From Jobs and Gates to Mark Zuckerberg and Drew Houston, we’ve become enamored with the story of the young CEO rocketing to fame and success at increasingly younger ages (just think of Summly’s Nick D’Aloisio).
And this phenomenon is only likely to continue as kids become more deeply ensconced in tech from earlier stages and become more adept at identifying the gaps to be filled with new innovations. Younger founders also seem to appeal to investors who are looking for high-energy individuals prepared to take big risks for big payoffs. Investors are attracted to the visionary confidence of the young CEO who has the hubris to dream big and convince others to do the same.
But no matter how acute the ability of these young men and women to innovate, they still lack the decades of accumulated professional experience needed for a management role.
It may seem strange that I’m writing a piece on “things I wish I knew” at the age of 24, but having founded my first startup in my early teens, I have had the tremendous opportunity to accrue a great many failures. Below are five things (from many!) I wish I’d known earlier on to help avoid some critical pitfalls.
1. The difference between an entrepreneur and a CEO
The first crucial thing a young CEO needs to understand is the shift in role from being an entrepreneur to being a CEO. An entrepreneur is an engine for change; they are single-minded in breaking boundaries, bursting through doors, and disrupting industries. But a CEO is engaged in building the kind of company that will be around long enough to one day be disrupted itself. To do that, you need to be able to provide more structure and set a sustainable pace. As an entrepreneur, you have the luxury of thinking only of your own to-do list, but as a CEO you have to make sure everyone else is equipped to complete theirs, and that everything is synchronized to serve the wider needs of the company. An entrepreneur can galvanize friends and family to help in a crisis, but a CEO has to motivate and manage a team of people day in and day out. Too often today we look at young successful entrepreneurs as CEOs-in-waiting. The harsher truth is that the two do not necessarily go hand in hand and sometimes require directly contrasting skillsets. Before you even consider taking on the role of CEO, make sure you’re being honest about whether it’s the right fit.
2. You have to adjust your standards
Be prepared to be flexible with your standards if you want to succeed as the CEO of a company with different departments and teams. It’s no longer about getting things done your way, but about getting things done period. Sometimes that means you will have to compromise on perfection — or on your perceived view of perfection (see below) — in the pursuit of efficiency. Equally, you may need to give someone the time and space to achieve a higher standard than you’re used to because a particular product needs to be absolutely perfect. Either way, it’s simply no longer about you anymore, and you’ll need to be flexible in your standards to account for that.
3. People don’t see the world the way you do
This was one of the first and most crucial lessons I learned. As a young person, too often we assume that everyone thinks as we do, and this means our judgement is critically impaired. Whether you’re evaluating potential partnerships, hires, or even clients, you will run into inevitable issues if you make the mistake of thinking that people see any given situation through the same eyes that you do. Developing an ability to step out of your own viewpoint will ensure that you’re able to make more informed and objective decisions that will aid your long-term success. The logic that underlies your own thought process isn’t universal, and learning to express and adapt your vision to account for more varied perspectives is critical to driving a business forward.
4. Seeing obstacles is as important as seeing opportunities
Being solution oriented is a major boon for young entrepreneurs, but it can be dangerous when it comes without the ability to identify problems before they arise. The older you get, the harder it is to ignore all the instances where something didn’t work out: a potential client rejected your proposal, or an investor shot down your pitch. One of your biggest assets as a younger CEO is the ability to see the world in terms of its possibilities as opposed to its pitfalls, since you’re in the enviable position of being unencumbered by an awareness of all the obstacles in your way. But the fact that you “don’t know what you don’t know” is also your greatest weakness. If you want to be a successful CEO, you will need to cultivate an appreciation for where the future obstacles along your path will lie and adjust your course accordingly. This will ensure that instead of wasting time dealing with crises as they erupt, you will be able to anticipate and avoid them.
5. Don’t lose the edge in your age
As a young CEO managing a company with older colleagues or working to convince 50-, 60-, or even 80-year-old investors to trust you with their money, you will work to put on as much of an air of mature professionalism as possible. And you should. But it’s equally important not to lose the ability to act your own age, since it’s precisely your age that gives you a crucial edge as a CEO. In many cases, you are the target market for the product, vision, or service you are trying to sell, giving you a uniquely accurate and intimate understanding of the needs of your target audience. You are also more apt to take risks and bypass conventional ways of doing things to cut through to a more efficient and innovative way. That perspective is what will make you stand out from other managers with more experience than you have, and it would be counter-productive to crush that element of your unique value.
Nadav Shoval is the CEO and cofounder of Spot.IM. Nadav is a serial entrepreneur and has been working on building startups since the age of 11. Spot.IM is his fifth venture.