Startup 101: Founder, CEO, CFO, CTO, CMO, CIO: What's the difference?

Ines Fenner
December 21, 2021

People are the foundation of your startup. You could have the best product in the world, but without the right team behind it, it will never take off. Your company’s success or failure will ultimately be determined by the people who work for you.

Your people are your most important asset.

But, who should you hire and when should you start hiring?

Who do you need to create a startup?

A startup is usually the idea of one or a few people, coming together to solve an issue they’ve faced. However, being listed as founders may not provide enough clarity to get a startup off the ground.

While teamwork makes the dream work, assigning specific roles to people provides structure and accountability. This is what ensures the success of a startup.

What is a founder?

Founders are the ones who come up with a business idea and act on it. They’re responsible for developing the vision and mission of the startup. There could be a single founder or multiple co-founders.

What is a CEO?

While every company has a founder, not every founder becomes the CEO. A founder has the option of becoming CEO themself or delegating that responsibility to someone else. Although many founders are the first CEOs of their organizations, starting a company and running a business requires two completely different skill sets.

Founders are visionaries who came up with the original idea, are more concerned with their product than with running their company, and are forward-thinking. ​​A CEO, on the other hand, is an integrator who thrives on bringing order out of chaos. To accomplish this, he/she gradually expands the company while paying close attention to organizational operations.

The CEO (Chief Executive Officer) position is critical in any company or startup, and appointing someone to this role at the outset is critical. You'll almost certainly be working in a group, and as with any group project, reaching a consensus can be difficult when everyone has opposing ideas and opinions. CEOs assist in decision-making and should ideally ensure that running a startup runs smoothly.
Key traits of a successful CEO:






What is a CFO?

A CFO (Chief Financial Officer) is in charge of the company's major financial decisions. This can include budgeting and accounting until the company grows to the point where they may consider outsourcing their financial needs. The CFO is responsible for ensuring that the budget is followed and should make decisions accordingly.

Key traits of a successful CFO:




-People skills


What is a CTO?

A CTO (Chief Technical Officer) is in charge of the technical side of things... who would have guessed? If you have software, for example, a CTO will make the executive decisions regarding programming and code. They are most likely in charge of leading a team of tech professionals, such as programmers or UX designers, to ensure a high-quality User Experience.

Key traits of a successful CTO:

-Technological insight

-Decision making

-Team management & deadlines

-Strategic thinking

-Business insight

What is a CMO?

The CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) is in charge of the company's branding identity and marketing presence. They assist in making executive decisions regarding marketing in particular, and they are the primary point of contact when issues concerning the company's image arise.

Key traits of a successful CMO:



-Market insight

-Analytical, yet creative


What is a CIO?

A CIO (Chief Information Officer) is the executive in charge of managing the company's information and ensuring that it is distributed efficiently. Because communication is so important, having a CIO can help streamline knowledge sharing and ensure everyone is on the same page.

Key traits of a successful CIO:



-Creativity & innovation



The key executive roles listed above can ensure a company runs smoothly. While it’s not absolutely necessary that every role is filled, these key executive roles can be found in nearly any large company and give you a great idea of what kind of business divisions you should keep in mind in your own company.

When should I start hiring?

It can be hard to figure out when you should start hiring employees for your startup. The general rule of thumb when it comes to hiring is only to hire if it’s either going to make you money or save you money. Starting at the top and then expanding your team as resources allow is a wise strategy.

There are a variety of indicators that signal when you should start hiring. Some examples are:

-You require someone with a specific set of skills. Perhaps you lack the necessary skills for certain tasks and require additional assistance.  

-You're falling behind on your tasks. There are only so many hours in the day, and you are not Superman. If you're falling behind on your work, it might be a good idea to consider hiring an employee or two

-You have the financial means to hire someone.  Don’t hire someone if you can’t afford to pay their salary. If you have the funds to hire someone, that's fantastic! That's usually a sign that it's time to start hiring.

--You don't have time to relax or go on vacation. Running a startup is demanding, and it's easy to lose sight of the importance of rest. Rest is extremely important, and you should not exhaust yourself by attempting to juggle multiple tasks.

Don’t rush into the hiring process without carefully thinking everything through and try not to hire the first person you interview (unless you get lucky and they’re an ideal fit for the company!)

When hiring, keep your company culture in mind - does this person fit the company values?

If you’re interested in reading more about the hiring process, check out the article below:

Mari Luukkainen - How to attract top tech talent to your startup with the perfect job ad