I Fired Myself As CEO (Update, 5 Years Later)

September 23, 2021
Business

Five years ago, I wrote a blog post about firing myself as CEO of my company (covered in the press here and here, among other places).

So what’s happened in the 5 years since I replaced myself as CEO of Scribe Media? Was it a good decision or not? 

Let’s begin by looking at the big numbers: 

Tucker’s CEO Tenure, By The Numbers:

CEO Time: ~1.5 years

Total Sales: ~3 million topline

Total Number of Employees: 8

Total Number of Books Published: ~40

JeVon’s CEO Tenure, By The Numbers: 

CEO Time: ~5.5 years

Total Sales: Over 50 million topline (WAY over, but JeVon won’t let me give out our real revenue numbers)

Total Number of Employees: 90 (as of the day I published this, we are hiring if you’re looking)

Total Number of Books Published: ~865 

That’s a ~20x increase in total sales, a ~10x increase in team size, and a ~25x increase in the measured output of our company (published books). 

But it goes deeper than the numbers. The numbers you see are only a reflection of the underlying reality: JeVon completely changed the entire company and has reformed it in a way that allowed it to thrive in both profit and overall impact. 

I know the “best companies” lists can be a silly game, but the fact is, JeVon is the reason we’ve been named #1 Best Place to Work in Austin (Austin Biz Journal), #2 Best Place to Work In Texas (Fortune), and the #1 Best Place to Work in America (Entrepreneur Magazine). 

I could tell you the team is stronger, more effective, closer, has more trust, but it’s so much deeper than that. We weren’t even a real company before he came. We were a group of people playing business pretend, with me as the biggest pretender. And now we are a real company, led by a real CEO, producing real value for everyone involved. 

So yeah, a slam dunk for “best business decision of my life.” 

In fact, I think replacing myself as CEO might be the most important decision I could’ve made in ANY area of my life (it’s a tie between this and starting psychedelic medicine therapy). 

My wife likes to joke that our marriage is actually three people: the two of us, and JeVon--because he made it possible for me to be a present husband and father. 

Literally everything about my life is better now than it was 5 years ago. The business is WAY better. I am WAY happier. Right now, I spend virtually all my time doing things I love: 

  1. I spend most of my time with my wife and three (soon to be four) young kids.
  2. I still work a lot, but now I focus all my work time on the things I like and am good at: building new products and companies (within the Scribe universe), and building relationships with people we can work with. And I’ve been doing that for years now. The stuff I did after JeVon got to Scribe was crucial to the success of the company--I built several new products, created a bunch of teams and coaching materials, and drove sales and marketing for a long time. Scribe NEEDED me, just a me who wasn't the CEO.

I’m living my ideal life, all because I let go of a role that wasn’t for me, which made room for someone who loved that role to occupy it (and he is now living HIS ideal life as well).

So yeah, it was a great decision for me (and probably even better for the company). 

How’d You Find And Hire Such A Great CEO?

Since I wrote that first piece, I cannot tell you how many hundreds of people have asked me: 

“How can I hire my JeVon?”

There are two basic types of non-founder CEO’s: Mercenary CEO’s and Missionary CEO’s.

The Mercenary CEO’s are experienced, skilled and capable, and they're for hire. You hire a Mercenary CEO by paying them. More than anyone else bidding on their services. No one needs to be told that, even first-year private equity interns know that. 

The Missionary CEO’s are also experienced, skilled and capable, but they can’t just be bought. They're looking for more than just money. 

What people mean by the question "How can I hire my JeVon?” is how they can hire a Missionary CEO--someone who is very good, but cares about more than money, who will leave a better paying job to work on something they believe in. 

They never like my answer:

“The question is not how do you hire him; the question is, how do you attract him? People like JeVon have unlimited opportunities. Do you know what he wants most out of his life’s work? Are you the type of person he wants to work with, to be around, to be friends with and learn from? Is your company the type of place he wants to spend his life? If so, he’s easy to get. If not...I don’t know what to tell you.” 

This is where most people look away and mumble something asking about my kids. 

What appears to be the problem is that many people don’t actually want to partner with someone awesome. They don’t want to cede power. They don’t want anyone else to be in charge. 

They say they want to hire a Missionary CEO, but what they actually want is a functionary who will do all the hard work, but let them take all the credit. They want an awesome employee that they don't have to care about that beyond work. And they think Missionary = I can pay them less than they're worth. 

The best Missionary CEOs would never settle for that. 

From the beginning I realized JeVon was a star, and I treated him like a star. That doesn’t mean pampering and coddling--it means I respected him, and respect begins with understanding. 

The FIRST thing I did was ask him what he wanted. Then I really listened to what he said--both stated and unstated (but implied). 

