Co-Founder Mindset

Is it possible to do Great Work as a non CEO/CTO co-founder?

The temptation to be someone else is greatest for the young. – Paul Graham

Before starting Zapier, I read PG's other essay Keep Your Identity Small and now think there is an important connection: to do great work as a co-founder you must keep your identity small.

Writing about identity is tough without personal example, bear with me. I have fired myself from important roles 5+ times at Zapier. As engineer, platform manager, product & design manager, Chief Product Officer, and even as President of the company. I have changed roles so much it's hard to exactly define when one role ends and other begins. Each role could have been it's own career and I personally found it tempting to take off-ramps early on.

In contrast to strong identity of the CEO/CTO role, co-founders have to define it for themselves. To do great work as a co-founder, define your identity as “co-founder” with the job description “do the thing no one else can do.” [1]

When your startup is smaller, this often means figuring out execution holes in your startup and being hire #1 for lots of new jobs – doing the work directly in order to understand and the unique problems for your startup in that area before going to find someone who can durable solve them.

When your startup is bigger, this often means identifying the most important gap across the business in product, tech, strategy, or leadership – and again doing the work directly (because if anyone else could fix it, it wouldn't be the most important gap by defintion) and then figuring out a long-term plan, usually hiring or promoting.

Startups without cofounders must hire their way out. Obviously it is possible, there are many successful solo founder companies. Though comes with execution pain and risk (hiring is slow, hiring someone bad/mediocre is even slower) all the while the underlying issue persists. And when you get it right, the hiring doesn't scale; you've only plugged one hole and are about to find fifty more.

The main way to do great work as a cofounder is by consistently and repeatedly identify the most important gap and then solve it. In order to repeat, you have to replace yourself. And in order to replace yourself, you can't have your identity wrapped up in the role you created. The non CEO/CTO cofounder role at scaled startups is not super common. I think partly because you have to be a generalist but moreso because ego and identity get in the way.

I dropped out of grad school to help Wade and Bryan start Zapier in 2011. I'd never had a full time job and it seemed obvious that my co-founders would take on CEO and CTO roles. It is easy to be flexible about role on a small founding team.

As the team grew I felt an increasing pressure to justify my purpose. Not just for my sake but for the team as well! The most common piece of feedback I received from 10+ years at Zapier has been “do a better job defining your role”!

The first time I told the team I wasn't going to write code anymore, an early engineers asked “if you're not going to code, what are you going to do?” – I barely had a cohesive answer. I knew I was filling a lot of holes but I thought any explanation was unfulfilling. Not until years later could I articulate (by past example) what it meant to “do the thing no one else could do.”

Later I even fired myself from not writing code, to go write code again. I over stayed my role as Chief Product Officer role partly beacuse my identity was attached to it. I did eventually fire myself and got back to building in order to help Zapier become a multi-product company launching Zapier Transfer, Tables, and Interfaces in following years.

And ultimately I gave up the President role to go all-in on AI in Aug 2022, three months before ChatGPT was released. This time, I'd like to think I finally figured out how to keep my identity small to make big changes quickly.

The temptation to be someone else is greatest for the young. They often feel like nobodies. But you never need to worry about that problem, because it's self-solving if you work on sufficiently ambitious projects. If you succeed at an ambitious project, you're not a nobody; you're the person who did it. So just do the work and your identity will take care of itself. – Paul Graham

[1] Most often this is in context to your company, but sometimes is in context to the world. The latter cases are the most important things to identify and do.