by Matt Villano

Don Willis: Moving from CIO to CEO

Nov 01, 20003 mins

Former CIO Don Willis founded Newport Beach, Calif.-based e-services boutique IPNet Solutions in 1996. Prior to starting his own company, Willis was senior vice president of IS for Rykoff-Sexton, now part of U.S. Foodservice, and senior vice president of IS and inventory management for Home-Base, a western U.S. chain of home improvement stores. CIO spoke to the 49-year-old California native about his move from CIO to CEO—a transition that’s becoming increasingly common.

CIO: Why did you decide to leave your IT post to start your own company?

Willis: I always enjoyed my responsibilities as CIO, but in early 1995, I started thinking about having a larger role. I spent months studying the Internet economy, and I believed the Web was a huge enabling technology that businesses could adopt. I was tired of fulfilling someone else’s vision for IT. I wanted to act out my vision for a company that automates certain processes. The only way to do that was to start my own organization. I didn’t do this in order to be a CEO; I did it to build a company. The CEO title is just the necessary trapping of building a company. The tough part wasn’t making the decision to make the change; it was the process of putting that decision into action.

Well, what was your exit strategy?

When you decide to start your own company, you don’t just quit your job, come home and tell your wife, “This is how it’s going to be.” The first thing I did was get some buy-in at home. My wife and I talked things through for weeks, and I didn’t act until I knew she was 100 percent supportive. Next, I informed my CEO about my plans and spent weeks detailing the phaseout process. Finally, one day, instead of [getting up and] driving to the office, I walked down the hallway and started my business plan. To this day, I have no regrets.

What are the main differences between being a big-company CIO and running your own company?

The challenges of being CEO are more consistent and more formidable than anything I’ve experienced before. Roles change dramatically when you move from being CIO of a multibillion-dollar company to being CEO of a small company that still needs funding. As CIO, there are a lot of issues you don’t have to deal with, but as CEO, everything stops at your desk. The totality of the position, combined with building your own dream, is very challenging. It’s daunting. At the same time, it’s the most rewarding opportunity I could ever imagine.