Screw Leadership Skills. This Is What Makes a Successful CEO

Countless listicles, marketing blogs, and self-help pyramid schemes have been built around the question of what makes a successful CEO. Might the answer have been in front of us the whole time?

On September 13, 2009, an event transpired that reverberated around the world. As Taylor Swift was in the midst of giving her acceptance speech for her MTV Video Music Award for Best Female Video, Kanye West waltzed onto the stage, grabbed the microphone, and as an embarrassed TSwift looked on, proclaimed, “Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you, Imma let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time…one of the best videos of all time!”


He shrugged, handed the microphone back to Taylor, and MTV cut to a commercial break. In this short moment, Kanye West exhibited the key factor that makes or breaks a CEO.

But actually.

The CEOs who nurture quixotic visions into billions usually get there the same way. Steve Jobs wasn’t a genius coder or a master engineer. He had a vision for how things should look, and he wouldn’t let anyone get in his way. His perfectionism and micromanagement interfered in his personal and professional life, and he nixed more products than ever came to light. But he trusted his gut on what would and wouldn’t work, peers and customers be damned.

Apple iPad

Zero consumer input went into this.

When asked about the market research that went into Apple’s trailblazing products, Jobs famously replied, “none. It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.” Apple customers didn’t get what Apple customers asked for. Apple customers got what Steve Jobs asked for. And it worked – I still use my iPod Nano and it’s 2018. No one got in the way of his vision, and that’s how he built a company that was valued at $300 billion in 2011, the year Jobs died.

Realizing the unlikely

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX and supervillain archetype, launched his personal car into space. This program, and all of SpaceX’s other successes, would not have come to fruition if Musk had not literally been spat on in Russia.

Want insights on SpaceX or any other start-up? Order a Zirra Report here.  

When the software millionaire first attempted to realize his sci-fi dreams of colonizing Mars, he was in the market for a rocket. His friends tried to talk him out of it, but it was no use. In 2001, he traveled with a small entourage to Moscow, where he intended to buy a ballistic missile. There, he was laughed out of meeting after meeting (and spat on), until he was eventually offered what he wanted – for $8 million. Sick of not being taken seriously, he decided that if he wanted this undertaking done right, he needed to do it himself. And he did. SpaceX is now worth $24 billion, and though it may be overvalued, it’s enough to buy a whole lot of Russian ballistic missiles at full price.    

Elon Musk's Tesla Roadster

When all the parking spots near the mall are full, amiright? Source: SpaceX

With a net worth of $108.9 billion, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is the richest man to ever live. What started as the first online bookstore has evolved into an empire. To get there, Bezos had to take enormous risks and double down on his vision as larger, hungrier competitors encroached on his niche.

He’s also been accused of underpaying workers, enabling slavery-like conditions in his factories, and running a modern monopoly. But when asked about how he feels about fielding criticism from the Washington Post, which Bezos owns, he insisted that he would never interfere. In fact, he would be embarrassed to do so. Criticism is healthy, he believes, and when it’s valid, it’s a helpful tool for change. When it’s not, it just rolls off.

So, what makes a successful CEO?  

Back to Kanye at the 2009 VMAs. Not only was he correct in his assessment – the “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” video is an unparalleled masterpiece – but he had the guts to call it as he saw it, when he saw it, for better or for worse. It worked to his benefit. Kanye increased his recognizability, got people talking about him, and then disappeared for a few months. When he resurfaced, it was to promote one of his best-received albums. He marketed himself brilliantly, and he did so by not giving a single s#*%.

There are a host of things that these CEOs have in common, from the obvious (big dreams, internal motivation) to the less so (shrewd personal marketing, a touch of sociopathy). Being a successful CEO does not necessarily mean being a good leader, or a good boss. It means that they were able to turn their plans into heaps of money. And in order to do that, they had to make sure they were set in that mission, despite what others might think. Someone building a business from the ground up has to know how to say “you know what? Screw this. I’m doing it my way.”

Think Again Before Investing in This Company: How to Detect Legal Issues with NLP

Startup companies are regular customers of the law, often including a legal counselor on their team to protect their rights. As entities that disrupt incumbents in a hyper-competitive and chaotic environment, startup companies are frequently suing – or being sued – for patent infringement, labor issues, founders’ rights, and more.

