So Who’s in Charge Around Here? [ENT 600 Week 5]

For a few years in the late 1990s and early 2000s when as a younger free man, I spent my summers at Caribou Ranch in the shadow of the Indian Peaks of Colorado’s Front Range near Nederland.   Not the part of the 1,600 acre ranch where every rock artist worth their salt recorded an album in the 70s, but a slice that got sold off in the mid 1980s.  My friend Rob Savoye rented a very large house on a huge property that was probably converted from a barn and had a lot of room for the right folks to park and camp.  (The crusty kids were directed to a free campground 3.3 miles down the road).  I visited only once during the winter and understood instantly why his rent was so cheap.  The 70mph wind driven snow and -40 degree wind chills cut my visit very short.  Rob climbs ice on 14,000 foot mountain sides in the winter in his spare time, and so faced such conditions in just a sweater.

I knew Rob as an information junkie who ran the Rainbow Family website welcomehome.org (he still does) and brought high tech communications equipment to the Rainbow Gatherings (which he also still does).  Rob liked to say that if the Native Americans had owned two way radios, this would still be Indian land.  I’ve seen his theory tested a number of times and believe it likely true.

During the time I was spending summers at 10,000 feet, hiking all over the Colorado Rockies, playing guitar at festivals, going to Rainbow Gatherings and various spin-offs of the Grateful Dead, I kept my rent paid and gas tank full by selling my music books at shows and painting house numbers on curbs in the sprawling suburbs of gigantic and growing Denver just below.  Meanwhile, Rob sat in his plush black office chair in front of four 24″ computer screens 18 hours a day connected to computers with staggering (for the time) processor speeds and memory capacity on his hard wired secure T3 connection.   Rob’s was the first place I ever heard of a “gigabyte.”  And he had the fastest internet I had ever seen.

I know.  You’re saying to yourself, how did Rob have a secure hard wired T3 connection out in the middle of nowhere at 10,000 feet….in 1998?  Such an item ran into the tens of thousands of dollars back then.   It had a lot to do with what he did for a living.  Rob–known in coding circles as “the guy who wrote GNASH” (a popular open source code used by millions today)–was writing the code for NASA’s (and some other agencies’) computers, all Linux.  From his desk at 10,000 feet at Caribou.

Caribou is also the first place I ever heard the term, “hired (and fired) my boss.”  Wikipedia describes Rob as “one of the first employees of Cygnus Solutions, which merged with [huge open source software distributor] Red Hat in 2001.”  Which is really funny because Rob co-founded Cygnus and it was pretty much Rob’s baby.  He hired the management team who ultimately took the company to a lucrative merger with Red Hat in 2001 because what Rob does well is write code.  Rob now lives in his own off the grid solar and wind powered dome home village in the nearby town of Ward, CO, writing another software package that runs the logistics of off grid houses.  He doesn’t worry about money too much.  And Red Hat was a great home for folks who were still working for Cygnus.

Because Rob accepted the proper roles with his start-up, he was able to put all the round pegs in round holes and the octagonal pegs in octagonal holes, accomplish a great deal in a short amount of time, then execute a lucrative exit strategy to perfection.  He didn’t want to be the CEO, the COO, and carried no executive title and remained so far in the background Wikipedia only remembers him as one of the first employees.  But he was clearly The Boss of the company, hiring and firing “his bosses” when they tried to take the enterprise into unwanted territory or strayed off the reservation into jobs that weren’t theirs.  He allowed co-founders with different work capital like John Gilmore (who founded the Electronic Freedom Foundation which is now battling Republicans trying to kill net neutrality) and fellow programmer Michael Tiemann (who moved with the company to Red Hat and became their Chief Technical Officer) run the company.

I think I may take a page from his playbook and hire a CEO once Abundance takes flight.  On the one hand, I clearly possess the skills to fulfill Joel Trammel’s “Core 5 Responsibilities for a CEO:  Own the vision, provide the proper resources,  build the culture, make good decisions, and deliver performance.”  And perhaps when I really get into the role I may want to stay there.  But I definitely now plan to eschew the title to avoid what Noah Wasserman calls “inflating titles” and the disruption that can occur when it becomes apparent that the company would do better with someone more qualified at the helm.  I must admit I really like working with all of these young weird interesting business owners helping them navigate these jellyfish and stingray infested waters on their way to success.  I worry as CEO it would no longer be my role.  I see a founder’s board forming and let everything fall into the place it belongs at the right time.

