We’ve all seen little, itty-bitty startups with execs with title like EVP of this or SVP of that. Unfortunately they’re silly and unnecessary. To a VC it screams this guy or gal doesn’t get it – startups aren’t about titles, startups are about producing a winning company. Excessive titles are seen as evidence that the individual with the excessive title (EVP and SVP are the prime-examples) isn’t in it for the greater good, but is there for a personal ego trip.
I can speak from personal experience, a decade ago, I co-founded my first internet/tech startup (SimplyTV it was a spectacular failure for all those interested for reasons outlined in this post about being wayyy too early). And not knowing my head from my backside when it came to startup title etiquette, I gave myself a big, fat title – EVP. EVP of nothing in particular just that having come from the media colossus disney where uber titles like EVP and SVP connote a sense of awe and privilege for those that help them (at least to young peon’s like myself at the time). It seems pretty silly now since there were only 3 of us since that effectively made me EVP of a team of 1 – myself.
Along the fund-raising path for SimplyTV we pitched Bill Gurley, now of Benchmark and then of Hummer Winblad. During the pitching and due diligence process Bill took me aside one day and asked why I had a title of EVP (we were at least up to about 8 folks at that time). Before waiting for an answer that I really didn’t have, Bill answered his question with a statement telling me how absurd it was for anyone at a startup to have a title like that. For the reasons mentioned above and how it’s important not to get ahead of yourselves. VC’s, according to Bill, want to see that Founders get it. And leaving the corporate BS of uber-titles behind is definitely one of the things to get. It was obvious that Bill was telling us – that unless we started drinking the startup kool-aid there was no way we were getting any VC money (even if our idea was a good one at the time which as it turned out wasn’t). So the co-founders all changed our titles to Co-Founder. But that wasn’t even for Bill – as Anne Winblad and Bill decided to pass.
I have kept that advice and lesson close to heart as I’ve migrated the startup landscape and surprisingly it even comes up still today. A company I’m helping right now was in the process of raising some VC money. And the fellow running bizdev was using the title EVP (there it is again – the kiss of death). He had come from a large, public tech company where title’s like EVP and SVP were common so he didn’t probably think twice in asking and getting the title. Well, I got a call from a VC buddy of mine that I had introduced to this company and had the company pitch him. After the pitch my VC buddy commented, that he loved the team except he was bothered by the EVP title asking whether this big company guy got it with regards to startups. Startups are too boot strappy and egalitarian for anyone to ever have a title like that was his point. And it was definitely a negative in his mind with regards to the question of funding.
The moral of my story is that the proper titles for execs at a startup are just VP. If you’re a co-founder and not CEO, then your title is VP of XYZ & Co-Founder. If you’re the CEO, then don’t be CEO and President, you’re just CEO & Founder (or Co-Founder as the case might be). Remember you’re not in it for the title, you’re in it to build a winning business that provides the shareholders with a great ROI.