7 Key Roles of a Successful Startup CEO

by JD Supra Perspectives

…successful startup CEOs are just like successful people in all lines of life; they just get more publicity. - John M. Paris, Jr., Williams Mullen

...all of these responsibilities boil down to one common role—being a moneymaker - Jordan Walbesser, Hodgson Russ LLP

In your experience, what’s the most important role that a startup CEO should fulfill?

That’s the question we put recently to JD Supra contributors, many of whom have spent years working with successful entrepreneurs in various capacities and have a worthwhile perspective on this question. For a new post in our series covering all aspects of startup life, we wanted to understand: what makes a successful startup CEO successful? Here’s what we heard back.

1. A Servant Leader

A leader who serves his customers and his team will be the leader whose company succeeds

From Marty Lorenzo, a member of law firm Mintz Levin’s Venture Capital & Emerging Companies practice: “The most important role that a startup CEO can fulfill is that of a servant leader. A leader who serves his customers and his team will be the leader whose company succeeds. Leaders who care about the success of their constituents (customers, team members, and investors) and about helping others succeed are the leaders who engender trust. Startup CEOs who are servant leaders accept the mantle of leadership because they know that they can help make a difference in the world with a team that provides a better product or service. Their belief in this vision translates to a team vision that incorporates success for every individual. Servant leaders have a clear understanding of what success looks like not only for their company, but for each member of their team.”

2. A Communicator-in-Chief

Communications with members of the business team, investors, strategic partners, and vendors need to be uniformly clear and unequivocal

From James Coffey at McCarter & English: “The startup CEO faces multiple challenges and, by default, wears many hats. First and foremost among these is that of ‘Communicator-in-Chief.’ At the startup phase of a business, communications with members of the business team, investors, strategic partners, and vendors need to be uniformly clear and unequivocal. Mistakes in the delivery of critical information early-on can crush a company. These communications can be non-verbal too. The startup CEO,  by her actions and demeanor, sets the tone for an organization and helps establish its culture and develop its brand. With clear and effective communication skills from the onset , the startup CEO paves the way for success.”

3. A Strategic Leader

The CEO sets direction by defining the vision, building the business case and plan, and aligning, motivating, and inspiring key stakeholders

From Paul Feiler, director at Berkeley Research Group: “The most important role a startup CEO fulfills is that of strategic leader. As strategist, the CEO directs individuals and teams to manage three clusters of activity. First, the CEO sets direction by defining the vision, building the business case and plan, and aligning, motivating, and inspiring key stakeholders. Second, the CEO and her/his delegates develop the organizational capability required to meet customer requirements (e.g., adequate financing, the right people in the right seats, agile and effective processes, quality products). Third, the CEO executes the plan that guides a capable organization as it captures opportunities and mitigates strategic risks, while monitoring progress and making timely course corrections.”

4. A Visionary

As to be expected, our contributors returned to the notion of Vision several times and in different ways:

The CEO's critical role is to provide a dual external and internal vision for the company

From Joshua A. Ehrenfeld, attorney at Burr & Forman: “Keeping one foot grounded is the essential characteristic for a successful start-up CEO. The CEO's critical role is to provide a dual external and internal vision for the company.  Externally, the CEO must exude knowledge and confidence in the business, while setting forth a plan for the company's growth throughout the start-up phase and towards expansion of the business. Internally, the CEO must maintain and oversee realistic operational structures, goals and expectations for the company's employees, partners and investors. This balancing act requires a CEO to internalize, appreciate and respect the possibility of failure, while concurrently preserving and channeling the inherent momentum and energy of the business that is the lifeblood of any start-up.

The CEO must paint the vision of what the startup will do

From Todd Antonelli, director at Berkeley Research Group: “The most important role that a startup CEO should fulfill is to leverage the power of inspirational vision and leadership into their new company. The CEO must paint the vision of what the startup will do. If Henry Ford simply listened to customers, he would have focused on breeding faster horses rather than attempting to compete with the more expensive German manufacturers. He set and held to an inspiring vision to create an affordable automobile for the masses. He created fans by painting a vision of what the automobile could do. People want to feel something, to be moved and inspired. Modern-day successful founder/startup CEOs like Steve Jobs, Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerberg outlined inspirational visions that cultivate cultures and link drivers of innovation, inspire their teams to new heights, unlock the collaborative power and opportunities that their teams can create, and create clarity in focusing on winning strategies that support the vision."

