have ended up in the same result. I should have just waited three days.
I think we also put this burden of urgency on ourselves as founders and most of the time, that’s the right thing to do but sometimes you also have to draw clear lines just for your own health and the health of your relationships.
Anand Daniel: Actually I want to double click there because in India, founders think that the more number of hours they work, it’s better for the company. I want to hear your thoughts there, is the thinking different in the Bay Area or in the US?
Elad Gil: I think you do have to work hard to be successful. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you see founders who are always off on some boondoggle, they got invited to some networking event or they’re doing just things that frankly, are just not real work. Definitely, there’s the extreme lazy side of the world which I definitely don’t endorse. The flip of it is it can go too far where if you’re working 10 hours a day, seven days a week, frankly, you’re not probably being ultimately productive even if it feels that way.
Even if you are productive, you’re just going to hit a point where you’ve either completely destroyed other aspects of your life and support system which is bad for you psychologically and eventually will come back and bite you. Or you just exhaust yourself to the point where you’re just not effective and you’re making bad decisions, and you’re always tired and grumpy and creating a bad environment because people learn from you as CEO in terms of how to act culturally.
I do think that it’s very important to make sure that you unplug. I also think it’s very important to make sure that you’re building those other relationships in your life. So if work is going really hard and bad, but aspects of your personal life are positive you’re going to weather the storm much better than if everything’s going bad because you’re not investing in those relationships long term.
Anand Daniel: Do you have any examples in the valley of people you think who have done outstanding job? I know I’m putting on the spot, but we hear of all these legendary people, so anyone you think who does it well?
Elad Gil: Sure, I think the Collisons from Stripe are very hard workers, but you also see them they’ll take the week vacation to go somewhere or the weekend off where they’re doing a quick trip. I do think they work very hard. Honestly, a lot of the people that have modeled themselves as workaholics in the press, you then hear of them, “They just spent a week in London.” So you’re like, “What?” They’re talking about how they’re sleeping on the floor of their office all the time but they’re off doing all these other things.
I think some of those things are a little bit of the mythos of a lot of founders that they create for themselves. I do think they have periods of incredible intensity and hard work, especially around shipping a product or in the early days of a company. If a company is 10 years old, and the founder is still sleeping on the floor because they didn’t leave work for the night, usually there’s something weird going on or it’s just not correct.
Anand Daniel: Absolutely. These are all really good points in the role of the CEO. I want to switch gears and talk about what are the other things as a founder, it could be the CEO or it could be any of the founders because there could be one who’s in charge of technology, another one in charge of operations, any of them. The reason I’m asking this is the thesis is that the founder scaling is an important part of the company scaling. You’ve talked about some of it already, in your view — and you’ve talked about a few of these in your books, maybe you can just go through those points, like what are the top ways that you’ve seen founders scaling well?
Elad Gil: Sure. I think the first thing to ask yourself as a founder is, what do you really want to be doing and what are you good at if you’re not the founder CEO? That’s going to be a conversation with the CEO and with the board and with your other co-founders. There are some circumstances where founders decide, “All I want to do is be an IC and I’d be happy with that.” A great example of that would be Steve Wozniak, Apple, where he was actively relieved. They didn’t have to manage people.
There are some people who just want to be very deep technically, and they’re very happy with that and that’s great. I think usually those people stick with the company for a long time and they work out very well. Similarly, you see situations where founders really continue to take extremely important roles throughout the life of the company, even if they’re not the CEO, and they play an important role in the strategy and the development of the company. A great example of that would be Nate, one of the co-founders of Airbnb, where Brian Chesky has always been the CEO, but Nate’s taken an enormous responsibility.
He actually started off as the engineering co-founder of the three of them, but his role morphed dramatically over time and now I believe he’s the Chief Strategy Officer, he’s the chairman of Airbnb China, he’s been involved with their internationalization, with their operations. He’s really been one of the key backbones of the company. I think there’s circumstances like that where somebody is extremely capable, and they just take on a wide variety of responsibilities. Then there’s other circumstances where people take on a more narrow role as a VP or, again, as an IC, and I think that’s great too.
I think it just comes down to what you’re good at, what you want to do, how everything evolves. I think where things tend to break down is where a founder wants a role that’s bigger than what they’re actually capable of doing. Sometimes you just have to ask yourself is that really the right thing for you to be doing then long term? Should you stick around or not? At some point, it’s okay to leave if the company is successful.
In other words, if the company’s not successful, you want to be all hands on deck and keep it going until you decide to pull the plug or to sell it or something starts working. If something’s working very, very well, at some point, it may be okay to have that conversation of, “Do I still want to be here and am I still needed?” There’s two components of that: one is are you working on things that you’re excited about. If the answer is no, then what can you work on that you would be excited about?
Alternatively, it’s quite possible that it’s just not the stage of company that you enjoy anymore. You’re just not somebody who likes things that are 1,000 people or likes 10,000 people. Maybe you just like it when it’s 10 people and you should go do that again, or maybe you prefer investing because you’ve started doing that on the side. I don’t think every founder has to be the CEO. Or eventually, they may decide that they don’t want to be.
Reid Hoffman at LinkedIn is a great example of that where he was CEO of LinkedIn for the first couple of years and he realized, “You know what?” He just didn’t want to be CEO. That wasn’t the role that was right for him. He wanted to work more on strategy and deals. He didn’t want to run the day-to-day. He’s one of the smartest people in Silicon Valley. I think if Reid Hoffman can do it, anybody can in terms of admitting, “You know what? This is not the thing I want to do. I want to do these other things.”
Anand Daniel: For the founder who’s continuing on as the CEO, what are the other skills that they should be actively working on? Some that you might have touched on on the book? The reason I’m asking is just to set the context, we want to get this list from a few different people like yourself, and then maybe start going deeper into each of those areas in further podcasts.
