Season 1

Ambika Singh - Armoire CEO & Co-Founder

00:00:00“Does anyone know who this girl is?” Then I went out to raise money. And everyone was like, “Great pitch! So is this a real company?” I was like, “Yes! Didn’t you hear me on the stage?” And they’re like, “Yeah that’s cute… Next!” I was like, “Duh!” [music] 00:00:24 Ash Faraj:Hey! Welcome to the ExecuTalks Podcast. It’s the show that gives you insight to the personal stories of today’s top executives. In this episode, you will hear from Ambika Singh, also known as Bika. She is the current CEO and Co-founder of Armoire, a clothing rental company with a modern-day boss lady. She successfully raised over $5 million, has over 75 employees, and the company is on its way to disrupting the entire retail market. [music] 00:01:06 Ash Faraj:Bika was born and raised in Bellevue, Washington, and was extremely talkative throughout her whole childhood. She was part of the first class to graduate from the International Community School and there she would become the ASB President and get her first “Start-Up” experience. 00:01:26 Ash Faraj:Speaking of your childhood, if I was in a classroom with you in high school, who is Ambika Singh? 00:01:31 Ambika:Probably annoyingly chatty. I remember in seventh grade, my history teacher picked up my whole -- we had like those desks where the chairs connected to the desk. Remember those? -- he picked me and my desk up and moved me into the hallway. [laughter] That probably would be illegal now. He was like, “Enough talking. Enough.” [laughter] 00:01:57 Ash Faraj:I thought I read somewhere you were like the ASB President of your high school? 00:02:01 Ambika:Wow, you really went deep there. [laughter] I was the ASB President of my high school which was a really interesting place. It was my first start-up experience. Yeah. It’s called International Community School. I’m very proud of it. It persists. There’s one in Kirkland and one in Bellevue. I was the first class to graduate all the way through. So when we started, we were in the six porta cabins on the Redmond High School campus. There were 37 of us, or something like that, across two grades. Seventh and eighth graders on a high school campus, and we’re already this nerdy, super weird group of kids. They amazingly scheduled it so that we had the break at the same time as the high school kids. It was a complete disaster. [laughter] I luckily avoided this, but a lot of the kids had those rolling backpacks and the high school football players would come by and kick the backpack out. The kid and the bag would go flying. It was like a nightmare! I don’t know who decided that, but this was never going to be a great idea. But we adjusted like all start-ups. They changed the times of the breaks, so that we only went to the bathroom when the high school kids were safely in their classrooms. But it really was an amazing experience. We built it. I felt like we all had a part in it. There was a philosophy at the school; one-third students, one-third parents, and one-third teachers. So everyone had sort of a responsibility and a voice in making it successful. I really do think those were core lessons that I learned at a really early age about how, you know, you make a mistake and a kid goes flying because they get kicked by a high school kid and you adjust. You’re like, “Oops. That didn’t work very well.” Now the mistakes we make are -- less sort of impact people’s bodily harm -- less acutely. But those are real lessons that I think… 00:03:56 Ash Faraj:Did you have a plan after high school? 00:03:58 Ambika:I was pretty ambitious, always. One is to go to the best school I could get into to. 00:04:04 Ash Faraj:Was there a specific school that you wanted to get into? 00:04:06 Ambika:I really wanted to get into Stanford. I didn’t get in. I remember my dad walking me around the backyard of his house as I like bawled. He was like -- 00:04:19 Male Voice 1:-- You thought it was the end of the world, huh? 00:04:21 Ambika:[laughter] Yes, totally. 00:04:23 Ambika-- “You’ll survive.” But at the time I couldn’t see that. It really felt catastrophic. I think that that is one of the amazing gifts that my parents have given me and continue to, and the people who are close to me, is like the gift of perspective. Because when you’re in it, things feel really up and down. The wins feel really big and the losses feel really catastrophic. But people outside of you care about you and can often give you perspective that you can’t necessarily see yourself. This thing is a thing that you wanted, and you’ll find another thing that you want. [music] 00:05:08 Ash Faraj:I’m sure you’ve had the feeling before where you’re not unhappy, but at the same time you don’t feel like you’re doing something that’s important enough. Or in other words, you feel insignificant relative to what other people around you are achieving. When Bika graduated college, she went to work for Microsoft for almost three years. Towards the end of her time at Microsoft there was a point in time when she felt sad and insignificant. 00:05:38 Ambika:… passed on them and create solutions that were really viable. So anyways, long story short, it was an incredibly inspiring job, great manager, great small team (there were just five of us.) I really loved my job. I don’t remember at that moment thinking about doing other stuff, but I think at that stage in my career I was like too many people around. I remember thinking [laughter] at the end of the day if I died in my office, no-one would notice for a few days. That was like my visualization. I was like I’m so redundant. What am I doing? [laughter] I think there’s phases and times and so that’s when I really started to think about it. How do I create a place where I feel impactful? 00:06:24 Ash Faraj:After coming to the realization that she needed to find a place where she could be more impactful, Bika simply started engaging in conversations with other people and found a start-up she was interested in working for. 00:06:39 Male Voice 1:What did you do when you felt that way? You’re like, okay, I need to just get out of here or did you actually put a plan together? What was that process like? 00:06:49 Ambika:I think I started to like, ears open, eyes open; so started to talk to people outside of Microsoft to figure out what other people are doing, what kind of things were exciting. Really, I think I continued to solve problems by talking. I guess this is the seventh-grade problem. [laughter] A lot of the times when I’m talking, I’m trying to work out my own feelings and what I want to do and that kind of stuff. So talking to people has always been a successful tool for me in that way. I think that’s what I started doing. That’s how I eventually found my start-up experience that I ended moving out to. 00:07:29 Male Voice 1:What were some of the companies, the earlier ideas that you had? 00:07:32 Ambika:At that point I don’t specifically remember thinking about me being the leader of them. I was just looking at small companies that existed. 00:07:41 Ash Faraj:I’m not sure if it was our discussion or I read it somewhere online, but I think you had left Microsoft to start a company or something and it didn’t work out. You came back to Microsoft? 