It’s not often that modern business leadership and ancient history connect, but in one important respect, they just might: the persistence of the solo CEO.
When Julius Caesar became the head of the Roman state—the dictator—he inaugurated a tradition of one-man rule that long outlived him. In time, the dictator gave way to the emperor, who, a few hundred years later, became the king, and hundreds of years after that, incarnated our modern-day president. This sequence did more than just influence politics: It affected our whole understanding of what a leader is and how he or she should behave in the world. It even altered our understanding of how many “leaders” there ought to be. That’s because, until Julius Caesar became the sole ruler, Rome had, for centuries, been run by two people.
That’s right: The most complex, wealthiest, largest state the world had ever seen was run jointly, by two people elected at the same time. If that seems positively insane to us, it was perfectly normal to the ancient Romans; in fact, it was one-man rule—the rise of a single individual towering above the rest—that scared the wits out of them.
We can’t say that we were explicitly inspired by the ancient Romans, but theirs was an example that helped put us at ease when we decided to establish—now and hopefully for centuries after we’re gone—two CEOs for our company, Thrive Market.
A contrarian view
Okay, so we’re not quite the size of the Roman Empire—yet. But we have experienced surging growth over the last few years. We’ve gone from a handful of employees, a barebones office, and a shoestring budget to 400 employees, a well-appointed space in Los Angeles, and serious investment from big-name investors. We’ve been named the fast-growing e-commerce player in Los Angeles and been profiled in the leading publications of the day. And we believe none of this success would have been possible if we hadn’t established the principle of co-running our company.
This isn’t a popular view to take in Silicon Valley, or in the circles in which we travel. For one thing, wearing the CEO badge is a matter of pride—a sign that you’re at the top of the mountain. But more than that, some of the most thoughtful people in business believe deeply in one-person rule. Ben Horowitz, venture capitalist and one of the most influential figures in our industry, has argued that startups ought to have only one key decision maker. Others agree with him and have written passionate posts to that effect. There are whole threads in discussion forums dedicated to trashing the idea of a co-run company.
This is, in one sense, ironic. Even though the principle of “co-founding” a company is a firmly established one in Silicon Valley, the idea of two people jointly running the operation—and calling themselves “co-CEOs”—is foreign and strange-seeming. What does that mean, co-CEO? How do you split the roles? If your company lands a magazine cover, what do you do? Believe us, we’ve heard it all.
But here’s the truth: Both of us had gone through the special hell of running a company alone before, and we wanted nothing to do with it. The late nights, the exhaustion, the uncertainties, the complexities, and all of that weight pressing down on a single individual’s shoulders—neither of us wanted to face it alone ever again. Better, we thought, to share those burdens both in principle and in name. To make that as clear as day—to ourselves, our employees, and our backers—we decided make ourselves co-CEOs.
It’s about this point in the story that people will tend to roll their eyes and chalk all this up to some Silicon Valley feel goodery—something akin to wearing hoodies to work or napping in the middle of the day. But it’s about as far from that as you can imagine. The motivations, the thought process, and the effects—all of it has been far more interesting and complex than meets the eye. This wasn’t just a vague attempt to be “disruptive” for its own sake: We were deeply strategic about why this structure would work for us—and why it made sound business sense.
A modern CEO is an impossible job
For one thing, we did a rigorous evaluation of our skills and realized that there were strikingly few areas of overlap. Where Gunnar was creative and coming at problems from all directions, for instance, Nick was just as gifted at the details, the discipline of the business, and making sure we were hitting our marks. And those were the broad differences. Even in our specifics, we were strangely at odds. Nick loves a good plaid shirt and a well-tailored pant; Gunnar opts for, how should we say, less traditional attire. You wouldn’t be surprised to see him in head to toe white linen, shoes optional. Gunnar grew up on an organic farm in Ojai; Nick spent his time in high school traveling the country competing in debate. But these differences were assets, not liabilities: In our more honest moments, we knew we each lacked certain traits that the other one possessed—but that those deficits would make it tough for one of us to be CEO.
That’s when we happened upon an observation that made this experiment worth taking seriously: in what universe could one person possibly do all the work and embody all the characteristics the modern CEO needs to do and to have? When did we decide that CEOs need to be superhuman in order to be CEOs? It’s almost unthinkable that one human being, no matter how gifted, could tackle every aspect of an enterprise. The volume, speed, and scale of businesses, especially fast-growing ones like ours, is something altogether new in business. And it isn’t enough to have a capable CFO, COO, and other executive-level hires, though those things are important. No, we came to believe that the CEO job had grown too big for its own good—that, to be successful, you actually needed two fully-formed human beings to take it on.
