I like working in smaller companies. That’s why I’ve been involved in five startups, either as a founder or as an early employee. There's a challenge and a sense of satisfaction about creating something out of nothing; it’s not an experience everyone gets to have.

Startup culture involves meeting all sorts of people, learning new things and discovering new technologies you hope will have a huge impact on people, an industry or maybe the world at large. It requires you to keep your ear to the ground for trends, and you must be good at predicting where things are headed to build successful tech companies. I helped start Respond Software because it was a shot at one of those ideas, an opportunity to make a gigantic difference in the important field of cybersecurity.

I wish there was a simple formula for starting a tech company. That would make innovation a whole lot easier! However, I’ve learned a lot from my experience and observations about what fundamentally needs to be in place, no matter what kind of start-up it is. Below are five road-tested tips for CEOs of startups as they build their teams and their businesses.

  1. Use those people skills: You are going to need all of the people experience that you've gained as a manager, every single skill. People are all different, and you can't motivate everyone the exact same way. As a CEO, you aren’t a figurehead; you need to get out there and empower people.
  2. Truth lies with the indicators: Pay close attention to what customers are saying. Sometimes it’s obvious, other times it lurks within their frustration. Think outside of the box about what you could do to help them.
  3. Communicate clearly: It’s a fact of human nature – people are going to ascribe motives to you or assume that you’ve done something for a particular reason. I once overheard two employees talking about an article I’d posted on social media. They were trying to figure out the motivation behind posting it. I just thought it was an informative, well-written article on an interesting topic! So, as much as possible, be clear about why you do what you do.
  4. Leverage your boss(es): For many CEOs, a start-up is the first time they get the privilege of having more than a single manager – their Board of Directors - overseeing their work. And this is a very different situation to navigate because those individuals often don't think the same – usually for the better. Invest the appropriate amount of time, focus and energy into building these relationships and taking their advice.
  5. Understand that the market is really in charge: My current Board succinctly drove home this point: the market gives you permission to grow. Not your investors, not your own thinking – the market. It's changed how I think about how to use resources, what to spend money on, and when.

An ear to hear

The title of CEO requires you to wear many hats as you lead the company through its various phases. I’ve picked up many lessons along the way. The core of my successes and failures often resolve down to listening: listen to your customers, listen to your employees and board members, and listen to what the market is telling you. Most of all, do it for things big and small. This is an often-overlooked skill that will serve you and your stakeholders well.

Mike Armistead

Mike has led several software companies from inception through high growth and to successful IPO’s or acquisitions. Mike’s passion for technologies that change how people work is as intense today as it was earlier in his career when he was the first product manager for Pure Software, where he helped lead the company from an early-stage start-up to become a top 10 public software company. A keen interest in IT Security in the early 2000’s led Mike to co-found Fortify Software. Fortify defined application security and continues to be the market leader after its acquisition by HPE Security and now Micro Focus. At HPE Security, Mike was the VP and General Manager of the Fortify and ArcSight businesses until he left in 2016 to start Respond Software.

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