I was having coffee with a member of Intrepid’s most recent apprentice class named Colin, and he asked me a question I hear fairly often: What do I like best about being the CEO of Intrepid?
I gave a fairly long answer, but the crux of it was that today what I like best is that I’m no longer in the weeds of client engagements, but more focused on the macro success of Intrepid. Colin replied that it must be nice to now have grown to a team of 90 people to have the infrastructure to make that macro focus possible.
After a moment's pause, I told him he had the causal relationship flipped. It wasn’t the size of our team that enabled me to get out of the weeds. Rather, I ripped myself out of the weeds, which enabled us to get to 90 people (as a side note, number of people is generally a poor proxy for success, but in the case of a bootstrapped company it’s better than in a venture-backed one).
This brings us to the coffee machine. A lot of CEOs of young companies or startups take a lot of pride in being head chef and bottle washer. They are coding, taking out the trash, raising venture money, and fixing the coffee machine. I was this CEO (minus the coding) in 2011. But, with time, the immediate needs of the company grow beyond fixing the coffee machine, and the CEO needs to focus on running the company.
I explained to Colin that when the coffee machine breaks it takes about five minutes to fix it. Even factoring in productivity lost to context switching, those five minutes are pretty trivial. As a CEO, this isn’t a particularly high-value task, and if you’ve ever run an office where people drink a LOT of coffee you know that the machine breaks a lot.
Now, training someone else on the team to fix it takes about an hour. I had fixed this machine a lot, and there were about 15 different things that could have been wrong with it. At any given moment when the machine broke, it was MUCH quicker to just fix it than to train someone else to do so.
But, rather than spending five minutes to fix it or spending an hour training someone to fix it, I spent about 40 hours researching coffee machines for offices. This led me to research how to manage an office, which led me to discover and call reps at Aramark and WB Mason, which led to negotiations with a supplier agreement. In the end, I decided to buy a commercial grade coffee machine that was supplied, and most importantly, was serviced and fixed regularly.
This lesson translates beyond the coffee machine, and it’s a metaphor for the last five years of my life at Intrepid, and I suspect, becoming a "leveraged" CEO (or any leader) within a growing company.
I not only saved myself dozens of future five-minute fixes, but I figured out what the underlying issue was, and solved it. Growing a company means identifying the real problems, seriously thinking about solutions, and handing off responsibilities.
Stop fixing the damn coffee machine.