The Trouble with Titles

As of today, I’m changing my title at Techstars to be “Founder and Managing Partner” and I’m dropping the “co-CEO” title. David Brown will become “Founder and CEO” instead of “Founder and co-CEO.” We both remain on the Board of Directors at Techstars.

As we approach 300 employees at Techstars with $500M+ in assets under management for our investment business, alongside nearly $100M in annual revenue for our corporate innovation and ecosystem development business, I’ve come to realize that I’m not using all of my strengths or meeting my highest calling at Techstars being co-CEO. 

Personally, I love driving new product concepts, focusing on our investments and working closely with founders. I’m excited to be able to focus more of my energy on these things going forward. David Brown is a much stronger manager and operator than I am, especially alongside the incredible executive team that we have built at Techstars. In the next phase, he’s clearly the right CEO.

This change was driven by me. I just turned 51 years old, and these are the sorts of things one thinks about as every new decade emerges. While I’m changing my title, I am not reducing my effort or commitment to Techstars. I’m as “all in” as ever, and I’m excited for my next decade at Techstars.

When I first brought up the idea of dropping the co-CEO title to David Brown, and in every conversation since he’s said some variation of “whatever floats your boat”. For our relationship, it’s business as usual. As Techstars continues to scale towards a future with billions of dollars under management and funding thousands of startups around the world annually as the world’s most active early-stage investor, the CEO job becomes more specialized. And there is no one more suited to this evolution than David Brown.

Luckily for me, and for Techstars, David Brown and I have been working together for almost 30 years across four different businesses which covers nearly my entire professional career. In the early 1990’s, I got my first job out of college where I managed engineering at a company called ADS. This is where I first met David Brown, who managed operations for ADS. We quickly became peers, each reporting to the CEO. At ADS we built a relationship that leveraged our respective strengths to make progress and became very good friends. We knew early on that we shared a work ethic and respect for each other’s skills and passions.

In 1993 we co-founded our first startup, Pinpoint Technologies, alongside a third co-founder, Bob Durkin who focused on sales. There, we struggled with titles early on. We thought of each other as co-founders primarily, each bringing something to the table. In a startup, it’s easy to talk about everything and decide on things collaboratively. We often iterated on titles such as “co-Founder” or “Principal”, and kept our titles in sync in the early years at Pinpoint Technologies. Once we got to the point where we had a few dozen employees, we decided to take on specialized titles. David Brown became “President” and I became “VP of R&D” (CTO wasn’t in vogue yet as a startup title). While the titles changed and “President” was clearly perceived to be higher than “VP”, we always functioned behind the scenes as true partners throughout the life of that company and discussed everything. We had very few major disagreements, but in the rare case where we didn’t agree we had so much respect for the other person’s areas of expertise that we were happy to defer to each other in those cases. We shared an office, and over time, it felt as if we were sharing a brain. We later sold Pinpoint Technologies to a public company which in turn launched our early foray into angel investing.

Our next startup together was called iContact. A similar pattern evolved here, where at first we used “Founder” titles and eventually I took the CTO title (now in vogue) and David Brown was “President”. We had the exact same relationship as before, and made every decision together. That never scaled and ultimately failed, so we didn’t have much trouble with titles there.  

Our current business is Techstars, which we co-founded together (alongside Jared Polis and Brad Feld) almost thirteen years ago. Shortly after founding Techstars, David Brown went back to run the former Pinpoint Technologies business we had sold to the public company. So, for the first four years of Techstars, I was the CEO and David Brown was a co-founder, but wasn’t active day to day. As Techstars began to scale, I recognized that we were missing the skills that David Brown brings to the table so I recruited him to come back to Techstars full time. I kept the CEO title and he became simply “co-Founder” until we could figure it out. Meanwhile, Techstars was growing like crazy and we kept rethinking titles. David’s title became President and I was the CEO. This lasted for a year or two and then we both become Managing Partners. As always, we were trying to signal to the world that we were partners. The struggle continued until one day Brad Feld said “Guys, you’re co-CEOs.” And we adopted that title and used it over the last four years until today. Co-Founders and co-CEOs. 

The struggle with title for us has been real. It’s never been a problem for David Brown or me, but it’s been a problem to help the world understand that we’re a team in a symbiotic relationship. We run companies together, and we always have. But the world is just not used to this, and it doesn’t expect it. That’s what’s been behind the struggle. What’s been key for us is that we’ve both personally always ignored our titles and behaved the same way. It didn’t matter which of us had what title. We just kept communicating, deciding, and operating the way we do together. 

Thirty years in, this still works for us every day, and I am confident that it will continue to work for us at Techstars in the years to come.

file under: Startups