• June 16, 2021

Starting a Business Does Not Make You a CEO

Starting a Business Does Not Make You a CEO

I have always struggled with entrepreneurs who announce unsupported greatness with platitudes of confirmation bias and naïve arrogance. “I am CEO of (insert company).” “When we capture just .000001 percent of the market share, we will all be quadzillionaires.” “Just ask my friend Joe. He agrees that everyone wants my product/service.” Like many entrepreneurs, I have started a handful of companies, and it’s easy to get over-excited, but in my experience, the typical startup has a half-cracked idea, no proof of concept, and is devoid of any near-term customers. No, your friends and family do not count, and that’s okay! As the saying goes, you only have to be right once.

When I started Progeneration Energy, I was determined to earn each and every professional title as I grew. My first position with Progeneration was as a “project professional.” Since day one, I have set milestones to account for every one of my title changes. Goals such as sales, profitability, and growth of my team members have ensured that my focus remains on the task of growing Progeneration Energy rather than on my title.

When trying to get a new company off the ground, the initial excitement can overshadow the cold truth that entrepreneurship is messy, vague, and—depending on your perception—extremely high-risk. You end up feeling like you have to have all the answers because you are the CEO of this new company, but it’s OK if you don’t. By focusing on the task at hand, and not on creating the perception that you are King of the Mountain, a new entrepreneur can create professional and emotional wiggle room.

In fact, I was once almost thrown out of a boardroom during a pitch because I “didn’t know my numbers,” even though I had graduated from an extremely prestigious MBA program. There was a lot of one-sided yelling. At the time, I was just a wide-eyed recent MBA graduate, trying to understand basic theoretical but crucial concepts like “project cash flow strategy” and “capital deployment time horizon,” but I hadn’t learned them as they relate to the real-world execution of business. It did not help that I was pitching a good friend who has extreme entrepreneurship success. It was a lesson needed. I was not a president, CEO, or King of the Mountain then, and despite some of my success, I am not so sure I am now.

Since then, my company and I have grown significantly. For the past eight years, I have been told it is time for me to change my title, and people are often shocked when I tell them that yes, I founded the company, but no, we do not have a CEO. Once I explain my reasoning, people typically react with an intrigued understanding. It’s not a common approach. People are used to seeing a founder with the title of CEO/president/founder, but I think it’s overall a positive thing to see an entrepreneur put aside their ego and commit to growing with their company.

Additionally, it is essential to remember that success can be as simple as survival—and survival has nothing to do with your title. I once asked an extremely qualified applicant why he didn’t start his own business. His answer: payroll. Surviving is being able to take care of your employees, make payroll, and pay your bills. The grit and perseverance it takes to make those three things happen make your work mean something. It can be easy for an entrepreneur to fail and simply file for bankruptcy to avoid paying back investors, but you should commit to refusing to fail because your investors took a chance on you, and you owe it to them to prove them right. Being able to serve others, make a difference in the world, and pay back those who invested time and resources into your venture means something, and that is good enough for me.

While I am unsure whether my most recent title change—to President of Progeneration Energy—is deserved, I am thankful for all my investors, customers, colleagues, and support system. I continue to be committed to the relentless task of “earning it.”

Anthony Shaw

Anthony Shaw

Anthony Shaw is an accomplished entrepreneur, a former Naval non-commissioned officer, and an MBA graduate from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. While at Duke, he chose to start his own company in less than three months—something he was told would be impossible. He even began his first entrepreneurial venture at 17, and his latest venture, Progeneration Energy, an alternative energy solutions company with over $68.2 million in project completion, also boasts a perfect safety record.

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