“Do you know how Hire a bunch of useless salespeople like Oracle? “
This was the first of many memorable interactions I had with Elliott Horowitz. Eliot is the founder and CTO of MongoDB, and at the end of 2010, I was interviewing for president. Product-led growth is far from a buzzword today, but the founding team of MongoDB has built a product that developers love — and it’s developer love that’s fueled the company’s rapid growth.
My topic today is not product-led growth, but the relationship between founders like Elliott and hired CEOs, and the key factors necessary for that relationship to succeed. This dynamic has always been important, but in today’s more volatile and ever-changing technology markets, it’s critical to keep an eye on it.
On the surface, Elliott’s question was about business models and sales recruiting. But it goes deeper: Our discussion is a field experiment on how we work together, going to the heart of the defining partnership between a startup CEO and founder. Areas we covered that day included:
- Am I open to unorthodox ideas?
- Can I justify my plan based on first principles?
- Am I willing to chat with young tech founders about business issues?
- Did finding out that founders wanted to challenge the established way of doing things got me excited to join – or wanted to run for the mountain?
- Can I make a business decision that is contrary to the founder’s point of view and makes both of us feel good about the process?
All of these are valid questions and examples of potential tension points between tech founders and new leaders brought in from the outside. How founders and CEOs navigate these tension points can help determine the company’s ultimate success.
Beyond Product Market Fit
Startups can go wrong, but to be successful, two things must be done well: first, the product must fit well into the market, which is almost always the domain of the founder, and second, the company must execute to succeed, which is sometimes the domain of hiring a CEO .
In almost every case, the initial product and market vision comes from the founder. They started this company because they had an insight that something could be done better, and they knew how to do it better. When the idea resonates with a broad audience, you have the core of product and market fit. Without it, there is no company.
But the initial product-market fit was far from enough. Companies need capital, teams, and ultimately execution in engineering, sales, customer success, and marketing. In some cases, founders are interested in leading all of these areas and demonstrate rudimentary competencies. In other cases, they don’t, and in these cases, they need a partner to lead the company’s operations.
My four years 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 build Web applications. Perhaps more importantly, we laid some of the foundations for what would become a hugely successful cloud business that changed the way businesses delivered and used infrastructure software.
We would not have been able to do this without the strong partnership between the founders and myself, especially with Eliot and Dwight Merriman (founder and initial CEO who eventually became chairman). Decisions are not neatly divided into product categories for them and actionable categories for me.