Founding a startup doesn’t mean you have to be its CEO

The qualities of a great startup founder aren’t necessarily the same as those of a growth-oriented CEO, but many founders stay by default

Nymi founder Karl Martin

Karl Martin, founder and then-CEO of wearable tech startup Nymi. (Chris Young/CP)

Karl Martin recently made an unusual decision for a CEO: he demoted himself.

Martin decided to give up the top role at the company he founded, wearable tech startup Nymi, to become its Chief Technology Officer instead. He makes the move as the company is gearing up for the launch of their first product, the Nymi wristband, to the general public next year. Martin says the company has found its product-market fit for its product—a wristband that authenticates a user’s identity through their electrocardiogram. And Martin decided that he was not the person to manage the company’s next stage of growth.

“The next phase of business is something that a lot of companies really trip up on,” Martin says. “So I would rather focus on the things I’m really good at—product vision and product strategy—and bring in someone who really understands how to scale this business.” Martin led the recruitment effort and appointed John Haggard, former Chief Business Officer at the established IT security firm Yubico, as Nymi’s new CEO. “John’s resume just reads like this guy really understands scaling authentication businesses,” says Martin. “Seeing he has done that at Yubico, a company that has achieved great things, we want him to do the same at Nymi.”

The high tech sector is full of executive shuffles and CEO drama. Dick Costolo, who was promoted from Twitter’s COO to CEO in 2010, was fired in June after investors got fed up with the company’s flailing strategy. Andrew Mason, the founder of Groupon, lost his CEO title in 2013 after failing to meet multiple quarterly earnings expectations. Groupon’s stock price was hovering around one quarter of its listing price right before he left. In his goodbye letter, Mason acknowledged his shortfalls while leading the company and wrote it was time for a fresh CEO. This year, Phil Libin, resigned from his eight year post as the CEO of the popular note-taking app Evernote as the company planned to go public. Libin said he didn’t want to be the CEO of a public company, and said he’s more passionate about working with “small teams of nerds” on “specific actionable things.”

The message seems to be that tech companies are better off keeping the product geniuses away from the CEO post once the business gets to a certain size. The winning strategy, as illustrated by Martin’s case, is to let the business leaders focus on business and the technical masterminds continue refining and innovating new products.

Martin’s passion for building things began when he was just a toddler. At first, it was rigging up spring-loaded pull toys, then advanced to designing circuits and robots in school. He says his ultimate goal is to build things people never thought possible. After three degrees in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto, Martin founded Nymi in 2011. The Nymi wristband was the product of six years of research in biometrics, cryptography and security systems.

The job of a CEO required Martin to oversee both the business and product side of things. “But because of my natural tendencies, I would have more focus around the product,” Martin reveals. “As a CEO, you’re responsible across all levels, so you have to manage your time accordingly so you always have a complete picture of everything going on in the company.”

Martin believes the early stages of a startup would benefit from the founder’s leadership. “A lot of technical founders are told you better get a business person in, but the business person doesn’t have that product vision and doesn’t fully understand your business,” he explains. Like many technical CEOs, Martin learned to run a company by actually running it and learning along the way. “I gradually learned,” he says. “You just have to have as much awareness as possible. What do I have to learn now vs. what do I have to put off until later.”

Nymi’s growth has reached a size that Martin just can’t learn fast enough to accomplish the goals he set for himself. He realized it was time to bring a business person in to focus on growing the company and let him return to testing the product: “We want to make sure the Nymi wristband is very user-friendly so people would enjoy using it once it launches.”