A startup engaged in legal procedures is not necessarily something investors should be worried about or run away from. Take Airbnb as a great example of a company that has disrupted the travel industry –  and caught legal fire from hotel chains, users, and regulatory authorities. As Airbnb’s management can testify, the more successful the company became, the more lawsuits it saw.

Not all legal issues are a sign of thriving business. Uber suffered from sexual harassment scandals and later from a legal battle inside its board of directors. Zenefits faced a hefty regulatory penalty on its insurance brokerage after selling health insurance with no proper licensing.

Investors shouldn’t be afraid of legal issues before jumping into a new investment. However, it’s important they’re aware of these issues as early as possible, much earlier than the due diligence process. This is where AI and NLP technology can help with insights based on continuous monitoring of companies’ behavior and performance on the web.

To learn more about startups and their possible legal issues, let’s use Zirra’s company analysis platform. Zirra has built an automated system that delivers insightful outputs on private companies creating high-level analysis within seconds. Zirra collects and aggregates data from a myriad of public sources and then utilizes Natural Language Processing (NLP) techniques to process this large volume of unstructured text and data.

Search a Company and Get Instant Legal Alerts

Using Zirra’s technology you can now search for any startup company and instantly learn about a possible legal quarrel from the world wide web. Let’s test this on a random list of unicorns in the search line. Searches for Magic Leap, SpaceX, Stitch Fix, and SoFi produced evidence of legal battles regarding sexual harassment and discrimination.

Latest Events module alerts about Magic Leap’slegal problems

Using Zirra’s Latest Events module, we instantly learned about a lawsuit against Magic Leap, filed last February by a former employee accusing him of sex discrimination.  It was settled and officially dismissed by June. Searching for information about SoFi (Social Finance) resulted in an article detailing how its CEO stepped down following a lawsuit over claims of sexual harassment.

A few more companies were also mentioned in the context of legal problems due to the fact that their investors were caught in sexual misconduct. SpaceX’s board member Steve Jurvetson is now on leave following an investigation conducted by his VC, DFJ, into allegations of sexual misconduct. Fashion e-commerce service Stitch Fix, now on the way to an IPO, was also caught in the eye of the storm of sexual harassment claims against Justin Caldbeck from Binary Capital. While Caldbeck was an associate at Lightspeed, one of Stitch’s investors, founder Katrina Lake, accused him of sexual harassment.

By all means, we don’t claim that a company is having a serious legal problem when an investor has to leave the table following allegations of sexual misconduct. However, we do think that investors, employees or basically everyone that is engaging with the company have the right to know and to be able to find that information very quickly.

A Great Way to Track ICOs that Went Wrong

The thriving ICO industry is attracting a growing number of investors into blockchain financial adventures. Nevertheless, it is a still unregulated industry in its infancy, which creates a large potential for fraud and misconduct.  

Searching for the startups conducting some of the biggest ICOs has helped us detect quite a few quarrels and disputes. One dispute involves Tezos, a newly decentralized blockchain that governs itself by establishing a true digital commonwealth, and which raised $232 million last summer.

Tezos’ profile on referred us to articles describing the legal battle between the founders and the chairman of a Swiss foundation tasked with managing funds raised during the ICO.

We also noticed R3, a blockchain-based operating system for financial services funded by a consortium of banks, that’s suffering from legal problems. The fintech startup has engaged in a new legal battle against another blockchain company, distributed ledger Ripple (the company behind XRP cryptocurrency). Ripple alleged that R3 failed to honor an agreement that included an option to purchase $5 billion XRP.

Every Company has its Issues

Searching for legal problems through Zirra’s Latest Events module can be so simple that you could spend all day just exploring them. This feature will prove to you that even the most trendy, fast-growing, and promising startup can be deeply engaged in a legal battle. Hyperloop One, one of the two largest companies behind the futuristic vision of a train moving at airline speed, faced a lawsuit by former company execs who accused the company of favoring friends and family in hiring and contracting decisions. The company denied the allegations and accused the former employees in return of staging a failed coup, stealing company secrets and planning to set up a competing company.

Houzz, an online platform for home remodeling valued recently at $4 billion, filed a trademark complaint against a competitor with a similar name, Houzify. Later, Facebook pulled the plug on its page.

Zirra’s advanced capabilities in identifying meaningful events in a company’s lifetime is still in beta. However, it is the first and only service capable of categorizing forgotten or lesser known events and putting them in the right context and chronological order, thus helping investors, analysts, entrepreneurs, and business development managers track a company’s behavior both historically and in real time.