Is it accurate or ridiculous to call yourself CEO of a startup?

Ridiculous? No. Accurate? Not really.

A CEO works at the discretion of a Board of Directors and is essentially the boss of the bosses. Until a startup has investors, it has no cause to have a Board of Directors. And in most startups, either the team is too small to have bosses of bosses of bosses OR the founding leadership doesn’t really appreciate that they’re replaceable (and thus shouldn’t yet be CxOs).

This is why businesses have Presidents. This is why you’ve seen titles such as President and CEO or CEO and Chairman of the Board.

Still, I said not really because the convention (and the reality) is that the title means something. CxO says to the world “the buck stops here.” A customer, partner, or investor can immediately discern what that person does and what they can decide. Because, by the way, founder isn’t a job title.

Nothing wrong with using the titles. People in the know know what they mean. The only time you’ll get yourself into hiccups is if you don’t know what they mean 🙂

Note, this extends to the other early titles! I get in annoying arguments all the type with corporate types who argue that CxO titles in a startup aren’t valid. Duh … Per my points above, technically that person being a CMO isn’t really the same as the CMO of Dell. Disregard their ignorance. We in the startup community know, and investors appreciate, that the titles are clear and definitive:

  • CEO: boss of the bosses. Not the manager of everyone! They ensure resources (capital, human, and audience) are available to…
  • CMO: leading the development of the market and determining what to do
  • CTO: leading the development of the solution
  • etc.

Actual “Chiefs” as in the corporate sense? Eh… Chiefs sit with the board, work for the board, and have leaders they manage. Startups don’t really have that (yet), but we get what you mean.


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