00:07:52 Ambika:I didn’t start it, but yes, the company at the time was called TravelPost and became Trover. It was started by Rich Barton and Greg Slyngstad. Greg Slyngstad was the first Expedia CEO when it was still inside of Microsoft. When they spun it out Rich became the CEO, and then like a couple of other really early Expedia employees. So it was a very exciting…The headline was “The band is back together.” They raised a bunch of money. I came in with a cadre of about like five other younger, more junior folks. We had a blast for a year, but we never really crystalized on what exactly we were building. After a year, they really downsized the team down to two engineers from seventeen people. So it was a pretty jarring… It was the first time I’d ever been fired. I guess I got laid off. I still don’t really know the difference between those two. Whatever it was, they were like, “You’re done.” I was like, “Ah! But this is my home!” So it was a very… Yeah, it was painful, heartbreaking really. 00:09:11 Ash Faraj:If you could point to maybe two things why that start-up, that company, failed. What were those two? 00:09:18 Ambika:I think we weren’t able to crystalize on what we were building. The idea was that we would sort of like innovate in the travel space. Particularly those guys that had the experience of building Expedia. We really felt like -- and I still think this product should exist -- you really felt like there was a gap around recommendations and reviews and even content creations on the individual level. This is all in the context of travel in a way that is youthful and consumable back to the content creator themselves. Some of the scenarios we talked about were like, “If I go to Guatemala, how do I plan my trip? And then how do I save my trip? And then how do I share my trip and the parts of that that are interesting and important? I still think that that solution is not stitched together well. Right now, we do it through Instagram, and maybe we solicit advice from Facebook, and we use TripAdvisor for reviews and Yelp, and Instagram for inspiration, but it’s all very sort of fractured. The save and share side I also feel is incredibly fractured. I have these bizarre google docs that I’ve tried to keep up to date because I’ve been very lucky to travel. When people ask, sometimes I’ll share them, but they’re super inefficient. So anyways, we couldn’t quite crystallize on what the vision was in all of that and chunk it out in a way that allowed us to start to build. [music] 00:10:57 Male Voice 1:You were at the start-up. You kind of got let go. You’re devastated. What’s next? 00:11:04 Ambika:I went on a spirit quest. 00:11:06 Male Voice 1:Spirit quest? 00:11:07 Ambika:Yeah. [laughter] I was telling somebody else this story and she’s scolding me for being such a millennial. I had convinced my still very good friend and very early Armoire customer -- so again these people come back around -- so I had convinced her. She was at Microsoft with me, and I convinced her to come over and do this exciting start-up. Not only now have I convinced my friend, we both have no jobs. We’re both like sitting there, like holding the bag just staring each other. So we decided we would go on this spirit quest. 00:11:37 Male Voice 1:Were you married at the time? 00:11:39Ambika:No. So we got in her car or my car. I can’t remember. I think we kind of had a plan, but not really and just drove away. [laughter] We drove south where the sun is. We ended up staying in these crazy places in the middle of the redwood forest or we’re eating like cheese sticks from the gas station; it wasn’t that glam. We didn’t have that much money, so it was like it was very ‘unglam’. But then eventually we got to San Francisco. Her brother lived there. He had a real apartment and real job. We’re like, “Oh, this is nice.” Now this allure of a spirit quest is already starting to wane. [laughter] So we made like a little further south. I think we got to like LA or something. Okay, we’re like basically out of money. We’re done. I think we had the idea that we should write -- and I do regret this -- that we should write it down; like what we have learned. The turmoil, and the heartbreak, and like maybe what we could have avoided, or what we couldn’t see at the time, and blah, blah, blah. 00:12:45Ash Faraj:You said heartbreak. What was like the heartbreak? Was there a heartbreak you went through? 00:12:50Ambika:It was like an amazing, I guess… And probably all entrepreneurs or small company people go through this at some point. The first one it’s like you’re first love. Like you’d be at lunch together every day. We were really excited about what we were building. We hung out every weekend. We were very like all in. For it to all go up in a second, that’s the way I perceived it because I wasn’t privy to the fact that the thing wasn’t working. In my view it was sort of like we were doing great. It was very heartbreaking. I felt like something had died. I think what is likely is that given some distance it probably also made me, not tougher but less afraid because it was heartbreaking. And then it was fine because it’s actually not a person. It’s a thing that you built and you love, but it’s not a person. I felt like something had died, but it didn’t. I guess the fear around failure. Really, I learned a good lesson there; which is even in the worst case, you take a swing, you do the best you can, you meet some lovely humans who hopefully you take with you, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. [music] 00:14:11Ash Faraj:Up until now, you’ve heard a little about Ambika’s childhood, her experience after college, and some lessons she learned along the way. After being out of school for seven years, she decided to move to Boston and attend MIT for an MBA and would go on to start Armoire during her last month in school. Before she graduated, she had a very generous offer from the Boston Consulting Group that even she admitted was so much it was hard to turn down. Ultimately, she decided that she was going to follow her heart and focus on building Armoire. 00:14:51Ash Faraj:So your father is a serial entrepreneur. After he had started a bunch of businesses, he started this family investment firm from what I’ve read. When you first started your business after your MBA, did your father offer to pay you money to invest? 