• Paul Rutherford


Updated: Jun 10

When a stint with a global corporation ends abruptly, the brand still opens career doors. A combination of “you must have been good to get in” and “you must have learned good habits while you were there” carries momentum.

Not to say that positive change happens immediately. The futher you rise, the more frogs you have to kiss.

After I'd spent many months splashing in many ponds, a head-hunter invited me to meet with a newly-appointed CEO. He’d just joined a software company with new venture capital, and he wanted to appoint a new leadership team.

The interview took place in a rented office in the Thames Valley. The new CEO had spent much of his career in software giant Oracle, working his way up the ranks then reaching a plateau, where he found that he wasn’t going any further.

Perhaps he too was chasing a great job title?

The company was a 19-year-old start-up, with the rest of its staff (a 'release' of software engineers and technical support) based in Hertford. More specifically, in a Nissen hut across the road from the Weetabix factory.

Silicon Valley, this was not.

The founders of the company had also reached plateaux: One wanted out, to retire to his greenhouse; the other wanted to take his ideas to the next stage, but as a brilliant engineer he didn’t have a commercial bone in his body.

The company had a product in a market that was showing signs of growth, and hence attractive to venture capitalist investors.

And so the Devil’s pact was signed: three investors came in and the founder continued to think great thoughts, while he handed the reins over to others with noses for deals and customers.

The CEO had started with financial (a CFO), sales (a CSO) and the final part of his jigsaw was marketing. A CMO.

CHIEF MARKETING OFFICER! A leadership role with no people, so infrastructure, no offices, no brand, to website, no…

But there was ambition.

In the early days, most of our meetings happened in the CEO’s country house kitchen or in the local pub, where we daily dined on Ploughman’s Lunch or Chilli’n’Rice.

The CEO would unburden his frustrations, which we’d repackage into ‘marketing problems’. I’d take them away and solve them, while the CEO tried to figure out what the product actually did and – more importantly – what it could do next.

That’s the problem is software start-ups. Every customer is:

a) very important (because you only have a handful), and

b) wants something completely different from the other four customers.

Oh, how we wished to be to be Microsoft, when they tell the world what they’re getting, when they’re getting it – like it or not.

Of course, the corollary for a start-up is being able to do things without seeking permission - do things, change things, when the only agreement needed is one person, perhaps two.

CEO and PA, not always in that order.

Inside thirty days, we had changed the name of the company.

Within three months we were in new offices, for both the financial/commercial ‘team’ and the technical team in the frozen north.

And within a year, we were acquiring our major competitor, with ten times our revenues and a brand reputation it needed to kill.

We built the marketing function so that it ranged from product management through sales generation to brand and media relations.

A very rare end-to-end beast, and one of the sublime moments when ‘CMO’ lived up to its billing. At least in my head.

That lasted less than two years as the complexity of ownership (new investment), added locations (Europe, Americas, Asia), a diverging customer base, and newly arriving senior managers began to tear the team apart.

First to go was the CFO; it wasn’t long before the CEO was shuffled out of the back door. He was replaced by the original Chief Exec of the company we had bought (revenge is a dish best served cold), so I guessed that I’d be out sooner rather than later.

I lasted a month longer than expected. Then, as usual, the Chief Sales Officer was last out of the door; having a couple of significant deals under your belt always buys you time.

CEO, CFO, CMO, CSO. Even with ‘Chief’ in a title, there’ll always be someone else carrying the decision of 'keep' or 'go'.

When I drove out of the car park that morning, I wondered was there any job title that would carry the magic spell to protect me? Light begins to shine in Part 4.

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