‘If I knew you weren’t going home for Thanksgiving, I would have asked you to have Thanksgiving with my family,” One of roommates, Paul, said to me.
“Thanks Paul,” I said. “I need to study. That’s why I didn’t go home this year.”
It was my junior year of college. I had four upper division Electrical Engineering courses that first quarter, and they were all really tough.
No distractions. That was my mantra that quarter.
No distractions meant only focusing on my courses. No distractions meant no girls. And no distractions meant studying every night, even on Thanksgiving.
I was out for blood. Or maybe, said a better way, I was really, really focused on just surviving.
You need to grind if you’re going to be a successful startup CEO.
And grind I did my Junior year in college.
I believed at the time that I could do anything if I got through that ridiculously hard first quarter. So I did what I had to do to make it through.
I trudged off to the medical school classroom that I liked to study at Thanksgiving night. I didn’t feel sorry for myself because I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself.
I had a job to do, and I wasn’t going to let anything get in the way. I was obsessed with doing everything I could to get through this one quarter.
Little did I know how important my ability to focus would become years later when I started my company.
Fast forward a few years, and I found myself interviewing at Maxim Integrated Products. The company was still small back then (the company would grow to over $1B/year in revenue by the time I left), so I interviewed with most of the management team.
There was this one fellow named Ziya who asked me, “What will you do if I tell you on Friday afternoon that Jack, the CEO, has just given us an assignment that we have to complete by Monday morning?”
“I guess we have a long weekend ahead of us,” I answered. It reminded me of my college experience.
Ziya instantly said, “I think I want to make you an offer.”
You need good teachers and mentors if you are going to be a successful startup CEO.
My career at Maxim had begun. I was one of a group of people working for Ziya that comprised this new organization called Business Management. This organization would become the strategic, marketing, and general management arm of the company.
And through luck and timing, I became Ziya’s right hand man. Mind you, I had spent my entire career up to this point as an engineer, so being elevated to a much more senior role than my experience was a huge opportunity.
My nickname for Ziya was “The Professor.” Ziya was always the teacher, and I was very happy to be his student.
I learnt a ton from Ziya about strategy, planning and marketing. We became partners and collaborators as we set the strategic direction for the company.
Plus we had almost daily interaction with Maxim’s CEO, Jack Gifford. Jack was also quite the teacher too, but his methods were, to say it mildly, different than Ziya’s.
Where Ziya was professorial, Jack was harsh and to the point. However, you could learn a ton from Jack if you could see through his tough guy exterior.
From Jack, I learned how to run a company. One of the most critical things I learned working with Jack was how to make decisions without perfect information. I’ll get back to this later.
Jack also was the most instinctive marketer I’ve ever worked with.
Jack was a one man A/B test with the uncanny ability to know what advertising or marketing strategy would work, and what advertising or marketing strategy wouldn’t work. Jack was rarely wrong in those days.
You need to grow into your role as a startup CEO.
The training I got working with Ziya and Jack was great training for when I started my own company. I was very well prepared for what was to come next in building my company.
When you start a company, the information you have to make decisions is limited. You can become paralyzed and not make any decisions if you’re not careful.
I was so fortunate because I learned from Jack how to fill in the blanks of any information I was missing. This was a huge advantage.
Yet, as I look back, I still had a bunch of learning to do. And, just like the old saying goes, there’s no substitute for doing.
It’s one thing to lead a team as the general manager of a division. It’s quite another thing to lead a whole company.
The personnel issues multiply when you’re the CEO. And the customer issues multiply too. Plus, you’re going to have to manage your board of directors and your investors too. The only way you learn how to do any of these things is by doing.
The reality is all of your experiences help you as a startup CEO.
Jack and Ziya are gone now. Jack died of a massive heart attack on his 69th birthday about ten years ago. Ziya passed away from cancer a few years later at way to young an age.
The lessons I learned from Jack and Ziya I still use every day. I still can grind with the best of them like I could back in college. Finally, you’ll be amazed at how much you grow into your role, and you’ll be amazed at how much learning you still have to do as a startup CEO. I was.
For more, read: What Are The Five Skills You Need To Be A Great CEO?