00:15:13Ambika:He offered; not pay me money, but invest in the business. Yes. 00:15:16Ash Faraj:Did you take it? 00:15:18Ambika:I did not originally. I wanted conviction from outside that this was an investable business. I wanted to personally have conviction that this was something the market was interested in. I think I also wanted to stand on my own two feet. It’s a scary place to be, right? Taking anybody’s money is very scary. Especially, you know what it took for the other person to accumulate that wealth. I personally don’t know anyone who had money just fell on them from the sky. Everybody’s hustled for this, and you are saying, I think I can take that capital and turn it into more. That’s the conversation with your investors, right? There’s obviously a lot of conflicting emotions in that. Yes, of course, I believe. My belief is fortified by results, so I know that we can create value. But am I deathly afraid? Of course. Because there are things that I can see and things I can control, and there are things that I cannot see and cannot control. There’s some elements of risk in all of this. As the CEO and the Founder and the Fundraiser, you are the conduit of that sort of transparency or the explanation of that risk. It’s your job to be both utmost factual and transparent and honest, but at the same time convey a level of confidence. Because if you’re just sort of like all about the doom and gloom, nobody’s really excited to invest in your business at that stage. So it’s an interesting kind of push and pull. 00:17:15Ash Faraj:How did you go about initially raising money after you rejected your father’s money? How did you go about raising money from angel investors and did you have initial success? 00:17:24Ambika:It was very painful. [laughter] So I started in Boston. I’ve told this story before, so you may have found this in your extensive research which I’m very proud of; I mean very impressed by. I kind of came out of the Accelerator. The Demo Day video that you saw was the end. There were a bunch of investors in the room. That auditorium is like a 2,000-person auditorium. It was packed. I’d certainly never stood on a stage that big and the pitch went well. I sort of came out really feeling like a hero. I was like, “Oh, man. Does anyone know who this girl is?” Then I went out to raise money, and everyone was like, “Great pitch! So is this a real company?” I was like, “Yes! Didn’t you hear me on the stage?” And they’re like, “Yeah that’s cute… Next!” I was like, “Dah!” It was a really painful kind of awakening, just from like -- I think this is also an amazing start-up lesson that I heard early on. One of the things about start-ups is that you climb the mountains, literally daily, and you fall off either side daily. It doesn’t matter how big that mountain is that you either had to get up or that you fell down. So I was like on top of the world and then I fell off the other side and it hurt all the way down. It was painful. [music] 00:19:00Ash Faraj:Obviously like 98% of investors are male, right? Is there a point in time when you’re pitching to the male investors and what tactic did you use when they said no or you kind of hit a wall with that? 00:19:11Ambika:Is that over? You’re saying that like it’s in the past tense. 00:19:16Male Voice 1:[laughter] It’s still the same. It’s still going on. 00:19:18Ambika:[laughter] I’m still in that. But what was like tactics to move the conversation forward? I’m still learning. One of the problems with this this is a difficult business. I mean all businesses are difficult, but this one is retail. Depending on how deep you’ve been following the news on retail. Barneys went out of business this year, Macy’s is having a tough time, Forever 21 went out of business. There’s a long list. [music] 00:19:56Ash Faraj:Dennis, wasn’t there a story we were talking about where she had gone to the investors’ wives to pitch them instead of going to the investors? 00:20:07Male Voice 1:[laughter] That was genius. That was pretty smart. They all rejected you, so you went… that’s really smart. 00:20:13Ambika:Well, that’s a strategy that I would like to learn how to execute better. Because what often happens is that they will say to me, “You know I really don’t understand this, but I’m going to ask my wife.” But what happens then is they get some watered-down version. You know, you guys are in the entrepreneurial space. You know how important a pitch is and the cadence. We practice every slide and the delivery and the passion and all this stuff. And they get some version, “This woman came by. She wants to do something with clothes. Do you like clothes? Do you think I should invest in the business?” “I don’t know honey. We’re late.” I’m not even in that conversation! So I did try to start figuring out how to be in that room when that conversation happens. 00:20:57Male Voice 1:How did you? 00:20:59Ambika:Going directly to them. So our cap table for a long time was nearly 50% women, and a lot of them had never written a check before. Many of them have last names with husbands of people you might recognize, so a lot of operators in town. A lot of investors, but for their wives they understood this business. Sometimes it was their daughters. And they really got it. Either they wrote the check, or they pushed dad or husband to write the check. To me that’s a perfect example of how the table and the companies that we fund would look different if we had a different group of investors sitting around the table. So yeah, wives, girlfriends, daughters, all my friends. All of them. Got to go find them. Yeah, it’s a hustle man. [music] 00:22:00Ash Faraj:Have you ever told yourself, “Once I get successful, I will be so much less stressed out,” or “Once I grow my company to $10 million it will be so much easier from there.” Well it turns out for Bika, the stress levels actually increase and other, more difficult, challenges begin to arise. 00:22:23Ambika:Fighting fear is a big thing, and success begets different problems. Today, I worry a lot about the fact that we have 75 amazing humans who I care deeply about. I want to keep paying them, forever. As long as they’ll stay. I want to have the ability to do that. I want to build careers for them that are worthy of them. A lot of these people now have put in two, three years of their lives into a dream that we all believe in. I want to make good on that. I want this to look like the dream that they imagined. I think about that a lot. I think about how much talent they have. How do I unlock all of that stuff and allow people to learn and grow and just pursue the stuff that they want? I worry about my humans probably the most of anything. I think about our customers a lot. One of the things about running this business is that we’re very intimate with our customers. Clothing is an intimate thing. We often know when people are pregnant or when they’re moving or when they’re changing jobs. We all could know that way before even their families, and so it’s a huge responsibility to be a part of somebody’s life like that. When we do well, and we make good on that trust, it feels really good. When we don’t -- and everybody makes mistakes and so it happens -- when we don’t it sucks. It really does. Sometimes we will ship completely the wrong size out. Life that happens. Somebody on the other side is waiting for a size 24 pair of pants that are going to make them feel great. We ship them the completely wrong size and they don’t feel great about themselves. They either can’t get them on or it’s just not what they expected. That’s like a common one that happens regularly. More uncommon, but also happens, is like stuff gets stolen, or we forget to, I don’t know. Over the snow we had last week, we had to close the store. Not everyone got our emails and they drove out to the store looking to pick up their stuff. And it’s like, “I’m going on this trip. I counted on you, and now I’ve got to go shopping. This isn’t the promise.” So that part is like… It’s really… It is an amazing gift of trust to be that much a part of somebody’s life. A lot of our customers like… I’m one of these people. I haven’t worn my own clothes in years. That’s a huge amount of trust that people are lending to us. We want to make good on that every single time and we can’t always make good on it. That part, I worry about that. [music] 00:25:28Male Voice 1:All right, so we want to wrap this up with a “Finish the Sentence” game. Ready? The first one is, in my opinion the most important life skill is…? 