Success for a startup CEO is making those who believed in you look brilliant (customers, employees, and investors). This reference to a quote by Dharmesh Shah is how Zorian Rotenberg describes his job as first time startup CEO and Founder of Atiim. Coming from humble beginnings, behind the iron-curtain in Ukraine, to Harvard Business School, and now running a growing software startup in Boston, Zorian is far from your typical business leader.
A Good-Relationship Person
When I asked Zorian if anyone could be the CEO of a startup, he responded with a joke - “Only if you love pain”. As Zorian describes the job, it’s a Venn diagram that shows four circles: taking a huge personal risk, facing intense challenges, working 100-hour weeks and taking little or no pay. It takes a specific type of person, one who has a desire to go far out of their comfort zone, to start from scratch, to take on an infinite number of challenging obstacles, do it all on limited resources, and yet enjoy that experience. To Zorian, starting and leading a startup is less about liking the pain and more about achieving challenging goals. It’s about doing something fulfilling, all while becoming a little bit better and wiser.
The difference between Zorian and other company leaders is instead of separating work and life, he embraces his life experiences to help him become a better leader. Who in history inspires him? His grandmother. She had the courage to leave the Soviet Union all alone in order to make it possible for Zorian (with his parents) to immigrate to the U.S. during the Cold War. What kind of leader does he try to be? One focused on building good relationships, because good relationships are ultimately the point of life itself. And how does he stay sane in such an intense job? Being thankful every day for his family, working out before sunrise, and also keeping a perspective in life. When you immigrate to the U.S. with just $200, can’t speak English, you have to work really hard to get anywhere. You struggle when you’re growing up so everything gets easier compared to your earlier experiences. It is that type of perspective that makes Zorian‘s journey unique.
The Secret Sauce
Zorian has a unique set of experiences to draw from, having been a VP running both Sales and Marketing on the management teams of some of the highest-growing and most successful software startups. He was a VP of OEM Sales & Business Development at Acronis which grew from $20M to $100M in just 3 years. At Veeam, he was VP of Demand Generation, which is one of those super rare companies that went in 10 years from zero to well on its way to $1 Billion in annual sales. Prior to starting Atiim, he was the VP of Sales & Marketing at InsightSquared.
Zorian only had one answer to the proverbial question as to what drives results: Teamwork. Being a Bill Belichick and a Patriots fan probably contributes to his belief that building a company is a team sport. “Alignment” across the company is one of the few true competitive advantages and the secret sauce that drives results of best-performing companies. In fact, Zorian current startup Atiim (pronounced as “A-Team”) supports his philosophy. Their product called Atiim Pulse OKR™ is all about creating internal alignment and driving higher performance by letting companies set and manage their objectives (rooted in the OKR (Objectives & Key Results) approach which Google made popular) and align everyone’s efforts at the company to the CEO’s top goals.
While alignment contributes to Zorian’s secret sauce, he also knows that the CEO’s job at an early stage startup differs from that of billion dollar companies. He breaks down his “startup CEO” role today into 6 categories:
- Strategy & Execution – The CEO must set the vision, must know how to get his company there, and must execute and manage operational execution towards that vision (which at an early stage is a ton of arduous work without resources).
- Recruit A-Players – Build out a great team (that’s 80% of the battle).
- Sales – The CEO must be the first sales rep of the company and needs to build a predictable and repeatable process that scales sales with newly hired sales reps.
- Marketing – The CEO must do the marketing to get those leads into the sales funnel… he must evangelize the company and then do something innovative to be able to build a cost-effective customer acquisition funnel.
- Cash – It’s all about growing sales while keeping a laser focus on managing money effectively.
- Resourcefulness – this is the least talked about role of a startup CEO but this one is probably the most critical success factor of a startup CEO and is far more critical than for someone who is a CEO of a billion dollar company.
Advice for the Hard Times
Challenges and hard times always come with the territory when you start a company. Even the best businesses in the world go through that. How a company leader deals with these situations is a determining factor for the long-term success of any company. When asking Zorian about the hard times that startups experience during their early stages, he quotes Winston Churchill and Bill Belichick, “If you’re going through hell, keep going”and “Do your job!” It’s all about hard work, staying tough and positive, and having a laser focus on your goals ahead – this is the recipe for handling startup challenges.
If there is one thing to take away from Zorian and his current legacy as an analytical minded CEO, it’s that anyone can go to school, learn to read numbers and surround themselves with an amazing team of people. It is your life experiences and how you let them inspire you that sets you apart from the rest.