CEO vs owner: What is the correct name for a business owner?

CEO or founder? MD or owner? If you're stuck on what to call yourself, our handy guide to names for a business owner should shed some light...

There’s lots of content on the web about naming your business, but what about your own title as the founder of the business?

While becoming a CEO is many people’s dream job title, there’s also a feeling that it can be a bit pretentious to deem yourself CEO when you’re one of only a handful of employees within your business.

Of course, your actions will speak louder than your job title. But it’s important to select one that accurately reflects your responsibilities and skills, as your title will inform the expectations that staff, customers and third parties have of you.

It might seem that many of the options available to business owners mean the same thing, but most represent a slightly different role. Read on for our guide to the most commonly chosen names for a business owner, and what they actually mean…


CEO

Shorthand for chief executive officer, the CEO job title highlights its bearer as top dog.

Traditionally, the CEO oversees the entire business, managing day-today operations while also devising and implementing strategies to push the company towards its long-term visions.

A key part of this is delegation – not trying to achieve everything with your own two hands, but finding the right people in the business to entrust particular tasks to.


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If this seems more overarching than your actual role, it may be that a more specific c-suite title – for example, chief technical officer (CTO) or chief operating officer (COO) – will be a clearer representation of your skillset and daily duties.

Similarly, if you’re running a small business with a small team, it’s best to avoid it – the last thing you want is to alienate your staff or put off investors by painting yourself as an egomaniac, and calling yourself the CEO of a team of 10 is one way to do that.

However, as your business grows to incorporate multiple teams and tiers, having a CEO will become more appropriate – or, if you prefer, you could take up the title of…


Managing director

Usually shortened to MD, the titles of managing director and CEO are often interchangeable.

Like a CEO, an MD heads up the running of the business and implements strategies for achieving goals. Again, it’s best not to refer to yourself as an MD if you aren’t involved in all aspects of the business’ growth and development.

If this sounds like your role, whether you pick CEO or MD will be down to your personal taste. Generally, MD comes across as less egotistical in a start-up setting, however if you already have other c-suite employees it might make the most sense for you to take up CEO.


Founder

The title of founder or co-founder implicates you in the business’ history, highlighting you as the person (or one of the people) who started it all. Unlike CEO, this title cannot be passed around – if you’ve created the business, you’ll always be its founder even after you exit.

As such, one great thing about the title of founder is that it indicates your passion for the business – it’s your baby, after all, and the staff who work with you may be buoyed to work hard by that.

In a start-up’s early days, the founder or co-founder has a profound influence on the business’ operations and growth; meeting with clients and investors and making crucial strategic decisions.

As your business grows you may find that you’re continuing with this level of responsibility, or that you’re focusing more on a certain aspect of the business than any others. Either way, the title of founder alone – while still accurate – may no longer clearly represent what you do.

In this case, it’s a good idea to combine your title of founder with something that reflects the specifics of your role; whether that’s ‘founder and MD’, ‘founder and CTO’, ‘founder and head of sales’ or something else.

Remember, a founder and a CEO/MD do not have to be one and the same. It may be that you decide to hire a CEO or MD down the line as you progress with a different job title.


Owner

Owner is a title that commands respect, however it doesn’t indicate any specific role within the business; and it is possible for an owner to have no working position at the company.

In heading up a start-up, this won’t be such an issue. The members of your small team will come into frequent contact with you and will have an awareness of your daily tasks (although you may find that clients and investors are confused by the nature of your role).

However, in large businesses the owner might be imagined as a kind of lofty figure who simply gathers a salary while other people actually run the business – whether this is true or not.

If you’d like to be known as the owner but want to avoid this kind of perception, it’s best to combine this with a more specific title, for example ‘owner and COO’ or ‘owner and MD’.


Associate vs consultant: What is the correct name for a freelancer?

Individuals who head up freelance operations might have a similar problem in deciding whether to refer to themselves as an associate or a consultant – a discussion that has appeared in our Startups Forum.

While both can refer to an individual who offers their services on a freelance basis, a consultant tends to package their expertise as ideas and guidance to share with the client, while an associate tends to use their abilities to complete tasks that the client already knows has to be done.

One of our forum users explains: “Functionally, the difference I found was that a consultant answers questions such as “What should I do?” and the associate is given direction: “Do this.”

The key point is that associates can then be assessed for quality of performance to a predefined level, where the consultant functions in a world of ambiguity, where the performance level is harder to define.

The implications are many, from the level of availability and freedom to plan work, to the ability to defend hours spent (and therefore owed) on a job. The consultant adds a value that is not there, while the associate adds bandwidth that is not there, which are two different price tags.

If you provide the service to assess a situation within a specified scope and provide strategic input on the direction to take and how to get there, then I would advise the label of consultant. If your work is more tactically based, or managerial to deliver on certain objectives, then associate might be more applicable.”


Remember, as with any job title, it is what you make it. There aren’t exactly any hard and fast rules, but finding the most accurate one will help you to manage expectations and deliver exactly what your client is looking for.