00:25:39Ambika:Grit. 00:25:40Male Voice 1:The thing I dislike about my job is…? 00:25:44Ambika:The mismatch between hours in the day and stuff to do. That’s what I really hate is that I want to be able to do more stuff all the time. 00:25:55Male Voice 1:The hardest thing about my job is…? 00:25:57Ambika:I guess this is like a similar answer, but like prioritization. 00:26:00Male Voice 1:I measure Armoire’s success by…? 00:26:03Ambika:The joy that we deliver. Really. 00:26:05Male Voice 1:The worst advice I’ve ever received is…? 00:26:08Ambika:[laughter] Somebody is going to see this! 00:26:11Male Voice 1:It could be like professional. [laughter] 00:26:14Ambika:The worst advice I’ve ever received. Wow. Hmm. People have tried to tell me, “Relax.” Have more self-care, more time to myself, all that kind of stuff. I do think that’s really important for some people but like for me this is where I want to be. This is what I want to do. My interpretation of self-care is being in my place with my people. Being away from my place without my people doesn’t make me feel happier. I think that piece of advice I always struggle with because I don’t like that. 00:26:55Male Voice 1:Don’t tell Ambika to relax. 00:26:58Ambika:[laughter] And don’t tell me to go home. This is my home. 00:27:01Male Voice 1:The final one is, when I get rejected or fail at something, I…? What do you do next? 00:27:09Ambika:So this is a true story, but hilarious. My husband bought me a punching bag. [laughter] It’s like really been effective. We’ve only had it about three months. [laughter] 00:27:19Male Voice 1:You were punching him before? 00:27:20Ambika:[laughter] One night I may have been with the punching bag alone. It’s a solo experience. When I go downstairs into our basement, when I go to the punching bag, it’s not like we do it as a community. I’m like, “Get out.” But he did come down one night because he was like -- he calls me ‘Tiny’. It’s a little bit embarrassing -- He was like, “Tiny! Go put on the gloves.” And I was, “Why? I’m mad! I don’t even need gloves. I’m not a glove kind…” He was like, “No, the gloves are not because you’re weak. The gloves are so you don’t break your wrists. Put on the gloves.” And I didn’t realize… [music] 00:27:57Ash Faraj:Thank you for tuning into this episode. If you enjoyed listening, please subscribe to the podcast, whether you’re on Spotify, Stitcher, or Apple Podcasts. Please leave a review so we can gather your feedback. Until next time. Take care and dream big.

John Lauer - Zipwhip CEO & Co-Founder

00:00:00John Lauer:One correction I do want to make. I did not actually get my degree from the University of Michigan. I had one semester to go, and I did it on purpose. I did it on purpose because I fully committed to being an entrepreneur the rest of my life. I knew that by being an entrepreneur I would never need a resume. Therefore, I didn’t actually need the final degree on it. But I did it purposefully to inflict upon myself that weight the rest of my career. 00:00:31Male Voice 1:So in a way you cut resources of retreat. 00:00:29John Lauer:You got it. I cut resources of retreat. I’m going to actually use that. Yeah. [music] 00:00:19Ash Faraj:Hey! Welcome to the ExecuTalks Podcast. It’s the show that gives you insight to the personal stories of today’s top executives. In this episode, you will hear from John Lauer, current CEO and Co-founder of Zipwhip, a company that helps businesses use texting to communicate with their customers. John has successfully raised over $90 million, has over 300 employees, and the company is experiencing outstanding growth. [music] 00:01:18Ash Faraj:From a young age, John had an intense fascination with science and a curiosity of learning how electronics worked. When he turned 13 years old, his burning desire to start a business began to emerge and mix with his curiosity of learning how electronics work. John was born in Stow, Ohio, and was raised near Detroit, Michigan. However, he didn’t grow up in a very typical household. 00:01:45John Lauer:I was one of seven kids. When we would go on a bike ride with the family, people thought there was a bike race. [laughter] Yeah. There is a race? What’s going on? But I have four older sisters, and then I have two younger brothers. I was the middle child, so I was ignored. But I was the oldest boy, so I was sort of maybe looked up to. You know, so it’s kind of an interesting juxtaposition of those different things. But I think when you grow up in a house with seven kids, your parents can’t give you that much attention because there’s only so much to go around. So I think you get to actually do a lot of your own exploration and lots of inspiration. My dad had all sorts of electronics in the house, and he was always trying to bring in the latest technology that he’d maybe borrow from the office. I was always the tinker and sticking stuff in the electronic outlets and touching the wires together and they’d explode. I’d get in big trouble, but that didn’t stop me. I burned myself once doing that. But, you guys, I learned what electricity was through the process. This is the learning experiences in life. My dad was a research scientist in the rubber tire industry and so he had patents. He had all sorts of books. I still remember when he’s like, “Son, you should read this book,” and it was about Einstein’s theory of relativity and I was in the fifth grade. I’m like, “Okay. Tell me a little bit.” And then he started explaining, “If you travel in a rocket ship and you come back 10 years later, everybody on earth is 30 years older and you’re only 10 years older.” He’s like blowing my mind. I just remember, “Okay, there’s this whole fascinating world of science out there. I’m in love. I just want to learn more and more and more.” [music] 00:03:40Ash Faraj:I remember when I was 13. All I could think about was getting home from school to play video games or thinking of ways to prank my friends. For John at 13, he was already trying different ways of making money. Some failed, some worked. 00:04:01John Lauer:Growing up as a kid -- middle-class sort of neighborhood upbringing, but with lots of kids -- there was never much money to go around. So I remember at 13 years old -- and it’s not like you were given an allowance or anything. None of that existed, but at 13 -- I’m like, okay, I really want to start making some money. I want to start being able to buy stuff that I want. I started thinking, well, how do you make money as a 13-year-old? You can’t go get a job anywhere. Heck, you can’t even get transportation to get to the job. So, actually I was like I’m going to write a book. What can I write a book and then sell it? What can I write a book about, so I started writing a book about how 13-year-olds can make money. 