I work at a small (10 person), sport-specific e-learning startup. The CEO is a nice guy but I feel he lacks focus. He is very easily excitable, so if he or somebody else comes up with an idea that he likes he will often become fixated with it for a week or two before completely forgetting about it. These ideas are most often spur of the moment with no research to back them up and range from the unrealistic to the ridiculous.

As the sole designer, I am often the first port of call when he wants to visualise these ideas. I've spent countless days thinking about, designing and delivering mockups - often with very little to go on other than 'our users really want this' with no real data to suggest they do. Quite often in meetings with potential customers he'll drop 'we can get it mocked up for you' to appease the client. 9/10 nothing ever comes of the work I put in as by that point he's got bored and moved onto the next 'must have' idea.

He's recently had a meeting with someone who suggested that our platform would work well for a different sport to what we specialise in. Technically, our platform could be altered to cater for different sports, however I feel like our small team already has more than enough on our plate. He's asked me to mock something up despite the fact that he's done literally zero research himself, and the only asset he can give me is a logo and a few sentences briefly summarising the conversation. If I were to liken the situation to that of another company, I'd say it would be like Uber offering boats as well as cars (I understand they do offer this service in certain countries, but you could argue that they nailed the core car offering first before pursuing other modes of transport).

I really want to tell him to stop chasing these leads as they never materialise into anything positive and distract our already busy team from improving our current platform (which needs a lot of improving). One of the mantras that respected CEO of Huit Denim lives by is to 'Do One Thing Well', but I feel like this is the opposite of how this CEO runs his company. Am I being unreasonable?


What your CEO is doing is often referred to as prospecting.

The idea is that you explore enough of an idea to judge if the idea has merit. But not so much as to lose much if the idea is not worth investing in fully. It seems your CEO trusts you enough that you are his go to person for this task. If this task is not rewarding to you then perhaps you can ask him to take on one of the other members of the team as his primary partner in developing his ideas.

Realize that with that shift away from his trusted partner, you also lose some of your ability to shape the policies and direction of the company. Should your CEO hit the mother lode of ideas the person that was his partner in the development of that idea is going to be the one that reaps the rewards.

I would suggest that if you work at a company that does this type of thing, and you are not comfortable with the prospecting that you return to the world of established corporate policies, and stability and let those hungry for opportunity have a chance to develop the next big thing!

If you think you already have the next big thing in the pipe, then explain that to your boss that you believe that the best thing you can do for the company is to focus on the core product. You may find out that the lack of focus is due to the limited potential of the product you are developing. Sure the product will make the company money but its not going to buy you both(or even him) that private island.

Another tactic to try is to ask him to prioritize the work. It could be that he is expecting you to just make the prospecting the side job and you are putting to much time and effort into each prospect that you should have been directing more energy to the main product.

What ever the case it seems like the big problem here is that you are not in sync with the CEO's expectations of your position. Its a start up, that's probably the job he has for you.

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    This has changed my perspective somewhat, especially reading the linked article about prospecting. However, surely prospecting relies on some initial insight and a small amount of desk research in order to give me something to work with to develop the idea further? He'll give me a crumb to go off, and by the time I've developed something tangible he's already forgotten about it and moved onto something else, never allowing time for the idea to become fleshed out. – David Feb 18 '18 at 17:29
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    @David Desk Reseacher = you... he is the idea guy he has you to explore his ideas for feasibility. He may very well be taking his cues of the viability of his idea based off of how excited you are by it after you do your research. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Feb 19 '18 at 2:20

There are some incompetent CEOs out there. Unfortunately there is no one above to straighten them out. The board or owner could fire him but they don't see what is going on day by day.

Eventually he will likely bring the company down or be replaced. It might be time to put out your resume.

When he comes up with the next bright idea ask about the status of the last bright idea. Keep a list of the mock ups you created that went no where. You are not likely to change him.

On further thought maybe keep a report of ideas and where there are and status. Kind of like Area 51.