He told me he wanted to work with a close knit team of great people that loved each other, and spend the next several decades building something amazing with them. Something that genuinely impacted both the people who worked there and the clients. What type of company he built was far less important to him than who he built it with and the impact it had on people.

Also, what he wasn’t saying--but I could hear between the lines--was JeVon wanted to be recognized for his accomplishments. Not in an arrogant or narcissistic way; it wasn’t about fame. Just like all of us, he wanted to be with people who saw him for who he really was. Who understood and appreciated and celebrated him as a person. 

Once I got that, I realized there was a real potential fit here for both of us. 

I then did what I do best: I laid out an expansive vision for the future of the company and how he could fit into it. The picture I painted for him was not about him making a ton of money (though he would), but about something he cared far more about: 

I showed him how he could help create a huge company, be a part of an amazing team, be recognized as the star he is, and genuinely make the lives of everyone he touched better as he did it.

THAT is the answer to how we attracted such a great missionary CEO. 

We were NOT trying to hire an employee. 

Zach and I became the type of people an amazing person would want to be around, and built the type of organization they’d want to lead, which set up a situation that was ideal for that type of amazing person. 

Then when we found him, we made the pitch about HIM and the vision of what we could create together. 

It sounds really simple. And in a sense, it is, if you approach business from this perspective.

But there is more to the story...getting this person to join is only the first step.  

How’d You Get Such A Great CEO To Stay?

JeVon has been at Scribe 5 and half years, and he conservatively gets two job offers a week. Yes, this means he’s had at least 500 offers to leave Scribe (probably more).

Some of them have been INSANE offers. One was from a big private equity firm that  guaranteed an eight figure deal, with huge upside potential. Another was from an investing firm that probably would have made him 50+ million over the next 5 years. One company sent him--I am NOT KIDDING--a 2 MILLION DOLLAR check (there is a long, crazy story behind that, it wasn’t out of the blue)!! 

How’d we get him to stay? 

Two big things: 

  1. Set him up with a great deal that recognized his contribution.
  2. Delivered on the vision (especially the part about people).

1. The Deal

Let’s talk about the specifics of his deal first. I’m almost embarrassed to talk about the original deal, because he so grossly outperformed it:

  • 10% equity
  • Vesting over 4 years
  • Vesting schedule: 1% first year, 2% second year, 3% third year, 4% fourth year
  • In year 5, upon full vest, he had a two year option to buy 5% more at a 25% discount to an agreed upon price, giving him the potential to own 15% of the company.

By year 3, it was obvious this deal wasn't good enough. That was when Zach and I did something smart, and showed that we knew JeVon well: 

We told him we wanted to tear this deal up and do a new one that reflected his true value and a new, bigger vision for the future. 

The vision we painted this time was very similar to the first one, but instead of a vaguely big company, we laid out a very specific vision to build a large media conglomerate, with him as the Chairman. 

JeVon was in, and very importantly, he was seriously appreciative that we brought it up to him first. 

Zach and I were clear about terms: we’d give him anything he wanted that was fair. This would not be a negotiation, it'd be just a decision.

I made it clear that he own the same percentage in the company that I did. This deal was about recognizing him as a peer and a partner, not about just getting paid.

Here is where things got hard: JeVon made it nearly impossible to do the deal. He wasn’t being an asshole, negotiating hard, or anything like that. Far from it. He had two major emotional conflicts: 

  1. He refused to take a full equity grant. He spent a lot of his youth on welfare, and anything that felt like a handout has a deeply traumatic meaning to him. 
  2. He also wanted to get what he deserved and be recognized. He wanted us to give him what he had earned without him having to pay for it. 

Talk about a fucking paradox. 

To his credit, JeVon was quite open about this, and fully understood how contradictory these positions were. But no matter how deep we went with him, and no matter how much we talked about his trauma around these issues, he could not get past them. 

[Before I tell you how we cut this Gordian Knot, I need to explain something: we talk about our emotions A LOT at Scribe. It's not at all uncommon during a “business” discussion, for us to start talking about trauma or shame or some other “personal” issue. We don’t really believe in work life balance, we believe in whole life integration, and emotions are part of life and work. So yeah, a LOT of our work conversations would sound like therapy to an outsider listening in.] 

It took a month of talking about it, when we finally came up with what would be our final plan:

JeVon would get 37.5% of Scribe, the same as me, and Zach kept the 25% he started with. To get to that equity split, he would pay me close to 7 million dollars for the equity...but the payment would come out of future earnings distributions, not out of his pocket. 

This solved the problem of him feeling like he was being given a handout, because he was paying. But it didn’t feel like he was paying with his money, because the money was from earnings that he would help create, thus feeling like it was both recognized and earned. 

I also threw in one more part of the deal: we had to each commit to a minimum of 10 more years with the company, together. 