00:04:42Ash Faraj:Oh, wow! 00:04:41John Lauer:It had all these like ideas and things in it. I probably got a few chapters in and just sort of like, okay, this is never going to work. Who would ever publish this book? Then as the years went by, I think I was 15, and I started a deejay business, but that was still hard for the transportation. By the time I turned 16, I finally could start doing stuff. I started deejaying. Put all my own equipment together by buying this old amplifier from a flea market that was cheap, but I knew it was an amazing amplifier. This was like a $1,000 amplifier they were selling for like $20. I’m like, what are these people doing? This thing’s incredible. And then building speakers from scratch, although my brother actually was the one that built those. Started making good money deejaying and having a lot of fun too! I remember, okay, I did the technical side, but now I’m going to do the marketing and sales side. I remember going to the school district and saying, “Hey, you guys ever need a DJ for school events?” They gave me like this whole year-long contract to DJ dances, like every other Friday at the school farm for the middle schoolers. I got like my first major contract just by knocking on the door and asking. I was pretty scared to do it. That’s intimidating. I was actually scared to go to this like headquarters of the school district and just ask them this random question. They were even like, “Why did you want to meet with us again?” It was really awkward to do the whole thing. I still even remember my friend like, “What are you doing tonight? You’re going over to the headquarters of the school district to pitch deejaying? Are you smoking crack?” [laughter] I’m like, “I’m going to go for it!” 00:06:29Ash Faraj:Okay, so John obviously seemed to be incredibly ambitious from a young age. This ambition would only continue to grow and would carry on throughout his college career. At 21 years old, he was named the Michigan Young Entrepreneur of the Year by the governor. At the time he was studying computer science at the University of Michigan and had started a company to help build websites for businesses. He was able to win Ford and General Motors as his first customers to help build their websites, and from there he would only continue to gain more and more clients. There is just one correction about his college degree that John really wants everyone to know. 00:07:11John Lauer:One correction I do want to make. I did not actually get my degree from the University of Michigan. I had one semester to go and I did it on purpose. 00:07:19Ash Faraj:Really? 00:07:18Male Voice 1:No way! 00:07:17John Lauer:I did it on purpose because I fully committed to being an entrepreneur the rest of my life. I knew that by being an entrepreneur I would never need a resume. Therefore, I didn’t actually need the final degree on it. But I did it purposefully to inflict upon myself that weight the rest of my career. 00:07:39Male Voice 1:So in a way you cut resources of retreat? 00:07:40John Lauer:You got it! I cut resources of retreat. I’m going to actually use that. Yeah. 00:07:47Male Voice 1:That’s crazy with one semester to go. You just… 00:07:49John Lauer:Yeah, I got a lot of pressure and flak from my parents and my friends. What in the world are you doing? I’m doing the exact opposite of what’s expected. 00:08:01Ash Faraj:Right, that’s crazy. And the first company that John actually founded was a company called Rootlevel. Rootlevel was a software company that essentially built the platform for building GM and Ford. 00:08:11John Lauer:Yeah, GM.com and Ford.com. Part of the cool thing was doing a technology start-up in Detroit. We were like the only technology start-up in Detroit, so that was a nice competitive advantage to then win some major contracts. Think about doing your first start-up and you’re in your early twenties. Getting contracts, like a $6 million contract, from General Motors to build their website. That’s just not common. [music] 00:08:50John Lauer:I think a lot of start-up businesses are about the right timing. There’s almost always some kind of new industry forming. Some kind of new disruption had occurred, and that disruption creates opportunities for all sorts of start-ups to jump in. The Internet was just starting out. I’ve always been very nerdy, so I knew how to write websites, and HTML, and code the back-end, and databases. Those actually were kind of rare traits way back then. I think that was ’97, ’96. I was like, “I think that that’s a unique enough value proposition to start a business around.” I had no start-up capital at all. That business was a professional services business, which you can do without any start-up capital. Because all you’re really doing is you’re raising your hand saying, “I can do sort of hourly rate work for you.” But you charge a high hourly rate because it’s really skilled stuff that you’re doing, and you know there’s going to be a demand for it out there. I don’t know who the clients would be, but I figured it was enough of a combination to go do it. I ended up with some smaller clients initially, but it definitely started to work. I started to get, sort of, enough cash flow to maybe hire a person, and then two, and then three, and then was able to grow it from there. And it really did turn out to be great timing. [music] 00:10:12Male Voice 1:Do you remember how you got your first client? Was it word of mouth? 00:10:17John Lauer:Absolutely, I remember how I got my first client. That was one of the hardest things. I was working a job to kind of help pay for school as I was at that tail end. They had Ford as a customer for a very narrow project for one department. I was working on the project at that company. I gave them my resignation letter. I wrote a really long, inspiring resignation letter because I didn’t want to leave on bad terms. 00:10:47Male Voice 1:How long? 00:10:50John Lauer:Probably three pages. It started out, “When I was a boy.” What resignation letter starts out, “When I was a boy…”? But I tried to help them understand that I’d been wanting to start a business my entire life. The time is right, right now. This is why I’m leaving, not anything that has to do with anything other than that. I think it turned out to be a pretty inspiring letter for all of them. I also then said, “But look, I don’t want to leave you hanging on this project.” I would take it on as contract work as my first job. 00:11:24John Lauer:Just all of the aspects of starting a business are crazy complicated, while you’re still then trying to get the project complete to get the job done. It is taking on a lot. But you know, you’re young, you’re full of energy, you don’t even need to really eat that much. You just drink lots of diet coke and drink lots of coffee. Oh God, I think at the time I was only eating my Taco Bell burritos because they were like a $1.32 or something. 