To CEO or not to CEO?

22 August 2018: SBE Australia hosted a startup community event to debate the topic of whether to CEO or not to CEO? It’s a dilemma sometimes faced by researchers, academics, entrepreneurs and founders when establishing their business – should you be the CEO or should you let someone more experienced take the lead and be the founder/CTO or similar?

It can be a tough decision for anyone that has spent a long time building their professional reputation to step away from their former careers and risk it all on a new venture. It can also be challenging balancing that decision with raising a family or caring for older parents. We heard that it can come as a huge personal cost.  For those a little further down the track it can be difficult for founder CEO’s to recognise that they may not be the right CEO to take their technology all the way from an early stage through exit. When is the right time to step out or for that matter to step in? How do you make the decision to CEO or not to CEO?

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Held at the Swinburne University Innovation Hub, we assembled an amazing panel of thought leaders with diverse founding and CEO experiences that shared their insights on the FOR’s and AGAINST’s of being a CEO. The panel’s collective and varied talents included academia, medical professional, technology and device commercialisation, investment banking and angel financing, serial entrepreneur, social media guru, debating queen and all round inspiring women. Our Chair Kerri Lee Sinclair who has both CEO’d and not CEO’d was the moderator for the evening. Check out the panel profiles below:

Panel For

Grainne Oates Founder and CEO of Quitch

Elane Zelcer Former CEO and Commercialisation Expert

Penelope Lane CEO Optix Advisory, Commercialisation Expert and investor

Panel Against

Mimi Tang Founder and CSO/CMO of Prota Therapeutics

Ariane Barker CEO Scale Investments

Michelle Gallaher Founder and CEO of 3 startups,

The aim of the night was to give founders some food for thought and a few laughs as they decided on their own personal journey. There is not necessarily a right or wrong answer to this question and sometimes, as we saw, the answer is “it depends” or “not now but not never”.  Here are some of the insights shared that evening that might help you in deciding on your own personal journey…

The FOR’s:

  • Where else can you be so passionate about your job that you function on 2 hours sleep a night when you are the CEO of your own company?
  • It’s really really hard but its also amazingly exciting
  • The keys to success are finding great support and mentors to help you succeed
  • It’s fun and rewarding growing your own business
  • Being the founder and CEO lets you choose your own work life balance or allows you to be in control of the lifestyle you want.
  • You need to play to your strengths, so make sure you firm up any weaknesses by building great teams around you
  • Think about whether you have what it takes to attract a good team and whether you have what it takes


  • Not having the right soft skills. It sucks having to do the finances and the HR stuff yourself
  • Sometimes your strengths are the technical side and you have no commercial experience or you need to get to market quickly – let a professional CEO do it
  • Being a founder and being a CEO are two completely different roles. A CEO is a board appointment and they have to do what the Board tells them
  • You have to do what the Board tells you even if you disagree
  • CEO’s are sale’s people and fundraisers – that’s hard. They don’t get to do the fun stuff
  • If you are a founder, your idea or tech or business is your baby – it’s hard to be objective
  • The buck stops with you – you have to deal with all the crap and all the problems
  • CEO’s have to put the business first and investors first, not themselves
  • The personal cost-…it’s lonely, no one confides in you, the school mums don’t like you, you get ripped off by tradies that think you are loaded because you are a CEO
  • CEO’s coming in from outside of the business bring fresh ideas and fresh eyes/perspective

And some IN BETWEEN thoughts…..

  • Just because you are the CEO it doesn’t make you a good leader…
  • Women can be important leaders without being the CEO
  •  The timing of being a CEO waxes and wanes along with other stuff going on in your life.
  • Forgiveness and laughter are really important skills to have as a CEO – make sure you are self aware.

So what do you think? To CEO or not to CEO? Share your thoughts with us on facebook, twitter and LinkedIn.


SBE Australia gratefully acknowledges it's event partners:

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