This is the fifth time that I have replaced a founder in a technology company. I’ve learned a lot about what to do and what not to do.
Founders are the ones who do the magic. They create something from nothing. It’s what makes America so different from other countries.
But many times, founders have a set of skills that although it helps them do the magic, it will keep them from being successful when it comes to scaling the business.
That’s where I have become effective — growing businesses.
I decided to study engineering in college at the recommendation of my high school guidance counselor. I realized pretty early on I didn’t just want to be an engineer, I wanted to run a company.
I went back to school to get my law and business degrees.
During my schooling, I met a guy who was a year ahead of me. Between classes, he would read the Wall Street Journal when most law students were reading law reviews.
The year after he graduated, he founded a software computer company and asked me to join him. When I asked him why he chose me, he said that his former professors referred me because I was the only engineer they knew.
So I joined.
The company was in the personal computer software business before IBM. It made the very earliest spreadsheet programs.
About six months in, the guy that ran our software development product resigned. The founders were frantic. At that time we only had about 15 people in the company. I approached them and said, “I’ve never done this before. I’m not sure I know how, but I believe I can figure it out. You should let me run software development.”
They were desperate, so they gave me the opportunity. I read every book that I could about software development. I gathered my new team and told them that I never developed software but that they were the experts.
We developed a spreadsheet program for one of our biggest customers. I got a note from our client’s vice president who said he had never worked with a more professional software development group.
It was at that point I believed I could take on any task that I put my mind to.
The company got acquired eight months later. I was hooked and addicted to the build-a-business mentality. I worked my way up through several companies.
Eventually, I took a job as a chief executive with a very early start-up with five employees. It was a family business. I was the only outsider. It didn’t work out very well. I like the freedom to be creative. They didn’t like that. I got very unceremoniously fired from that job nine months into my tenure. It was devastating.
So I went out and played golf to clear my mind.
That evening, I had several messages on my answer machine from people I had met in business along the way. I had six or seven job offers.
I had a few chief executive roles. I helped grow one company from $5 million to $25 million in annual revenue. Another, we turned around and sold in less than a year.
At another one, I asked to resign. The venture capitalist forced the founder to hire me because he didn’t believe the founder could take the company to the next level. The founder did everything to make sure I wasn’t successful so he could convince the board that they still needed him. I asked the board to terminate me. Shortly thereafter, they fired the founder.
I never look back and wish I could’ve done things differently. Every experience teaches me new lessons.
Now at Force 3, I’ll continue my strength in scaling businesses. It’s about taking the great work of the founders, adding processes and bringing in great people that can decentralize management and turn these companies into great enterprises.
— Interview with Vanessa Small
Position: Chief executive of Force 3, a Crofton IT company.
Career highlights: Chief executive, e-OneHundred Group; chief executive, Transcentive; vice president of business development, Progress; director of corporate development, Hyperion.
Education: BS, Electrical Engineering, Union College; JD, Emory University; MBA, Emory University.
Personal: Lives in Crownsville, Md.