00:11:48Ash Faraj:You even remember the exact… [laughter] 00:11:49John Lauer:It was the cheapest, most filling meal you could have. Because again, no start-up capital. And I will say the most important thing was, when I was at University of Michigan, I had gotten free credit cards while on campus. Because they would hand credit cards out to you. Master Card would set up a booth in the Diag. [music] 00:12:09John Lauer:So I got free credit cards. The limit was maybe three grand on one, two grand on the other, and maybe like fifteen hundred on the other, and that was my start-up capital. I remember buying like the furniture for the office and a computer, maxing out those credit cards. But then being able to kind of pay them back, maybe over the next year. Pay them back as soon as you can. You’re getting 22% interest rate on those. I mean that’s horrible. 00:12:37Male Voice 1:I’m just curious though, that was like a huge risk? 00:12:39John Lauer:It was super scary, yeah. That was super scary. But you’re like, whatever. Let’s just go for it. Again, it’s just throwing yourself into the volcano. Just do it. Grit your teeth and dive in, because, you guys, life is short! Just go for it! What’s the worse that can happen? Declaring bankruptcy? That’s not great. But I think if you just really try to be strategic and thoughtful about it, do it! Take some risk. Life is short. 00:13:07Male Voice 1:I’m dying to ask you this, John. I actually have two questions. The first one is, growing up did you have any insecurities or self-doubt? I guess the second one is, did you have any naysayers while you’re trying to get your business up and running? 00:13:23John Lauer:Oh boy. I think everybody has insecurities. We’re just lowly humans made of 98% water. We’re complicated organic beasts, so we have all sorts of emotions and complexities. I think you just got to rise above it. When I look back, there’s a lot of pressure from like my family or parents or just community and friends, like, “What are you doing? You should just go get a job at Ford Motor Company and retire after 30 years. That’s never going to work what you’re doing. Like 94% of businesses fail. What are you doing?” That’s hard to overcome. 00:14:06Ash Faraj:If you were to go further back and give some advice to your 21-year-old self, knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself if you could go back in time? 00:14:12John Lauer:Be even more confident in your abilities. Yeah, be even more confident which would lead to go raise money. I think that raising money when you’re trying to manifest a vision, especially if you know you’re capable of manifesting the vision, money is oxygen to achieve a vision. People are willing to rally around you if you’re capable and if they believe in the vision too. You have to kind of open yourself up to that type of, I guess you could call it risk, but you’re really almost getting more of your community then to help elevate and manifest your vision. Early on, if you’re a little concerned or a little worried about your confidence to pull it off, you’re maybe more apt to be like, “I’m not going to take other money because if it fails, I don’t want to have to look them in the face.” Which, by the way, I think is a really good moral ethic, but if you really are capable of it go for it. Life is short. It takes years to manifest a vision, but you might as well be able to manifest it with a way bigger arsenal of weaponry at your disposal. That’s what raising capital does for you. 00:15:30Male Voice 1:You once mentioned that the secret to success is basically waiting out; having problems take years to solve and not to get distracted by the next shiny thing? 00:15:40John Lauer:Very early in my entrepreneurial career, I would meet other entrepreneurs because we’re drawn to each other. We run into each other at events. I saw an epidemic of people who loved to start, which is a requirement to be an entrepreneur, but then they would want to just keep starting stuff. They would never give the one idea time to manifest. You’re actually shooting yourself in the foot. I coined this phrase I started using ‘the curse of the entrepreneur’. Because it takes somebody who’s willing to start and sort of create something from nothing, but then if they keep doing that, they’re just doing themselves a disservice. It’s really sad when you see that. 00:16:22Male Voice 1:So how do you know to keep pushing through and not move on the next thing, I guess? 00:16:29John Lauer:It is a hard balance. It is a fine line because you might have picked what you thought was a great idea, you’re willing to commit to it, but it really isn’t a great idea. It’s never going to have a revenue model. It’s never going to have product market fit. It’s never going to scale. There are reasons why things end up being bad ideas. That’s hard. You have to know when to keep going and then when to finally throw it in. But I think that, if anything, it’s always more than a year to two to three to get an idea manifested. Give it at least three years but commit to it too! I think that’s the problem. People aren’t willing to commit. You got to commit to stuff. 00:17:07Male Voice 1:Like fully commit yourself? 00:17:08John Lauer:Yeah. It’s sort of back to your earlier point. Commitment is a decision, and the Latin root of the word decision is ‘cision’ which means to cut. The word decision isn’t that you’re choosing to go this way, it’s that you’re actually choosing to cut off other options. 00:17:26Ash Faraj:Wow! That’s powerful! ‘Cision’ that’s the root word of decision. 00:17:35John Lauer:Cutting off other options. 00:17:37Ash Faraj:Ah, that makes sense. Wow. 00:17:41John Lauer:Like deciding to not graduate school because you’re going to commit to having no resume your entire career. 00:17:43Male Voice 1:That is scary as hell. 00:17:52John Lauer:You can go always go back. You could be the old guy on campus. [laughter] [music] 00:17:59Ash Faraj:At this point in his life, John has started multiple successful businesses and at the time of this podcast has raised over $90 million for Zipwhip. We were really curious about his thought processes when it comes to selecting business partners, dealing with personal, emotional challenges and what he does to keep himself motivated after being so successful. 