Jason Fried

April 26, 2023

Founder & CEO is kinda a BS title

Founder & CEO is a common title, especially in tech.

It happens to be my title too.

I've come to believe it's an impossible title. You're either CEO, or you're Founder. You can't hold both full-time jobs.

And unless your company is probably 100+, CEO isn't really a job anyway. It's more of a role someone needs to play occasionally.

There simply aren't that many big picture things or decisions to "execute" day in and day out — or even week in and week out — to make it a true full time job. A role yes, a hat to wear yes, a full-time job at a smallish company? No. It's part-time at best, quarter-time even better.

Further, the fundamental responsibilities of Founders and CEOs are at odds. Having them mashed up in the same title is as ridiculous as having someone who's a "CTO & Chief Luddite".

Why's that? Because a Founder's job is injecting risk into the business. It's flooding it with new ideas, stuff that seems hard to do, ideas that no one else would dare try, placing the kinds of bets that only someone who started the damn thing would be willing to wager. A Founders' job is basically to stay in business by almost always putting it out of business.

A CEO's job? Just about the opposite. It's reducing risk, executing diligently to achieve obvious goals, staying in business at all costs. It's primarily about about being conservative, keeping the company's collective cool, and not letting things get out of hand. Just about everything that a Founder isn't doing. A CEO's job is to stay in business by not allowing the company to do anything so stupid that it could go out of business.

See? They're such different things. The minds powering the pistons run on different fuel.

But I get it. It's a wonderful boost to the ego to hold the top two jobs in a company — especially when the original sin of starting the damn thing was your decision. And yes, someone ultimately has to make the big calls, no matter which side they fall on. And given that you were the first one in the door, you're the natural and convenient standard-bearer. Your skeleton key fits both locks.

Founder is a unique position as it's the one job that can't be replaced. It can be eliminated, certainly, as many companies go founder-free after some time. But once the person who started it isn't there, you can't bring someone else in who started it. The closest thing then becomes a CEO.

So I've shifted my personal thinking. As long as I'm still here, I'm picking a side. I'm a Founder. That's my strength, that's where I can bring the most. Which means we don't really have a full-time CEO. I'm simply the part time one that fills the void when we need to bridge the gap, make a final big decision, and move on. As it should be.


About Jason Fried

Hey! I'm Jason, the Co-Founder and CEO at 37signals, makers of Basecamp and HEY. Subscribe below to follow my thinking on business, design, product development, and whatever else is on my mind. Thanks for visiting, thanks for reading.