Posted by: Will | February 12, 2009

My “Startup CEO” Post Caught On Fire. Find Out Why.

Yesterday I posted a blog article called Want To Be A Startup CEO? Better Learn How To Code. It caught on fire and was viewed more than 4,500 times in a few hours. If you google for “startup CEO“, this link is the number 9 result.

Google Search for "Startup CEO"

Google Search for "Startup CEO"

Comments and Controversy

I was impressed by the level of engagement from the readers on this post. Many comments agreed with my sentiment, while some critiqued. Here is a good sample:

  • @Dharmesh Shah – I could not agree with you more. Even if you did happen to raise money and such, I think it’s still immensely valuable to be able to dig into the code and deliver a product.
  • @Mike – If you already employ a small team of people to build a website such as yours, and nobody knows how to code, then that means you need to work on your CEO skills and employ the right people.
  • @dunk010 – This is really just so true. I’ve seen so many would be “CEOs” getting distanced from the code far too early, they just want to run a business and make a bunch of cash. All the great companies have coders at their heart for the longest time, listen to their users, build a dedicated community and most importantly create a _great_ product.
  • @sak84 – I don’t think you necessarily need to have deep coding skills to start a tech company utilizing programmers. I do think you need to have a great idea, an open mind, and a willingness to step inside the shoes and take the perspective of the coder.
  • @Alex3917 – This is terrible advice, even for people who want to do web startups. The job of the entrepreneur is to pull everyone from their social network to make the thing work. They’re responsible for finding the web guys, the sales guys, the marketing team, the science advisers, the customer support people, etc.

But I especially liked the comment from @neilc on Hacker News who nicely summarized my main point.

I don’t think the advice is “learn to code”, as such; rather, the author’s saying “be prepared to do whatever your business needs to be successful.” …  a CEO who only views his role as managing others + “the vision thing” and isn’t prepared to get his hands dirty, probably isn’t a great early-stage startup CEO.

That’s Exactly The Point

There has been a phase shift in the entrepreneurial landscape. Only a year ago, securing investment was easier, advertising business models were still legitimate and new “platforms” like Facebook and OpenSocial were seen as green fields of opportunity.

Today, entrepreneurs face a world where opportunities have narrowed – a dearth of VC investment in Q4 2008, a sudden slow-down of acquisitions by Google and others, and massive layoffs in Silicon Valley that dampens optimism.

As a startup CEO, you can’t just be an MBA. You can’t just use your social network to get other people to work with you; at least not until you have a product that has hit critical momentum. In the beginning, the buck stops with you.

As my friend and former professor Howard Anderson would say, being a startup CEO will tap into every talent you know you have, and some you don’t even know about yet.

If you’re building a web company, then coding better be one of those talents.



  1. Will, I agree with the premise that the CEO has to get down and dirty. Not sure if that necessarily means digging into lines of PHP and code or writing bubblesort, but at minimum, spending time and hacking into HTML templates (since anyone can do that). I remember a professor (who used to be an MD at Goldman Sachs) telling me that when he helped launch Goldman’s office in Tokyo, he was changing lightbubs himself. Different industry, but your analogy extends itself well.

  2. Just came across your “Want To Be a Startup CEO?…” post on the home page of WordPress, and I’m glad I clicked the link–great post. I agree with the main premise of your post in that the CEO of a startup needs to do whatever it takes if they want the company to succeed. If that means going through the code, processing payroll, or even running to the post office to achieve success, then the CEO needs to be willing to do that. Enjoyed the post; now following you on Twitter, as well. Cheers.

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