00:18:24Male Voice 1:On the topic of finding a partner, you mentioned that it might happen naturally, or you might have to go and find them, right? What are some tips? Do you look for a partner that’s got the strengths to your weaknesses? What is it that you should focus on to find, you know what I mean? 00:18:42John Lauer:You really should treat it kind of like an interview in your own head. Is this going to work out? My first start-up, I did do with my best friend. He was my best friend, and it did not work out. That was really an awful experience. When I look back now, I really had sort of the entrepreneurial desire. I think that he got excited by the whole idea too, but it wasn’t maybe really in his heart that that’s what he wanted to do. After all the brutality of doing a start-up that type of stuff can not end up super great. I think you should watch out for that. Don’t make the mistake I made because it can really wear and tear on you. Make sure that they’re really ready to do it. Challenge them too on whether they’re ready for the commitment. Tell them, look, it’s a 10-year commitment and see what they say. 00:19:33Ash Faraj:Did you ever go through any personally challenging times emotionally and how did that affect your work and how did you overcome that? 00:19:40John Lauer:Oh sure. Part of that is the story about doing it with my best friend. It’s still kind of sad to look back on it how hard that was. But I think like going through your relationships; the pressure that’s put on those because you’re so dedicated to what you’re doing with starting the business. It does create pressures to try and balance that out. Of course, it is still very stressful. You’re almost always in a stress situation, kind of clenching your jaw, and then you think about how that kind of pans out at home or with friends. That’s pretty hard. I saw a lot of entrepreneurs start turning to alcohol to just kind of like deal with the stress. I’m like, man, that’s not a good way to deal with it. 00:20:35Ash Faraj:I guess I’m asking how did you overcome those challenges personally? What was your mindset? What were some things that you did to keep you on track? 00:20:45John Lauer:I suppose what I would always come back to is, look, good stuff requires hard work. Just stay focused on it and keep doing the right thing. I think always actually trying to do the right thing was important. You almost end up going back to the morals and ethics that you’re raised with, and then you kind of just believe that that will work correctly. And so maybe there’s an element of a faith to that. I actually still totally believe in that. Just always keep making the right decision and it’s going to end up okay. I do remember waking up one day and looking at the bank account of my first start-up and how large the number was and thinking, “Oh my God, it worked. This actually worked.” 00:21:37Male Voice 1:So John, you’ve obviously achieved a lot of success in your career and your life. I’m just curious. What is it that keeps you motivated to keep achieving more and more? 00:21:46John Lauer:Being on my death bed and looking back on my life and wanting to make sure that I went all out. Now there’s a little bit of a darkness to that viewpoint. Your whole life you’re focused on your deathbed? Your death? That part is always to me even a little odd that that’s my viewpoint, but it is. I just want to make sure that I’m really happy with all of the decisions I made. Here’s the other thing about that, taking risk is super hard and super scary, but when you’re on you death bed, you will not care how much risk you took because you are ready to die and none of that risk will matter. Regret would just be really sad. To be looking back and thinking, “Yeah, I had this chance of this small little window on this small little planet in the big huge universe and what did I do with it?” [music] 00:23:02Male Voice 1:So we want to switch gears just a little bit. We want to play a quick rapid-fire game. In your opinion, what is the most important life skill? 00:23:09John Lauer:What is the most important life skill? Oh God. What is the first thing...? I want to say focused, but I’ve already said that so many times in this interview. Tenacity. 00:23:27Male Voice 1:A great team and lousy strategy or a great strategy and a mediocre team? 00:23:28John Lauer:Maybe neither because culture eats strategy for breakfast. 00:23:43Male Voice 1:Worst business advice you’ve ever received? 00:23:44John Lauer:Worst business advice I’ve ever received was “You shouldn’t go raise money.” 00:23:53Ash Faraj:Somebody said to you? 00:23:54Male Voice 1:What advice you would give 21-year-old John? 00:23:58John Lauer:Be even more confident in your abilities. 00:24:08Male Voice 1:Text message or call? 00:24:06John Lauer:Text message, hello! Duh! 00:24:16Ash Faraj:Thank you for tuning into this episode. If you enjoyed listening, please subscribe to the podcast, whether you’re on Spotify, Stitcher, or Apple Podcasts. Please leave a review so we can gather your feedback. Until next time. Take care and dream big.

Leigh McMillan - Whitepages CEO

00:00:00Leigh McMillan: We had invested a lot of time into medical; a lot of energy into it. This isn’t unique to Avvo. This happens at companies, particularly start-ups all over the place, but it just didn’t work. It was a fail. [music] 00:00:19Ash Faraj:Hey! Welcome to the ExecuTalks Podcast. It’s the show that gives you insight to the personal stories of today’s top executives. In this episode, you will hear from Leigh McMillan, current CEO of Whitepages, a data company that helps you uncover information about people. Whitepages is trusted by over 35 million people every month. You want to stick around until the end to hear some key learning lessons that Leigh shares and how she approaches leadership. [music] 00:00:52Ash Faraj:Leigh was born and raised in the suburbs of Bellevue, and both of her parents worked in public education as teachers. She shares how she felt that her peers growing up had significantly more wealth than she’d grew up with. Although she felt different growing up, she never felt pressured to conform. That is something she’s held on to throughout her entire life. 00:01:13Leigh McMillan:Well, I grew up in Bellevue. I’m one of those few apparently local people. Grew up in the suburb. Both of my parents were teachers. My father was a counselor for a while, a school counselor, and also taught woodshop back in the day. My parents both worked, and so I walked to school in the morning by myself. I came home. Was home for a few hours by myself where I would -- and I’m not sure if my parents even know this, I would -- turn up the stereo really, really loud [laughter] and play music loud and kind of dance around the house until they got home. We had a couple of hours, my brother and I -- I have an older brother -- where our parents weren’t around. We’re pretty self-sufficient and self-starters. We would get ourselves to soccer practice and do things like that. There were kids that I went to school with that were very affluent. I think that had an impact on me. I remember I came from school -- and I don’t remember how old I was, but in elementary school -- and came home and asked my mom if we were poor, which we were not. But comparatively there were kids that I went to school with they had wealth and means and things I saw. I think that influenced me when I was younger to -- I don’t quite call it peer pressure, but to -- do things in order to advance my career or advance my place. I always felt maybe a little bit of pressure or motivation around that. I’m not sure it’s legitimate or even should be a thing, but it was when I was a kid. 00:02:56Male Voice 1:Did you feel pressure to fit in with the other kids? 00:03:01Leigh McMillan:Yeah, I did. I did to a certain extent, but I picked ways to stand out as well. I didn’t feel like I had to conform, but I was always looking for ways to kind of be a part of that. It did influence me as I went to college and I was thinking about what career I would go into. Again, rightly or wrongly, I think that did have an influence on me. I didn’t feel peer pressure to fit in with the trends of the time, what kids were wearing, and I still do this today. I’m wearing all black. 