From CEO to Chairman: One Entrepreneur’s Decision to Hand Over the Reigns

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Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two part series featuring Motivosity’s Scott Johnson. You can read Part I here.

Scott Johnson, the founder of Workfront, served as the company’s CEO for 10 years before stepping aside to work on his latest endeavor, Motivosity, a startup wholly dedicated to building engaged and satisfied employees.

While the decision wasn’t easy, it’s one that many CEOs face during their tenure. For Johnson, it was a matter of finding an idea he was truly passionate about, following his passion and ultimately taking a leap of faith.

Contemplating Life on the Other Side

“There are a lot of CEOs contemplating similar decisions,” said Johnson of his choice to leave his position as CEO of Workfront. “It was scary to contemplate whether or not to remain CEO of the company I brought into the world and grew over a decade. And, for anyone who has been 150 percent devoted and focused on one thing for so long, I think it’s normal to wonder if there’s even life on the other side.”

But, in the end, Johnson says it came down to his strengths and what he was most passionate about. “I like to create, I like to solve problems.” So, for Johnson, it was ultimately natural to move on and found his new startup.

“As you look at the life cycle of a startup, there’s a huge amount of risk in the early days. The job is about hacking your way through the jungle. It’s climbing cliffs and finding your way through a lot of uncertainty until you ultimately end up with a product you can market.”
“Then at some point,” Johnson adds, “You either fail or you find value and then the job starts to change a little bit. Then you try to make a better path, you want to get more people on your path and you start deriving value out of the endeavor. It becomes a little more certain, a little less risky.”

“Then as the company grows, the job changes to more of an optimizing sort of a role, where we know what the problem is, we know what we’re doing, now we’re just trying to build a train and get the train running on time. At some point the job becomes much more of an administrative role, where it’s more about meetings and KPIs and all that kind of garbage and that’s where I think a lot of entrepreneurs maybe start to be less fulfilled.”

“You’ve got to ask the question,” says Johnson, “‘Do you really want to review metrics and go to meetings forever, or do you want to go out and create?’ At that point, you have to look at what it is that engages you most, really ask yourself what do you love to do. And at the time that that is not really aligned with the demands of your job, you’ve got to seriously consider if it’s time for a change.”

For Johnson, it was. But, the decision to leave is perhaps easier than what comes next – working on giving an idea life, credibility and sustainability.

Failing as Fast as Possible

Johnson says moving on to the next endeavor is about failing as quickly as possible. “If you’re trying to start a new business, if you’re trying to see whether you should devote the next several years of your life to it, you want to know in a month if it’s going to fail instead of spending two years beating your head against the wall and then having it fail.”

“You have to arrive at the point where you realize whether it’s something that could move forward or not. You want to get to a ‘no’ as fast as you can,” he says.

“There’s a process for that, and it really starts with initial research. Then you create a virtual prototype of your product, and you go out. And instead of doing the traditional, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea. I’m going to create a business plan. I’m going to go get funds for it. I’m going to build it, then I’m going to go sell it,’ You switch that around a little bit and you say, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea. I’m going to go sell it.’”

“If you can sell that idea, then you should start to build it and then you should raise some money to continue the process. That’s what we did with Motivosity. There were some competitors in the space, but in my opinion they had a broken business model. We spent some time researching with their customers and with other companies and came to the conclusion that they did have broken business models and that there was an opportunity. That prompted me to make the investment to take the leap of faith.”

Give 100% of Your Focus

In the end, whether you remain actively involved in your first venture for decades, or you move on, Johnson says it’s all about giving 100 percent of your focus. “There are a lot of people who try and start companies as a hobby. And, while they have their safe day job, they’re trying to work on something that they hope they can ultimately quit that day job for. My feeling is it takes too much to make it, to get it off the ground. You can’t do it as a part-time effort. You really have to jump in and focus to make it go. You can do the validation as a side job, but once you’ve decided it’s something you want to do, you have to figure out how to do it, and do it all the way.”

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