That not only made it real, it made it permanent. Both JeVon and I were in our 40’s, if we were in for at least 10 more years, that meant THIS was our thing and THIS was our team we were doing it with. 

2. Delivering On Our Promises

This might seem like a lot of silliness to get to that deal, but I told this whole story because it leads right into the REAL reason he stayed: we made sure the vision we laid out to him came into existence, most importantly the people and relationship parts. 

That simple story above shows how:

  1. We knew an important value of his--recognition--and recognized him by going to him about the deal before he had to come to us.
  2. The deal was NOT what a Mercenary CEO gets, it wasn't focused on paying a "star," but rather the type of deal a PARTNER gets.
  3. He felt safe enough with us to tell us the real issues he had with the deal, and he knew we wouldn't shame him or think he was ridiculous. Far from it, because he was open we were able to find a deal that worked great for everyone and solved every problem.
  4. And probably most important to him, this was a symbolic way for him to know that this was now his place, and we were all in this together. No one could take it from him, or kick him out, or buy him out, and none of us were going anywhere. We were a squad, and he was the leader.  

There are so many other examples of how we delivered on our promises, but one of my favorite is how Zach and I finally ceded control of Scribe to him. 

As JeVon got into his role, it was hard for Zach and I to cede total control to him. It wasn’t about being in charge for us. It was mainly about the fact that we knew the book business well, and he was learning it, and we are both just pretty opinionated and take charge types.

Because of this dynamic, there were many times Zach and I wanted to do one thing, and he wanted to do another, but he would go with what we wanted, but tell us, "My gut tells me this won't work, but lets try it and see."

And then he'd be right. Over and over this happened.

This problem culminated with Zach and I literally calling a meeting with JeVon, and telling him: 

“You aren't CEO so you can do what we tell you. You are CEO because you make BETTER business decisions then we do. STOP LISTENING TO US, AND LISTEN TO YOUR GUT!”

His reaction was hilarious--he couldn't even talk for a minute. He was simultaneously happy we recognized this, but also VERY frustrated. He knew what we were saying was true, and yet, he had to face that he was not listening to himself and instead ceding a lot of decisions to us that were his. That was hard for him to accept.

But we worked through this, because of another promise we'd made to each other: we were in this together and we would work through our problems together. 

This leads to the point: as a founder you keep a great Missionary CEO the way you get them to come in the first place. You connect with them on a deep level, you understand them and, well...almost by default, you become close friends. 

Which is what JeVon and I and Zach are. 

Also, it goes WAY beyond just the three of us. A bunch of the other people at Scribe are very close to JeVon. I haven’t talked much about the full Scribe team, but this is what our CXO said about this: 

“JeVon is one of the most important people in my life, and I would actually say that the #1 biggest impact you personally had on JeVon sticking around as CEO was the work you put in building this tribe to be the tribe he dreamed of belonging to his whole life. And we have all become so close as a result.”

Honestly, JeVon gets more credit than me for how great the team is here (he hired like, 98% of them), but Zach and I definitely set the frame and the culture that helped attract so many of these people. And we helped build the teams and helped them to understand him, and vice versa. 

We started off liking each other and now we are legit like a small family. We love each other, we are deeply connected to each other, and we even argue like a family. 

And we all want him in our lives--business or not.

You can’t fake that. You can’t manufacture an authentic relationship. You can’t pretend meaning or love (at least not for long). It's either real or its not.

To really sum this whole piece up, JeVon came onboard because of the vision and the opportunity, but JeVon stayed because of the people and RELATIONSHIPS. 

That is what I think true Missionary CEO’s are looking for, and what JeVon was looking for. 

If that sounds appealing to you, then maybe finding a Missionary CEO is right for you. If not, then probably just back up the Brinks truck and pay a Mercenary CEO.  

[PS--As an example of what its like to work with from a Missionary CEO like JeVon, you can read the process we use at Scribe to ask for a salary increase. It is VERY different from most places.] 

[PPS--I know this piece will get him more offers to leave. Every time I talk about him, all these ridiculous fucking clowns come out of the woodwork and beg him to be their CEO. Please don’t waste your time. Actually, I don’t care about your time--don’t waste JeVon’s time. He has a conglomerate to scale!]


Tucker Max

Tucker Max is the co-founder of Scribe Media, a company that helps you write, publish, and market your book.  

He's written four New York Times Best Sellers (three hit #1), which have sold over 4.5 million copies worldwide. He's credited with being the originator of the literary genre, “fratire,” and is only the fourth writer (including Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Lewis and Brene Brown) to ever have three books on the New York Times Nonfiction Best Seller List at one time. He was nominated to the Time Magazine 100 Most Influential List in 2009.

He received his BA from the University of Chicago in 1998, and his JD from Duke Law School in 2001. He currently lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife Veronica and three children.


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