We’re not the only ones who think these jobs have outgrown their one-person boundaries. Modern CEO roles can be the equivalent of three or four jobs in one, a workload that isn’t just ridiculous, but potentially dangerous. Stories of CEO burnout are well chronicled in the press, but often, they aren’t given the attention they deserve. They are regularly met with shrugs—Boo hoo, the boss is complaining about how hard she has to work, big deal—but it is a big deal, not least because the fact that many CEOs are burned out, or nearly burned out, affects the operation of the business in a profound way. That we could both leverage each other’s strengths, and depend on each other to handle half the workload, was a deeply appealing part of this experiment. And it was sure to mean that both of us were bringing our best selves to work every day.
Ego and unorthodoxy
There were the many and obvious practical benefits: If Gunnar couldn’t handle a meeting, Nick could step in. The person was still, in a real sense, meeting with the CEO, albeit one of a matched pair. If an urgent problem came up, one of us was almost always able to step in. Different aspects of the business appealed to each of us, making it easy to divide-and-conquer in a way that played to our strengths and passions.
Here’s another curious effect: One unorthodox decision begat several others. In the same way that resilience or focus is a muscle, we’ve come to believe that building a business that challenges conventions is a habit. Once we had declared ourselves co-CEOs, pursuing an unconventional fundraising strategy seemed a bit easier. Bringing in four co-founders seemed a little less outlandish. Hiring senior leadership in Merchandising and Operations within months of launching the business—unheard of in some circles-—seemed totally reasonable and doable. We had inured ourselves to off-the-wall decisions, which permitted us to make many, many more.
But the more interesting results were the less obvious ones: Because we were each sharing the same title, we were more sensitive to paying attention to what each other did well—and what we each did poorly. We learned from each other in a way we probably wouldn’t have if we had been CEO and COO, or CEO and President. The shared title meant that the effect of the title was shared, too—which meant that each of us were more sensitive to the effects we were having on co-workers and the business. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, sharing a title means that the title and responsibilities mattered more than the individual who held it, which kept us deeply accountable to the business, and to each other. More simply: By sharing the CEO title, we emptied it of ego.
Sharing power is, in one sense, a reflection that both of us are comfortable enough in our leadership and in ourselves to share the running of a business. Neither of us has too much of our identity wrapped up in “running” Thrive Market, which, perhaps counterintuitively, makes it easier to run Thrive Market.We’ve seen—and been told—that this kind of thing trickles down, that eliminating a single imperial ruler has a kind of cascading effect throughout the business.
This isn’t kumbaya stuff either—it’s brass tacks business. As research by Adam Grant, among others, has shown, creating a culture of giving and power-sharing can be a powerful catalyst for business growth. In terms of talent we attract and retain, we make it a cardinal rule that the right decision for the business trumps the right decision for the individual—something we live by in sharing our decision-making at the very top. Incidentally, the Romans saw this happen, too. As one writer put it, the “structure of co-leadership was so effective that it extended from the lower levels of the Roman magistracy to the very top position, that of consul.” Again, Roman-sized we’re not, but the principles are much the same.
It’s not all roses, of course. Like any partnership, personal or professional, we have our scrapes. We’re both alphas, for instance, so we’d sometimes step on each other in meetings or forget to choose who’d be taking the lead. We’d be lying if we said everything worked out smoothly. And, of course, there are times when, just as in any system, you have days when you want to chuck it all overboard and imagine yourself the absolute ruler. But those moments are fewer and farther between now than when we started. For the most part, this system works well, and it does so because of the deep trust we’ve built, a partnership forged in the start-up furnace.
In our toughest moments, we looked to other examples for guidance. For years we’ve admired the relationship between Walter Robb and John Mackey, the two CEOs of Whole Foods—a partnership that’s weathered some tough storms and emerged whole and inviolable. Then, of course, there’s the five-decade long partnership and friendship of Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett, a model if ever there was one. At the less mature stage, there’s Warby Parker’s co-CEO team of Dave Gilboa and Neil Blumenthal, who turned a small business school idea into a business with a one billion dollar valuation. All of these gave us solace when times were hard, or when someone looked askance at our model and wondered if we had lost our good sense.
In his seminal essay on the mistakes startups make, Paul Graham, the co-founder of Y Combinator and one of the reigning philosopher-kings of Silicon Valley, observes that “starting a startup is too hard for one person.” We’d add: running a startup at the CEO level is, based on what we’ve seen, too hard for one person—and wholly unnecessary. We’re not the first to have figured out that the co-CEO structure often works better than having one person at the top, but our hope is that, in evangelizing about it, we can encourage other companies to go down the same road.
So bury your ego. Share the title, the spoils, and, crucially, the burdens. Embrace a full partnership. Watch your business—and, more importantly, yourself—grow.
Gunnar Lovelace and Nick Green are co-CEOs of Thrive Market, an online wholesale buying club on a mission to make healthy living easy and affordable for every American family. #LetsThrive