The founder of Toronto startup Nymi recently gave himself a demotion. Dr. Karl Martin handed his hefty CEO role to an industry veteran, and settled into the more comfortable position of Chief Technology Officer (CTO).
The move came at a time when the company is gearing up for the launch of their first product, a wristband that authenticates a user’s identity through their pulse, to the general public next year. Once that’s done, Nymi will try to scale into a repeatable business. “The next phase is something that a lot of companies really trip up on,” notes Martin. “So I would rather focus on the things I’m really good at—product vision and product strategy—and bring in someone that really understands how to scale this business.”
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Martin led the recruitment process for Nymi’s new CEO himself, and picked John Haggard, formerly the Chief Business Officer at renowned security company Yubico. “John’s resume just reads like this guy really understands scaling authentication businesses,” says Martin. “Seeing [what] he has done that at Yubico, a company that has achieved great things, we want him to do the same at Nymi.”
Self-demoting CEOs are an increasingly common phenomenon in the tech world. It’s a way to combat a paradox that many entrepreneurs, regardless of industry, face as their businesses grow: Founder-CEOs can either spend all their time on the product, which makes them seem like micro-managers and causes them to neglect their management responsibilities, or they can detach from the product, which can may only have come about because of their vision or skills in the first place.
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Nymi’s recent personnel changes point to a solution—Martin’s strategy is to let business leaders focus on business and technical masterminds continue creating and refining 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 he advanced to designing circuits and robots in school. After three degrees in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto, Martin founded Nymi (then named Bionym) in 2011. The Nymi wristband was the outcome of six years of research in biometrics, cryptography and security systems.
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The CEO job required Martin to oversee both the business and product side of Nymi. “But because of my natural tendencies, I would have more focus around the product,” Martin admits. “As a CEO, you’re responsible across all levels. You have to manage your time accordingly, so that you always have a complete picture of everything going on in the company.”
Martin believes the a startup benefits from a founder’s leadership in the early stages. “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 figured out how to run a company by actually running it, and learning along the way. “You just have to have as much awareness as possible,” he says. “What do I have to learn now versus what do I have to put off until later?”
But Nymi’s growth has reached a point where Martin just couldn’t learn fast enough to accomplish the goals he set for himself. It was time to bring a business person in to focus on growing the company, while he returned 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.”
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What do you think of Martin’s decision? Would you ever consider giving up the CEO title at your company? Share your (constructive) thoughts by commenting below.