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This article was published on March 11, 2011

When is the right time for a founder to make way for a ‘professional CEO’?

When is the right time for a founder to make way for a ‘professional CEO’?
Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten
Story by

Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten

Founder & board member, TNW

Boris is a serial entrepreneur who founded not only TNW, but also V3 Redirect Services (sold), HubHop Wireless Internet Provider (sold), and Boris is a serial entrepreneur who founded not only TNW, but also V3 Redirect Services (sold), HubHop Wireless Internet Provider (sold), and Boris is very active on Twitter as @Boris and Instagram: @Boris.

It is hard to define what exactly an entrepreneur is. There are different qualities needed in different stages of a your company. A passionate idea guy in the beginning, a talented people manager in the middle and maybe a hardcore and stone cold negotiator at the end. Some entrepreneurs want to be everything, and sometimes that means the end of a company.

Some founders are thrown out of their own companies and replaced by so called ‘experienced’ CEOs who then screw up everything the founder built upo. Case in point; Steve Jobs at Apple. Other founders are smart enough to find senior entrepreneurs to help them grow their companies bigger and further then they could’ve done themselves.

One example of that scenario is Google. Founder Page and Brin asked Erik Schmidt to help them get ready for their IPO and world domination. That worked out just fine.
One of the companies we (The Next Web Holding) have shares in is Wakoopa. The company was founded, and is being run, by two very charismatic and talented geeks. I trust these guys with my money and always thought the company was in good hands. But then, a few months ago, they told me they found a potential CEO for their company. At first I frowned on the idea. Why fix something if it ain’t broken? What was wrong with the current founders? Was this a sign of weakness? Were these guys just tired of running this company and looking for someone to replace them?
Of course that wasn’t the case. They just happened to have found an older, more experienced entrepreneur, who shared their vision and who was eager to help them take their company to the next level. It takes a lot of guts to hand over the reigns of your company to someone else as a founder, and I have great respect for that.
So lets have a chat with Piet Hein van Dam, the new CEO of Wakoopa, and see how he feels about coming in as a CEO. What is the right timing for asking someone like him to a start-up and what are the things you should think about when taking such an important decision.
Piet Hein, what do you think makes you qualified to run Wakoopa? In other words: what qualities do you posses that the current founders lacked?
In my previous job I ran a mid-size market research agency. I know that business well, and that happens to be one of Wakoopa’s most important markets at the moment. I’ve had my corporate career at Unilever and KPMG, so I’m also bringing in quite some experience and a valuable network with ‘the big guys’. Wakoopa is a very crucial stage in it’s existence. The strategic decisions that we take now will influence the companies growth path for the coming decade, and it will determine what league we will play. Clear thinking, in the context of a fast changing marketplace, and taking the time to do that, that’s what I bring to the party. But all that thinking is not for free. Is has to be coupled to disciplined execution.
What would be a good moment for founders to start looking for a CEO type manager? When are you too late?
The right time to do this, is when you really want it. You’re too late if somebody else forces you to do it. Growing a company on itself is only satisfying to a limited extent. As a founder, there comes a moment when you feel that it is not as satisfying as it used to be. Because your job becomes more and more organizational, and that is usually not the driver you had when you started the business. Some people like the changing responsibilities of the job and evolve along with them, some just ask somebody else to do this.

Wakoopa founders Robert Gaal and Wouter Boekhof

There have been numerous examples of founders being thrown out of their own companies by investors, their board or, yes, a new CEO. What would you advise to start-ups to prevent that from happening?
If it’s the best thing to do, I wouldn’t want to prevent that from happening. Nobody says that you need to stay forever with the company that you started yourself. At Wakoopa, I don’t foresee that in any way, because the guys and the capabilities that started the company are still highly needed. We keep on doing what we’re good in: providing awesome data and developing new products and technologies, at high speed. But the best advice I have for start-ups to prevent any unpretty and unwanted events: keep on talking with your board and investors. Inform them, and tell them why you do things the way you do them. In the fast world of technology, venture capital and start-ups, people sometimes forget to connect. But your investors and boards need to feel good about what you’re doing, so that they can provide you with the capital and autonomy you need to grow your business.
Do you have tricks or a strategy to keep the original founders motivated in the future? Do you think they will be able to cope with someone else setting the pace and taking important decisions?
The trick I use, as I do with everybody in the company: help them to ‘be in their element’, by doing work where their passion and talent meet. That has to do with organizing the works. The other trick I use has to do with attitude and communication. It’s called transparency & equivalence. Our roles and jobs are not equal, but our input in discussions is equal. No one dominates the discussion because of his of her position. And if you relate the things that you do and the decision you take to the responsibilities you have in your role, they may not like it, but everybody will understand you. I think that will keep everybody on board.
Last question: any tips for young start-ups in the same situation as you are? How do you find a great CEO and what should you be beware of?

Always make sure that you have a seat available when luck comes by.