Business Owner Titles: How to Pick Yours
As a new business owner, there is no shortage of decisions to be made. You need to choose a business name, logo, domain name and office location, among all the day-to-day decisions.
Before you order your first box of business cards, you’ll need to make an important choice: What will your official title be?
Sure, to your friends and family you’re probably known as “business owner,” but over time, you’ll hire workers and meet business partners who will want to know your role within your own organization.
The good news is you have plenty of options, from “chief executive officer” to “president” and “founder.” It’s important to know the differences among each of these roles, since it will be easier to change your mind now, before you’ve committed, than after you’ve had your business cards and nameplate printed.
What are business owner titles?
Before you choose a title, it’s important to differentiate between your legal title and your business title.
If you form a limited liability company (LLC), legally you’re known as a managing member. When you sign legal documents, you’ll need to use your legal title. But for non-legal purposes, you can use any title you want. If you choose to run your business as a sole proprietorship or partnership for now, you can stick with your chosen title across the board.
To help you decide, here are some of the most popular business owner titles and what makes them unique:
- CEO — Chief executive officer has long been a popular option — so popular, in fact, that it has become a bit of a cliché. One expert even believes it’s lost its power due to overuse. If you choose this title, make sure you emphasize what you do, not what title you hold, in everyday conversation.
- President — Like CEO, this title tends to be overused, but it does establish you as the face of the company. Once you have a board of directors, this title can become confusing, though, since you’ll have a president there as well.
- Principal — Another version of “CEO,” this title holds a great deal of legal clout, establishing you as the decision-maker of the company. Although it’s a powerful title, it is also appealingly vague; it signals importance without defining your role in any given way.
- Founder — This title has become increasingly popular among startups as well, emphasizing that you’re the person whose ideas sparked the business and who has been with the company from the beginning.
- Manager — This title may feel like it matches what you actually do every day, but it doesn’t necessarily establish you as the head honcho. “Manager” is a title most often paired with “middle,” suggesting that there are people working above and below you. If you want to signal that you’re the leader, think about how to pair the word with something descriptive, such as “manager of customer experience.”
- Disruptor-in-chief — Tech startups love unique titles like this one since they help a business stand out from the crowd and emphasize envelope-pushing bona fides. Other options are verging-on-ridiculous, like chief troublemaker, executive sensei, digital prophet and chief executive unicorn.
Tips for choosing business owner titles
Although it’s a big decision, you have plenty of guidance to help you get started. Here are a few things to consider as you’re choosing your new title:
- Determine your company structure —Your business structure determines how you’ll need to title your own position. Research various options and decide whether your business will be a sole proprietorship, partnership, LLC or corporation.
- Choose titles by area of expertise — Perhaps you plan to broaden your upper management tier to include experts like a chief financial officer and chief operating officer. In this case, it can help to choose your own specialty and title yourself accordingly from the start.
- Create company protocol — Whether you’re solo or working with others, draft a company protocol that will work for the long-term. Detail the hierarchy, including which positions will report to you and the types of positions that will fall beneath those direct reports.
- Consider the future of the business — You may not have employees yet, but you will eventually (that’s the goal, at least, right?). Draw out your future organizational chart and imagine how you’d title your chief position.
- Avoid misleading titles — In an attempt to create a fun work culture, the new trend is for businesses to create overly positive job titles like “chief happiness officer” or “director of vibe.” The issue with this is that it obscures what you actually do, requiring you to waste time explaining rather than emphasizing your company.
- Think about what you want — Your own opinion matters here. Do you love the idea of being called a CEO, or do you hate it? Choose a title that feels right to you and the image you want project, to those both within and outside the company.
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How real-life entrepreneurs chose their title
There are as many opinions about job titles as there are job titles. Some founders are thrilled to embrace the CEO title, while others find it presumptuous. Some want their titles to describe what they do every day, while others focus on what sensibility their title communicates to others.
Here are some real-world examples that reflect the wide range of approaches to this interesting business question.
Reagan Jobe, chief solver at EasyCheck
Jobe chose the title “chief solver” in his leadership position at asset-management software company, EasyCheck, because he wanted to make his role in the company clear.
“It is the best way to explain what I do in the company; when customers have any issues, they know I am the one who can solve them,” he said. “It is also helpful for employees to know that the buck stops with me and I’m available to solve any challenges they face.”
That purpose for his title felt more important to him than telegraphing a certain sense of importance to investors. “When it comes to startups, titles are not that important. For the most part I believe they do little in convincing investors to work with you.”
Omowale Casselle, co-founder and CEO at Digital Adventures
Casselle chose the dual title of co-founder and CEO of his early-stage education technology startup in Chicago in order to “establish ownership and accountability.” While pursuing his MBA at Harvard Business School, Casselle took to heart the idea that someone in an organization has to own and be responsible for key decisions. He feels that the title of CEO indicates that he is that person.
