What skills do you need to develop to become the CEO of a tech startup?
By Laura Yecies (CEO, SugarSync)
I’m often asked by young women in school, thinking about their careers, “how can I prepare to be a CEO? What should I study? What experiences should I seek?”
To answer this question I think it’s best to think about what skills are needed to be a CEO of a technology startup. First of all, what do companies need to do? Simply put, they need to make things and they need to sell what they make. Typically, the CEO will know more about one of those two, but you need to be able to execute at a basic level on both. Going beyond that, you need to build and manage an organization to deliver on the basic premise.
Here are the 5 key skills you need to be a tech startup CEO:
- Ability to identify/analyze/assess a market opportunity and the product required to succeed with that market.
- Fundamental technology skills and concepts.
- Ability to sell your product, ideas, company (to investors, recruits).
- Ability to recruit and lead a team.
- Excellent verbal and written communication skills.
What can you do in college to prepare? From an academic point of view — I do not agree with Peter Thiel -– I believe that for most people, they are best off finishing their undergraduate degree.
If you’re inclined towards programming, majoring in computer science and taking a lot of economics and classes that focus on communications (writing, foreign language etc.) is a terrific combination.
If you’re not inclined to major in CS or engineering at least take a few classes to be conversant in the major topics and issues. I think there’s tremendous benefit that comes from going deep in a topic and doing original research. For example, pushing yourself to write an honors thesis while at the same time complementing that with a breadth of topics — and exposing yourself intellectually very widely — philosophy, math, foreign language, history, religion, lab science etc.
During college I encourage students to get involved in activities where they can develop their leadership and recruiting skills — clubs, service organizations, fraternities/sororities, teams. Learning to raise money is great, too — that’s often part of service work. This is very similar to what you do in a startup.
For your early jobs, assuming you are not going to start a company right away, I encourage people to go into a “line” position — get involved right away in either the building or selling/marketing side of a business. Product management is a great experience as you often get involved with both. This is when you really need to identify and learn as much as possible about potential market opportunities and/or ways to deliver existing products more efficiently or in a way that better suits customer needs.
There is no magic recipe for success here. As evidenced by the wide range of paths successful women have taken there are clearly different approaches.
If you’re always learning about the market and or developing your fundamental technical and business skills, you’ll be better prepared for the CEO role when the time is right.
Editor’s note: Got a question or answer for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.
About the guest blogger: Laura Yecies is CEO of SugarSync, makers of the award-winning SugarSync online data back-up and storage, syncing and file sharing service. She is a consumer software and Internet services industry veteran with nearly two decades of experience leading top consumer brands such as ZoneAlarm, Yahoo and Netscape. Laura blogs at The Kitchen Sync about work, family, travel and other activities converging, and the lessons learned along the way. Follow her on Twitter at @lyecies.