They can give a great speech but understand they lead best by action

From John M. Paris, Jr, chair of the Williams Mullen Private Equity Group: “Successful startup CEOs come in all shapes and sizes but the best possess almost identical traits. The most important is that they are passionate about their vision. They are terrified by failure but believe in themselves and their team. They have a plan but know it’s always just a draft. They know their strengths but welcome help even in areas they think they’ve mastered. They know their limitations so they hire smarter people who can fill the holes. They believe in the wonder of their product or service but know no one succeeds without customers who demand it. They can write a dissertation about their plan but explain it in a paragraph. They appreciate complexity but work tirelessly to overcome it. They can give a great speech but understand they lead best by action. They know the success of the company is more important than their percentage of the equity letting the former take care of the value of the latter. They ask for help but trust their own counsel.  In short, successful startup CEOs are just like successful people in all lines of life; they just get more publicity.”

The best start-up CEOs surround themselves with A players

From Dave Cappillo, Technology Companies partner at Goodwin Procter, and Founders Workbench contributor: “I think there are two absolutely critical roles. One is that an effective startup CEO must be able to clearly and passionately lay out the vision for the start-up and its product - why the company exists and why the marketplace needs its product. Equally as important is that a start-up CEO must be relentless and successful in attracting and motivating key hires that will move the needle across all key functional areas – like product development and technology, sales and marketing. The best start-up CEOs surround themselves with A players.”

5. A Good Listener

The successful startup CEO is a good listener and can take advice from trusted experienced advisors

From Steven Cohen, partner and co-manager, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP’s Emerging Business and Technology practice: “Perspective within the chaos is the key difference between a successful startup CEO and an unsuccessful one. Naturally, a strong startup CEO needs to know their business well, be a hard working hands-on achiever and have basic interpersonal qualities of success such as strong leadership skills, self-motivation and integrity. However, unlike in a big company where there are a lot of subject matter experts, a startup has to get by with the resources they have. A successful Startup CEO effectively and cost-efficiently leverages outside resources, such as accounting and legal advisors for both knowledge and relationships, and realizes which legal areas and documents and other functions have to be prioritized and be performed with excellence and which simply good enough to move forward. The successful startup CEO is a good listener and can take advice from trusted experienced advisors, which creates that perspective to do what at times seems impossible until all of a sudden it is possible.”

6. The Top Salesperson, the Chief Marketer, the Chief Fundraiser

Until the company is large enough and well-funded, most of these important tasks fall on the CEO’s shoulders

From Jeremy Glaser, co-chair of Mintz Levin’s Venture Capital & Emerging Companies practice:  “A startup CEO has to wear many hats to be successful. Usually the CEO of a startup is the founder and came up with the new product and the market need. But being a creative innovator is not enough. The successful CEO needs to be the top salesperson for the company and its products. He needs to be the head of HR and hire the best people with the best fit for the company’s product and culture. She needs to be the chief marketing officer adept at raising market awareness for the company and its products. And he needs to be chief fundraiser perfecting the pitch to angels and venture capitalists so that they too can share his vision about how the company will serve an important market need, grow and make everyone fabulously wealthy. Being excellent at all of these varied tasks is rare but in my experience necessary to be successful at the start-up phase. As a company matures, it will be able to hire, great engineers and product designers, a head of sales , an HR expert, a chief marketing officer and a chief financial officer who can help or takeover most of these tasks.  But until the company is large enough and well-funded, most of these important tasks fall on the CEO’s shoulders."

…related, and last but by no means least:

7. The Moneymaker

All of these responsibilities boil down to one common role—being a moneymaker

From Jordan Walbesser, an attorney at Hodgson Russ LLP: “Everyone expects a startup CEO to juggle multiple responsibilities. After all, everything seems critical at the early stage of a company. But, all of these responsibilities boil down to one common role—being a moneymaker. As a moneymaker, the CEO inspires confidence amongst the team. That means the CEO needs to be responsible for everything that happens (or doesn’t happen) at the startup. By doing this, the moneymaker CEO sets the proper tone for everything—big and small. Practically speaking, the moneymaker CEO has three core responsibilities:

  • Set an overall strategy for the company and communicate it effectively.
  • Hire and retain the best talent.
  • Ensure that the company bank account is in the black

Everything else should be delegated to the team. It’s true that some talented CEOs can do more. And that’s fine. But, a CEO that fails at one of those core responsibilities will not be a successful moneymaker. A CEO that fills the moneymaker role can make an otherwise average startup great.”


Written by:

JD Supra Perspectives

JD Supra Perspectives on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.


JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at info@jdsupra.com. In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at: info@jdsupra.com.

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.