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Founders Must Be CEOs, If They’re Good Communicators


[This is going to be a different kind of post – about startups]

Satish Dharmaraj says Founders of startups must take up the post of Chief Executive, because they can best communicate the culture and vision, raise money or scale/exit the business.

Satish used to run Zimbra which got acquired for a cool $350m by Yahoo, and now is a partner at Redpoint Ventures.

A gem in that post: “Culture is not taught but is learned by copying. Work ethics, how you treat people, challenging ideas, debates, hierarchy, salaries, stock options all define the culture of a company.

I think Satish’s point – in all the sub-points – is that a founder is best able to communicate the vision and culture of a company to employees, customers and investors, which helps further in scaling and in exiting the business. External CEOs – hired top honchos who don’t necessarily come up with the idea but have expertise in managing and growing businesses – tend to lose the vision and culture picture in early stage startups; exceptions exist of course, like Google’s Eric Schmidt (who’s as close to founder as one might think possible)

Then founders also need to work hard to improve their communication skills. Not networking – that can be bought. But simply the ability to translate a vision to impress anyone listening: prospects, employees, investors and peers.

And that takes some work. While I don’t have the credentials Satish does, I’ll go ahead and make some suggestions to founders who love what they’re doing, but find this communication business slightly threatening:

  • For verbal communication: Joining a local Toastmasters group is a good idea; they help you overcome stage fear, and use eye contact, speech modulation, hand gestures and body language to keep an audience – a diverse audience – hooked to your speech. And they count the “ahhhh”’s in your speech until you get rid of them. It’s the little things that make a big difference.
  • Written language is nowadays even more important with geographically dispersed teams. The best way to learn to write is to write. Joining a local writer’s group, a writing workshop or even being active in forums will help.
  • You needn’t be succinct. In fact, when you want to send a simple message, you might need to repeat it in as many different ways. They say in hindi, “samajhdaar ko ishaara kaafi hai” – or, the smart only need a signal, not even words – but you are unlikely to be speaking with the smartest audience all the time. See Google – they hire the smartest in the planet, and tell them to do no evil, but every once in a while, they censor the internet. So, repeat where necessary. (Note: do not do this verbally. Especially not with people holding heavy equipment. Routers are heavy equipment.)
  • Learn to be yourself. It’s not easy because most of us are tuned to become someone else when we write or stand on stage. Some of us put on an accent, some talk slowly and mutter away the ends of sentences. Some write like they’re arrogant when they’re the nicest people otherwise. We put on a show, but no one wants a show, they want the real you. Join a theatre group if you can. Yeah, no one has the time. But when you train to be someone else, you learn how easy it is to be what you are, on stage.
  • Be candid, honest and upfront. I now live in a city where things are entirely the opposite, but I believe that being straightforward is the best culture. From telling people they just don’t cut it, to telling customers you can’t deliver on time, or giving investors bad news – its better if the news comes from you, and it comes with sincerity.

For what it’s worth, communicating effectively isn’t an art or a talent. You can learn it. And more importantly, with the passion you bring, you can teach it. More power to all of you.

[Back to regular programming]


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