To Be A Great Founder, Learn to Fire Yourself

by Joseph Bien-Kahn in

In our most recent OPERATORS interview, BetterUp founder Alexi Robichaux shared a fascinating strategy he and his cofounder used when growing their startup. “A framing that was really helpful for me was just reminding myself that as a founder, you want to be firing yourself from as much of the role and responsibility as you can,” he said. “But you have to responsibly fire yourself.”

The idea is an intriguing one and can be a great guiding principle as your startup begins to expand. To put it simply: you and your cofounders should explicitly lay out every role and responsibility, and then begin to hire people to take specific parts of your jobs from you. Eventually, as you continue to cross items off that list, you’ll have fired you and your cofounder again and again. 

Just as AbstractOps takes care of the back-office so founders can focus on what they’re most talented at and passionate about, the Fire Yourself Framing allows you and your founding team to dive deep into that which you do best and hire or outsource the rest. It also creates opportunities for your hires to take ownership of their new role, which lets them grow and thrive within the company. 

As Ben Horowitz explained in a 2013 blog post, no one is born a great CEO. “It generally takes years for a founder to develop the CEO skill set,” he wrote. A great CEO is a great delegator — it’s a skillset that can be honed like any other. That’s what the Fire Yourself Framing is created to help you do.

The List

The first step to making the Fire Yourself Framing work is to sit down with your cofounder and create a list of your subfunctions and responsibilities. This should be a list that is audited regularly as your company changes and grows.

For an example, AbstractOps cofounders Hari and Adam wrote out their two lists:

Adam:

  • Product
  • Product Design
  • Product/Engineering Roadmap and Agile Management
  • Sales
  • Marketing
  • Fundraising (when applicable)
  • Operations: Finance (plan, bookkeeping, accounting, expense tracking), Legal, HR, Insurance, Regulatory

Hari:

  • Recruiting
  • Product
  • Sales
  • Fundraising (when applicable)
  • Team Management / 1:1s

Once you take the time to outline your subfunctions, it will become incredibly clear how much is on the plate of the cofounders. And as you can tell from the lists, some of the cofounder functions overlap. But the goal of the Fire Yourself Framing is to hire people to take on responsibilities you’re less gifted at and then freeing up mindspace and time to dive deep into your respective superpowers.

As François Briod, the cofounder and CEO of Monito, told Business Insider: “You need to hire people that are better than you at doing stuff that is very important for the company. One of the challenging aspects of being the founder is that you need to fire yourself every three to six months to find someone better than you at doing the things that you're doing now.”

Often, founders dive into the quixotic pursuit of founding because they’re electrified by a product idea or a slice of the market that remains untapped. If you’re a product genius or a sales wizard, your time is most effectively spent on your exceptional talent. Fire yourself from the roles that you don’t excel at or that don’t excite you, and create time to do the high-value, highly expert work that will enable you to achieve the exceptional. Living and breathing in the exceptional sphere is where you need to be as a startup if you hope to succeed. 

The Layoffs

With growth comes the hiring phase, which is the moment that the Fire Yourself Framing becomes essential. Once the lists are written and you and your cofounder decide on the roles that should be taken from one or both of you, make your hire. Perhaps your cofounder is a marketing/CX guru but not great at UX — fire him from web design and hire a front-end/UX designer. By identifying who had been in charge of that role and then actively removing him from it, your new UX designer will be empowered to take ownership of their role. “What you're actually doing is creating opportunity for Person Three and Person Four and Person Five and up to Person Whatever Hundred to really have a meaty role in the company,” Robichaux says, “and to feel that they have autonomy and agency to solve a part of the business where you're not looming over them or stepping on their toes.”

If you and your cofounder are constantly auditing your subfunction/responsibility list as your hiring process continues, you’ll have a trail to follow as you grow your company. Instead of following the traditional path, you can create clearly defined roles to take on clearly defined responsibilities and subfunctions — each new hire will know what is expected of them and what superpower they’ll need to hone.

In a post on the Startup Finance Blog, CEO Executive Consultant Jeff Erwin wrote: “I decided a long time ago that the goal of the perfect CEO should be to have nothing to do. In reality this is, of course, an unrealistic and unreachable goal, but it speaks to the need to be a great delegator as CEO.” It’s a pie-in-the-sky goal, but it speaks to something pressingly important: a good leader needs to dive deep into their superpower areas and be willing to give their hires the autonomy to do great, deep work in their areas of expertise. It serves neither the individual nor the startup if the founder does little bits of harried, frantic work across every subfunction of a company.

With AbstractOps, we’ve built a platform to allow founders to instantly fire themselves from most of the back-office roles. No one — except for the founders of AbstractOps — ever starts a company to do back-office work! It’s not an area of exceptional expertise for any founder. By firing yourselves from operations and outsourcing the COO job to us, we’ve created a quick and affordable way of clearing mindspace and time to focus on your superpower. 

The End Goal

The goal of the Fire Yourself Framing is threefold. 

  1. The first advantage comes the moment you and your cofounder begin to explicitly layout and regularly audit your responsibilities. Knowing who does what at the start allows for a smooth founding relationship (which is an underrated part of any successful startup) and allows for strategic growth when funding and hiring does begin. 
  2. The second advantage comes during that hiring process. By understanding which roles you want to begin to outsource, you can hire much more accurately and creatively. These first few hires are another make-or-break point for a startup, so identifying exactly what you need Employee #3 or #4 or #5 to master will allow for efficient and hopefully exponential growth. 
  3. The final advantage comes in the way in which those early hires are empowered within their new roles. The moment you or your cofounder crosses a subfunction or responsibility off your list is a moment when a new hire is given much more concrete ownership of a part of a startup. Many founders find themselves spread thin, trying to have a hand in every aspect and decision of their company. But by actively firing yourself, you and your cofounder have explicitly shifted a subfunction or responsibility off your plate. This subfunction is now the arena of Employee #3 or #4 or #5 — they can feel a sense of ownership and sharpen the skillset into a superpower of their own.

The greatness of a startup is often a reflection of the founding team, but by firing yourself throughout the early hiring process, you can make your startup greater than the sum of its parts. Just as AbstractOps clears space for founders to spend more time employing their superpowers, the Fire Yourself Framing can let everyone at your company be doing what they’re best at for the greatest amount of their workday. That’s how you unlock exceptional. So what are you waiting for? Fire yourself today.