Why Some Startup CEOs Fire Themselves

Evernote CEO Phil Libin’s decision to step down came as a surprise. But he’s not the only founder who’s felt like he’s not the right person for the job.

CEOs are responsible for doing everything in their power to identify and remove all hurdles in the way of their company’s success. And in some cases, that means getting out of the way themselves.

Co-founder of organic yogurt company Stonyfield Farm Gary Hirshberg, for example, said he knew he had to step down as CEO after it dawned on him that he was bored. “I’m a creator,” he said. “Not a manager.”

Most recently, Evernote CEO Phil Libin said he is looking for a new chief executive for his company. Libin, who describes himself as a product person, said he has been searching for a “professional CEO for a while,” The Information reported.

Evernote, which makes productivity software, has been valued at slightly more than $1 billion since 2012. Citing an anonymous source, The Information reported that the company brought in $40 million in revenue last year. However, Evernote faces stiff competition from workplace software creators like Slack, Dropbox, Box and Google.

Though a handful of enterprise software companies might consider Evernote an acquisition target, Libin isn’t expected to give up on his goal of seeing the company through to an IPO. He has said that he wants the seven-year-old startup to one day be a 100-year-old company.

Libin wasn’t available to comment on his reasons for stepping down from his current role. (The company said in a statement that he had every intention of remaining involved with Evernote once he has found a successor.) But like Libin, who emphasizes his product skills over his management ones, other former CEOs have indicated that they, too, were less crazy about certain aspects of the company than with others.

“I was really realizing that I was getting less and less interested in the day-to-day challenges,” Hirshberg explained at an Inc. leadership forum. “We weren’t having the crises that we had had in that early startup. And, as you know, crises have a way of keeping you absolutely gripped and absolutely focused.”

So, like Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso and Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison also have done, Hirshberg moved from CEO to company chairman, where he took on a more advisory role.

Alexis Maybank, former CEO of the shopping website Gilt Groupe, took a different approach and settled into a more narrow position. Maybank sees herself as an ideas person, and she wanted to be able to get new projects off of the ground. Accordingly, the marketing department was the best place for her, she said.

“There’re some people who love every single phase,” Maybank has told Inc. “I never had a goal to run a public company. I never had a goal to run a 5-to-10,000 person business. I want to be part of it, but it’s not what I love.”

Whether Libin thinks he doesn’t have what it takes to run a public company — or if he just doesn’t want to — he has identified what he thinks a lasting company needs. And that is a strong sense of culture, which he told Fast Company is the “only important thing.”

“The culture is much more important than the current product. The product is the current product, the culture is the next hundred products,” he said. “This is what’s going to produce everything.”

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