Elad Gil: I think the first thing is really finding and hiring and retaining great people. In particular, the executive layer under them. Because those people give enormous leverage to the CEO. A lot of first time founders, when they hire the first great executive that they’ve had, they have this moment of relief and excitement because that person goes and does a dozen things that they hadn’t thought of and they do it better than the CEO ever could have. They’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is what excellence looks like for this function.”
I think the other aspects that are really important are figuring out how do you start thinking a bit more strategically and commercially, and setting the long-term goals of the company, what are the processes that you adopt so that the company’s all moving in the same direction and coordinating, communicating clearly, and then really, the communication side I think is crucial. A byproduct of that are things like setting culture.
There’s other skills that you can develop over time, but I think the core is really the finding, hiring, retaining talent, thinking strategically and then translating that strategy into actual tactics and operations and movement, and planning processes and things like that, and then communication. Those would be my big three.
Anand Daniel: Got it. Okay. Those are all really good things. In your book, you talk about some tactical areas like marketing and PR, product and tech, are these skills that the CEO comes with or can they learn some of this along the way?
Elad Gil: They can definitely learn some of it along the way. Some founders are just naturally very good at PR or marketing ,or they may just be naturally very good at other things. Fundamentally though, I think it comes back to thinking of a startup as a team effort, and what’s the team that you can assemble who’s really excellent at each one of these areas because no one person is superhuman at everything. [chuckles]
It’s almost like what’s the super power you have and then what are the ones that you want around you. Also, I think there is real functional expertise. In some cases, it takes years to build up. It’s funny because if you talk to somebody about that from an engineering perspective, they say, “Of course, in engineering somebody who has zero experience versus somebody who has 5 years of experience or 10 years of experience, they know how to do different types of things and they’ve seen a lot of things. I’d hire them for different roles.” Then they don’t always necessarily translate that to the business side.
If you’re a technical founder, for example, ultimately, you have to learn that there’s expertise everywhere and then figure out what are the areas where that expertise is really crucial in the function and what are areas where you can just take a bet on it on a person with less experience who’s a bit more of an up-and-comer. I think absolutely, for each of those areas, you’re going to want people who know what they’re doing.
Anand Daniel: Specialist in each of those. It boils down to raising the bar on talent overall, particularly at your executive team. Related to that is something that you talked about earlier on, delegating and letting go. Do you have any comments on that? Because there are founders who find that difficult.
Elad Gil: I think almost every founder I know, including myself, finds that difficult because — part of the reason you’re a founder is you’re controlling your own destiny, which means you have certain aspects of a control freak naturally, otherwise you wouldn’t start a company. Especially if you’re a younger founder, you may not have had experience working as an executive, you’re not as good at delegating.
I think, for example, the way that I ran my first startup, which Twitter ended up acquiring, versus how I ran my second startup, which was after I was an executive at Twitter, was very different, because at Twitter I operated at much larger scale which meant that I was much better at delegating by the time I started my second company, which meant that I avoided a lot of the first time CEO issues the second time around, right.
I do think that it’s something that you’re going to learn by doing, and sometimes you also learn it by hiring really good executives and then just seeing how they operate and learning from that. Bill Gates, there was some interview I read with him years and years ago, where I think he talked about how he will sequentially sort of upgrade the COOs who worked for him, and then he’d learn everything he could off of them.
Years later, he’d hire the next COO and they’d be at the next level of scale and he’d learn from that person. I think some of the best young founders, I know, in some sense learn a lot by hiring great people under them and then learning from that, and observing what they do. Then they often also will do tours. Those go and meet with a dozen other founders or a dozen executives in a specific function and just quiz them on what they do that makes them effective? What do they look for in people for that type of role? What are the interview questions they ask? How would they hire for them? Etcetera. They just also learn a lot by going and spending time with the people who are best at things.
Anand Daniel: Got it. That brings me to — some of the founders that we’ve worked with, I’ve had the fortune of working with, have this growth mindset, what we call as a growth mindset, always learning and wanting to scale, have you observed that? You could talk about people or any characteristics that stood out among those entrepreneurs.
Elad Gil: Absolutely. That’s a great point. I think there’s focus on openness to learning things and realizing that there are people who know how to do things better than you is really important in terms of actually being able to grow and learn things. That’s really crucial. Some of the best founders I know have the right balance of asking a lot of questions, getting a lot of inputs, synthesizing it, and then deciding what to do. What they may decide to do is at odds with what everybody told them, but at least they thought about it and listened to it versus just knee jerk rejected it. I think it’s that open-mindedness that’s really crucial and then that willingness to just make a decision even if it’s unpopular.
Anand Daniel: Hopefully, we’ll get to host you in India sometime soon and really appreciate your time. This has been extremely helpful.
Elad Gil: Thanks so much for having me on. Obviously, I’m a huge fan of Accel India and really appreciate you including me.
Anand Daniel: That was a treasure trove of information in this podcast with Elad Gil, author of the High Growth Handbook highly recommended for any of you who haven’t read it yet. We covered a range of topics from how to pick the right CEO to what are the key roles of the CEO, then we went into some really good tactical advice on skills to develop as a CEO from delegation to hiring to communication and a bunch of other things. Then an important section on how to take care of yourself as the founder and as the CEO, and finally into the section on co-founders’ roles and how to think about that as the companies scale.
Hope you enjoyed the podcast, do tweet us at accel_india with any thoughts feedback on the podcast, as well as you can bookmark insightspodcast.in. That is insightspodcast.in. You can check out all the podcasts from the series there. Look forward to hearing from you and having you back in the INSIGHTS podcast series from Accel. Thanks again for joining.