Feeding the Baby

On accidentally becoming a CEO.

June 29, 2024 • 4 min read

A lot of startups with first-time founders have unclear roles. When I started my first business, Steamclock’s co-founder Nigel was far more experienced, being ten years my senior. I’d assumed he would take a more CEO-like role, but other than that I’d put little thought into our positions. We were just two engineers making software.

Almost immediately, non-coding tasks popped up. We needed a name. We needed to incorporate. We needed product designs. We needed to set up Nigel’s basement as a makeshift office. I was more energized by the non-coding tasks than Nigel – and he was the better coder – so I handled these distractions, so he could focus on engineering.

Although it made sense, and I enjoyed learning about these other domains, I never felt comfortable spending time on them. Anything other than coding felt like a diversion. Unproductive.

A few months in, we got a pretty serious crash report for our flagship product. We had to submit a fix to Apple by the end of the day – a Friday – and it was already afternoon. Classic startup stuff.

Nigel dug in and quickly understood the bug, but there was a problem. “I don’t know if I can fix this by the end of the day,” he said, “because I need to feed the baby.”

His baby was six months old at the time, and her survival was even more important than a crash in production. I had no kids then, so I could have swapped in and spent any number of hours trying to fix the issue myself. But I would be far slower than him. Hm.

After a moment, I asked, “What if… what if I fed the baby?”

Amused, he agreed. So, for the first time, I fed a baby.

As I learned then, babies aren’t very good at eating. I’d put food in, the baby would push most of it back out, and I’d repeat - asymptotically approaching one spoonful of pear mush eaten. It was simple work, and I wasn’t well qualified for it. But, at that moment, it was the highest and best use of my time. It was my job to do whatever it took for us to succeed. Right then, that meant feeding a baby.

I felt like I was indirectly fixing that crash, ten times faster than I could have on my own. Plus, I was learning a new skill.

After that, I was more intentional in my efforts to keep Nigel focused on what he did best. I felt less guilty about spending time talking to customers, or iterating designs. Soon after, I finally raised the question of our roles explicitly. “Nigel, you’re not the CEO, are you?” He laughed, “Uh, no.” He’d always assumed it would be me. By designing UIs and nourishing infants, I’d proved him right.

This story has been on my mind in recent weeks, as I’ve been spinning up my next venture. Starting something always brings up its own odd side-quests. While I’m still uneasy spending my time doing anything other than writing code or talking to customers, I’m a lot more willing this time to plough ahead with whatever task is going to best help us succeed. With working to feed the metaphorical baby that is a startup.

While my co-founder this time around doesn’t have any babies to feed – her kids are far past the pear-mush stage – we did talk through our roles before kicking things off. She’s the natural CTO, and I’m to be the head baby-feeder. It’s definitely better to have talked that through in advance.

But for now, back to code.

I first published a version of this story in 2014. Thanks to the many folks who have given me feedback on it as I’ve retold it over the years.

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© Allen Pike. 👋🏼 You can contact me, or check out Steamclock.