[Written for LinkedIn]
A startup CEO is a special breed of executive. They don’t just wear many hats, they essentially wear all of them — fulfilling roles of story-teller, visionary, evangelist, hirer and firer, team builder, brand manager, financier, and keeper of bottom-line business strategy.
When we think of exemplary startup CEOs, we tend to go straight to Steve Jobs, Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Larry and Sergey — in other words, the classics. These stories have been told time and time again, and any lesson to be learned from them has likely already been expounded upon far more extensively and gracefully than I’m willing to do here.
So we’re going to skip over the aforementioned “classics” and head straight to the scrappy, self-starting (if not somewhat morally misguided) orphan-turned-most-evil-wizard-of-all-time Lord Voldemort himself. At this point, if anyone feels inclined to move on to what I can only imagine is the interwebs’ vast array of non-Harry Potter related business advice — hear me out. Though certainly an imperfect leader, I’d like to posit that the Dark Lord often shows the kind of fortitude, creativity, scrappiness, and vision that would behoove any aspiring CEO.
So wherever you land on the issue of magical blood-based genocide, we can all still learn a little something from the most evil wizard of all time on being an effective (and sometimes exceptional) startup leader:
Dude was real scrappy
Most people would pack it in after the third or fourth time their careful plans were foiled by a preteen with questionable-at-best decision making skills, but He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named might have been the most persistent guy (near human? Less than spirit? Less than the meanest ghost?) ever. At one point he loses his entire body, and yet remains fully operational from the back of a lackey’s head. If Bill Gates had done that, it would at this very moment be on every motivational poster to grace this Earth and your HR director’s office.
Staying scrappy and creative about cost-effective solutions is critical to the health of your startup, and this kind of mindset needs to come from the top. As a startup leader, you need to be prepared to move fast while spending less, and accept that you’ll be doing a lot of the dirty work yourself. The reality of starting and running a business is that you’ll have to take on tasks you probably haven’t done in years, and possibly forgo some of the workplace luxuries you’re accustomed to for the sake of your cashflow. If you need to downsize your office, let go of substandard employees, or take leave of your earthly body to cut back on overheads and expenses, then do so.
He was nothing if not on-brand
When I say Voldemort, you, person in the world with at least vague inclination of some bespectacled boy wizard in recent pop culture, can probably immediately conjure his esthetic — snakes coming out of skulls, dark robes, inexplicable lack of nose — the works. He knew his brand, and he stuck to it — to the extent that even the mere memory of Tom Riddle knew that “Voldemort is my past, present, and future.”
Any worthwhile startup needs to cultivate a specific brand that works into the story of their company and their product. Of course, a truly exceptional product will sell on its own, but effective branding can make you invaluable and irreplaceable in the eyes of the consumer.
As marketing guru Philip Kotler puts it, “The art of marketing is the art of brand building. If you are not a brand, you are a commodity. Then price is everything and the low cost producer is the only winner.”
Establish a brand that reflects your company’s character, personality, values, and — most importantly — its key differentiators from your competition. Voldemort didn’t tack onto Grindelwald’s legacy with a timid, “Hey guys! I’m evil too!” and neither should you. He threw up a huge skull and snake in the sky and said “I’m better, and this is why.”
He forged strategic (and also on-brand) partnerships early on
Conceptualizing and then running a successful business — much like a hostile takeover of the magical world — is not a feat to be taken on unaccompanied. Not only did You-Know-Who enlist the help of various other groups, he also ensured that they were like-minded, and easily fit within his narrative:
- Giant snake thing that can kill you with its eyes? Check.
- Dark creatures that suck souls and feed off fear and despair? AND they have hoodies? Check.
- Giants that are mostly into eating people? Check.
- Werewolves that are mostly into eating people?? Check.
As a startup leader, you need to find people and products that align with your vision and values early on. Doing so not only provides your team with valuable support, but it also forces you to clarify your message and start nailing down what exactly defines and composes your company culture.
He was a risk management expert
While any cautious business would be wise to have one or two systems backups or recovery centers, Lord Voldemort had no less than SEVEN contingency plans (in this case fragments of his soul) in the event of total disaster.
This almost goes without saying — but anticipate different emergency scenarios and devise strategies to address them should they occur. Consider the timeline, communication, staff needs, and risk reduction aspects of your plan. What will you need to do in the first hour, the first day, the first week? Who will be in charge of communicating the details of the scenario to relevant stakeholders? What will various departments and staff require to continue business as usual (to the extent possible)? What can you do to anticipate and reduce the risk of these emergency scenarios? All these questions should be addressed and more. To help further develop your contingency plan, Kapnick Insurance Group offers a helpful template to get you started.
Though he ultimately joined that big failed startup in the sky, Voldemort showed the right kind of business savvy, evangelism, and story-telling that, had each of his seven contingency plans not failed, might have seen some real success in the long run.