Name           Requirements   Prelimary     Customer  Detailed  
                              Design &      Review    Design        

sliced bread   partial        complete ymd  none      killed
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    Sadly there is no indication your answer is relevant - the CEO may well be competent and just throw around ideas to evaluate them. One data point a statistics does not make, as Yoda keeps saying. – TomTom Feb 18 '18 at 16:57
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    @IDrinkandIKnowThings It's not unheard of that Owner fires the CEO despite they are one and the same person. – kubanczyk Feb 18 '18 at 17:07
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    @TomTom I am saddened you don't find my answer relevant . Your answer is OP is a whiner and you made more on your good ideas then OP will make in a life time. At least my answer is not rude and condescending. – paparazzo Feb 18 '18 at 17:14
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    And record the time. I will add to my answer. – paparazzo Feb 18 '18 at 18:24
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    Love the idea of keeping a log of what you've worked on, but I'd add that you should also include how much time was spent... That way if anyone ever asks why mainline development is so slow, you can show that the CEO's short attention span eats up alot of your hours. – Maybe_Factor Feb 19 '18 at 4:55

Am I being unreasonable?

No, you're not being unreasonable. The CEO is not grasping how much focused effort it actually takes to create software.

Joel Spolsky says Good Software Takes Ten Years. Get Used to It.

That's 10 years with sustained effort in a single direction. Never establishing a clear direction and instead bouncing around as new ideas arise prevents even beginning this process.

Some people have a scattered personality. There's nothing inherently wrong with it. In some situations it's useful. At a party for example it's helpful if you can easily bounce from topic to topic and person to person. For building software it doesn't work. You have to maintain an intense focus over weeks or months to produce something valuable.

Developers do engage in this for short times eg when brainstorming. But it always ends in establishment of a clear goal that is then taken as a long term unchanging focus. A software business requires long term focus.

I've dropped clients for behaving this way. Stayed with one of them for longer than I probably should have thinking, oh he'll come to understand after he's seen some successful feature implementations. It never happened. Every success just got him more excited and caused him to try to push for more in less time. I predict this person will behave in a similar way.

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    This is a great answer and perfectly sums up how I feel. I'd love to help him develop all his ideas but I'm a realist and I know that we don't have enough money or manpower to develop these ideas whilst also attempting to build a good-quality core product which is why it frustrates me. – David Feb 18 '18 at 17:49

You are being unreasonable as you are being paid for your work.

Because the CEO pays you, the CEO can also ask you to do whatever his whim might be.

It is unreasonable to, as the paid party, expect to exert influence on the actions on the paying party. This is especially the case as the CEO cares about making money - while you care about whatever task it is that you are being paid to do.

You write

I really want to tell him to stop chasing these leads as they never materialise into anything positive and distract our already busy team from improving our current platform (which needs a lot of improving). One of the mantras that respected CEO of Huit Denim lives by is to 'Do One Thing Well'

Your CEO is obviously not paying you to read random mantras and then spout them to him. Your CEO is, for all intents and purposes, successful. It is ridiculous to think that your business opinion outweighs the CEOs. To make matters worse, other CEOs will have completely different mantras.

The real crux is that you think the platform needs improving. Why not outline a vision for the platform, create a timetable, and then allow the CEO to see the impact of other projects on this timetable. He can use this to determine his priorities - maybe the core platform is not as important as you think!

This will not change the CEOs behaviour, but it will be useful for him to help him plan. However, I'm afraid your conflicting opinion in business strategy is not relevant, and you are being unreasonable thinking you know better. If you want, start a company yourself - be warned that this is much harder than you realise.

  • A good point well made and I completely agree with you, he doesn't pay me for my business opinion. I don't think I worded the question too well, as I wanted to know if me thinking he was not focused was unreasonable, the 'I really want to tell him' bit was more hypothetical. Believe me, after some of his decisions I often think to myself that I could run a company better than he does, but once the frustration has simmered down I realise this is a hugely naive opinion to have. I respect that he runs a relatively successful business and pays the wages of 10 other people. Thanks for your input – David Feb 18 '18 at 19:54
  • I think this answer would have been much better received if you had taken the approach of trying to teach someone something, instead of condemning them for not knowing it already, and having the temerity to ask the question in the first place. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Feb 19 '18 at 2:29
  • @IDrinkandIKnowThings where do i condemn OP? Some of the answers here seem to think that a salaried employee gets to weigh in on the decisions the boss makes. One even assumes that a CEO with 10 employees is incompetent. OP asks explicitly if they're being unreasonable - and i think that the thought process outlined is unreasonable, if only because they're drawing a salary. – bharal Feb 19 '18 at 5:04
  • The key here is not the fact the CEO is paying him, but that the OP is not in a position to teach the CEO what he should do with the company as a developer. The CEO has the power to dismiss vice-presidents and CTOs, but it doesn't mean he should not listen to their opinions. – Adam Smith Feb 19 '18 at 19:13
  • @Adam agreed, but that nuance made the answer become unwieldy – bharal Feb 19 '18 at 19:21

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