He also finds it important to emphasize himself as a founder of the company because it signals to others his high level of investment. “Externally, being a co-founder establishes credibility with customers to reach out and provide feedback and opportunities for improvement. The psychology is that someone who started the company is heavily invested in making sure that customers have a great experience.”
Dr. Sarah Renee Langley, CEO and founder at LeadHer International LLC
Langley, whose company offers mentorship, coaching, consulting and counseling services for women executives, managers and entrepreneurs, is not shy about her embracing of the title of CEO. She believes the title makes clear that she is the person “who leads the workforce and is responsible for their actions.”
She believes titles are important to establish order and roles, so that each person involved knows each other’s functions and responsibilities. She also finds that titles can motivate employees to reach for a new position, status or level.
For her, the title of CEO signifies that she’s doing exactly what she wants to do. “I would say that the title of the CEO of my company is no less than a dream come true for me. It holds great significance in my life.”
John Chapin, Capital Technology Services
In contrast to Dr. Langley’s enthusiasm, Chapin, leader of web application development company Capital Technology Services, feels ambivalent about business titles. “I don’t put my title on many of my communications and when I have to, I usually put, ‘lead consultant and president,’” he said. “I have a real problem with the rockstar culture that has developed around people calling themselves a chief executive officer.”
He sees people who take the title of CEO in small companies as claiming an inappropriate level of importance by emulating those who head large, publicly traded companies — or, as Chapin puts it, “their corporate heroes.”
“It’s self-aggrandizement to call the head of a small LLC a CEO,” he said. “While it doesn’t necessarily lead to the leader of an organization valuing themselves above their employees and contractors, it sometimes does, and that can be really poisonous to the culture of a growing firm.”
Cristian Rennella, CEO and co-founder of oMelhorTrato.com
Rennella started his insurance-comparison site for the South American market nine years ago, and now has 134 employees and more than 21,500,000 users in Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Uruguay, Chile, Mexico and Colombia. He has chosen the title of CEO “to be able to explain to our clients who I am in a single word,” he said. “The title helps define your position in front of people who do not work in your company.”
He said that customers know the buck stops with him and that new contacts are more likely to take him seriously when he presents himself with that title. “My title has opened important doors with a single email or a sales call to new important customers,” he said. “This was key for our growth in the first years. I chose my title because it gives me power that is very useful on many special occasions.”
Paige Arnof-Fenn, founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls
Arnof-Fenn, who has been the head her global marketing and branding company for 17 years, also embraced the title of founder and CEO from the very beginning.
“I had always aspired to be CEO of a business (like my father) so that was easy, but founder made sense and appealed to me as an entrepreneur starting a new business,” she said. “I think titles matter in that people want to know who the decision-maker is and that they are talking to the top person.”
Her title is also important for her role as a public speaker and writer.
“People tend to respect the position even before they know the person,” she said.
Ben Ralph, founder and head of product and experience at Beaker & Flint
Ralph joined two others in founding his startup that specializes in getting companies structured for the future of work. The three founders spent a long time pondering titles: “C-suite titles felt silly for a three-person company, but on the other hand, we wanted to be taken seriously,” he said. “In the end, we did a little bit of market research and chose our titles based on what our target market would find credible.”
The three titles they chose are chief director (responsible for operations and partnerships), managing director (involved with networking, sales and business development), and head of product and experience (to project credibility, ownership and authority over the market offering).
“Although we all own and run the company as equal partners, our titles feel like the company has levels,” Ralph said. “‘Chief director’ has heft, while ‘head of product and experience’ feels approachable.”
Michael Santoro, co-founder at Vaetas LLC
In contrast to Ralph and his two co-founders, who chose distinct titles, Santoro and his two co-founders all chose to be a “co-founder” of Vaetas LLC, a tech company that markets an interactive video platform for business development professionals.
“We wanted a flat organization as opposed to a hierarchy to work more efficiently, and the title gave us equal status,” he said. “It wasn’t a hard decision because we have mutual trust for each other and the company’s progress comes before our egos.”
Each of the founders is in charge of a specific area and they meet weekly to review progress.
They find that as long as they maintain clarity concerning responsibilities, the titles they hold are only important when dealing with those outside the organization, such as customers. “It is important, for example, when a prospect wishes to talk to the ‘boss’ before making a buying decision,” Santoro said. “In our case, the title ‘co-founder’ allows any of us to talk with them.”
The bottom line
Having the freedom to choose your title means you get to be in control of the professional reputation you build. Once you’ve weighed all the factors and chosen the one that fits best, embrace it. Don’t be afraid to put it on all your marketing materials and use it while networking within your own community.