Note: I plan to interview Rob Savoye as one of my SMEs, so be looking for that.

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Sources:

Trammel, Joel, “Responsibilities of a CEO? Here Are the Core 5.”  The American CEO, 1/20/2016.
I highly recommend The American CEO blog.  Full of awesome articles and interviews with CEOs.  Lots of valuable insight.

Wasserman, Noam.  The Founder’s Dillemas.  Chapter 5, Role Dilemmas.

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This is not only my Professional Blog where I post my assignments for my Master of Entrepreneurship program at Western Carolina University, it’s also my Professional Blog on my actual business web site for my actual functioning business!  Since they overlap so neatly in my personal Venn Diagram, I think clients, potential clients, or just idle passersby will find some value in my analysis as much as my classmates and instructors.  Enjoy!

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7 Comments

  1. An excellent blog. It is simply a joy to read. I agree with your struggle about the CEO position. All too often folks assume that because they’re the idea person that the CEO job is the right one for them. I am not surprised that when the venture capitalist shows up that they eject the founder from the CEO position at least half the time. And I’m sure that’s not a very easy task so probably many more can or should go. So perhaps the most important thing a Founder can do is decide if they really are the best potential CEO for this Corporation. I’ve come to the conclusion that the best CEO is the one that I find. And the principles you identified are an excellent guide to that task. If I find somebody who shares my values but has the energy and enthusiasm required of a CEO then I believe it’s a win all around. Sure it’s possible that the CEO disagrees with me and the company doesn’t reach my vision. But that’s equally likely if I’m the CEO. I look forward to the results of your interview. The story of the guy at 10,000 feet was a great way to start the day.

    • Thanks Brad! The term “hiring my boss” just stick with me over the years. I think I’m just now realizing what a different place I’d be in if I had done the same all those year ago.

  2. Dina Khalilova

    Arjay,
    Thanks for the story at the beginning. It was a real pleasure to read.
    If one knows that his business is capable of much more than he alone can achieve then hiring a CEO who can keep the team motivated and lead the company to reach its highest level of success and potential could be the best decision to make. That’s what it’s called a win-win situation for both sides: an idea person and the company.

  3. Zoe

    This is an excellent post! I look forward to reading more about Rob. I agree with your CEO debate. Not everyone who begins a business desires to be in charge. Often times, they want to do what they like to do, and sitting in a corporate role just isn’t it. I am currently having a similar debate with myself about whether I want to take on a corporate role. As of right now, I aspire to be the CEO, but I may come to a place where that role just isn’t what I am looking for. At which point, I hope to operate an exit strategy as smoothly as your friend did! I thoroughly enjoyed reading about his fascinating experiences.

  4. I really enjoy reading your blogs, Arjay. The human element you add makes for an engaging read.

    Similarly to Rob Savoye, I truly have no desire to function as the CEO; and it sounds as though that may not appeal to you either. My impression is that the higher up you get into an organization, the further away you move from what’s reality, or what’s really happening. I want to be in the midst of what folks are doing – working to troubleshoot issues, creating new business ideas, shaping the culture, connecting with customers and employees… Ideally I will have people in place who can run the joint, craft and execute the strategy, negotiate win/win agreements. I used to want to be “in charge” but that was mostly likely driven by my desire to control. Controlling simply doesn’t sound like fun any longer, but getting my hands dirty sure does!

    So who would be in charge at my place? I’m not sure…still exploring this. It’s important to have someone with shared vision and values. I’d like it to be someone with whom I can agree and constructively disagree; who knows how to take calculated risks and enjoys doing so; who can unveil the gaps in my crazy ideas yet also appreciate that I might be on to something; and who can help me break my big dreams down into manageable growth phases. I know I’m not the right person to fill the CEO role, which creates a dilemma for me…who is that person?

    Thank you for sharing!

  5. Wow, I love the story of Rob and look forward to your SME interview. Hiring and firing his own bosses, really caught my interest and I could not help but read more. You are a great story teller and writer Arjay. I appreciate you weighing hiring a CEO vs. being the CEO, so many times we see founders not even think twice, they just take the CEO title. Great blog post yet again!

  6. Arjay,
    Oh my God! You’re blog entry was amazing! I really enjoyed your story about Rob, and having him as an SME would be out of this world! What a valuable piece of social capital! (ha!) Rob had the plan, the ideas, and the drive to come out in the end how he wanted to. Great post! I can’t wait to read more!

    Lexi

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