00:03:41Male Voice 1:You’re matching us though. [laughter] 00:03:43Leigh McMillan:Exactly. So, you know, I would always kind of find my thing that would be slightly different, whether it was something I was wearing, trying to be entertaining, or sense of humor, and things like that. I think that served me well as I grew up. I haven’t felt pressure to conform, and I actually think it’s better to find your own way. [music] 00:04:11Ash Faraj:Leigh attended the University of Washington and got her degree in Psychology. She attributes a lot of her success to being opportunistic. After she graduated, she took the first opportunity that came to her. 00:04:25Leigh McMillan:I started off at the University of Washington as an art major. My father was pretty creative, so he taught woodshop. He could build furniture, so he always had a really creative bent. I always thought that was something that we had in common and that I tried to tap into, but then at the same time I also realized how do you turn art into a career? Now, graphic design is a much bigger thing than it was back in that time. It dawned on me, and I think also due to some influence from my parents, that maybe that wasn’t going to be the thing. And then at the end of the day, I really wasn’t that good. [laughter] I kind of realized that, and then I went into the next career opportunity and that’s psychology. I actually have a degree in psychology. 00:05:16Male Voice 1:She’s reading us right now. [laughter] 00:05:17Leigh McMillan:[laughter] Gosh, can’t make money in art, you know, be a psychology major and don’t go into psychology. 00:05:26Ash Faraj:Leigh, can you share real quick. How did the opportunity of the Seattle Mariners job come up? 00:05:31Leigh McMillan:I actually worked at the Seattle Mariners twice. I worked there right after college. It was a friend of mine from college, a sorority sister of mine, actually. Had a job there, and was like, “Hey, they have an opening.” Come do this and I did. I think it’s kind of the very first example of one of my career philosophies and that is to just say ‘yes’ and go dive into something, whether you know how to do it or not. A combination of that and meeting amazing people and just being the right place the right time. That was definitely an example of that. I worked for a number of years with the Mariners. I worked the ticket-related stuff and then ultimately, as we were trying to figure out what to do with the Kingdome and wanting a new ballpark, I ended up running Public Affairs for that. 00:06:23Male Voice 1:Real quick. You attribute a lot of your success to being optimistic. What’s the fine line between getting a lot of opportunities and knowing which one to go with? Each decision will lead to a different path. What was your thought process like when you’ve got an opportunity? 00:06:43Leigh McMillan:It’s a great question because I didn’t always choose right. I think that’s the trade-off with always saying ‘yes’, sometimes you will get it wrong. At least that’s how I like to think of it. As opposed to I just didn’t think through something thoroughly [laughter] which is probably a combination of the two. There are a couple of jobs that I took throughout my career early, and also more recently -- not super recent -- but later on in my career where it just wasn’t the right choice. But I would take that trade-off all day long to be able to do what I’ve been able to do. I worked in major league baseball. I worked in politics. I worked in the video game industry. I worked in mobility services, so all of the car sharing. I’ve gotten to work in all of these different, really unique, and desirable industries. The couple of decisions that I made badly was a very small price to pay to be able to do those things. [music] 00:07:48Ash Faraj:Early on in her career, Leigh was working as the Director of Public Affairs for the Seattle Mariners. The owner of the team at the time was good friends with Senator Maria Cantwell, and she was a huge baseball fan. Leigh was given the responsibility of making arrangements for the Senator to make it out to a few games. Several years later, she got a call from Senator Maria Cantwell asking if she was interested in helping her campaign. 00:08:13Ash Faraj:Where does the story of Senator Maria Cantwell start? Where does that story start? 00:08:18Male Voice 1:I’m curious to hear that too. 00:08:19Leigh McMillan:When I worked at the Seattle Mariners, this was back at an early ownership group, Jeff Smulyan, back when he owned the team. He was from Maria Cantwell’s home state, so they knew each other. She is a huge baseball fan, so he asked me to take care of her tickets and help her out and get her some tickets to spring training. At the time, I had no idea who she was, and she actually was in the State Legislature at the time. I called her office and asked them to send me some information about her, because I just didn’t -- 00:08:52Male Voice 1:-- had no idea. 00:08:52Leigh McMillan:-- had no idea whatsoever. They ended up sending me a packet of press clippings. It was like this thick. I read through that and was really, really impressed with what she had done, even just being a State Legislator. She was early on one of the drivers of the Growth Management Act, which helps guide how cities grow and manage their growth and things like that. I just was impressed with what she had accomplished. As the years progressed, we just got to know each other better. At a time when she went into technology, then I actually followed her and that’s how I ended up with a career in technology. I went to RealNetworks when she went there, very early on. Because of a chance meeting with her, I got to work in politics in a way that I think would be hard for you to break into and then also got to move into tech. 00:09:55Ash Faraj:What do you think some keys were to developing that relationship? Obviously. you got closer over the years, but what are some things that you did to flourish that relationship? 00:10:06Leigh McMillan:I worked my butt off. [laughter] That’s the thing; when you get an opportunity like this around people who clearly are successful in their field, are doing good things, whether it’s in an industry or for the general public or doing something creative, the trade-off for that opportunity is that you have to work incredibly hard. Particularly since I didn’t have experience in either politics or technology, I worked a lot of hours. Did my homework and talked to a lot of people to learn about what’s the right thing to do, what’s not, you know. 00:10:50Male Voice 1:Just curious, what were some mistakes that you made that were painful at that time? 00:10:57Leigh McMillan:Oh gosh! Going on trips where we’d go to other states and do some fundraising events with some of the senator’s colleagues. You think you know the driving directions to get somewhere and you think you’re super prepared, but back in the day when you didn’t have a phone to tell you how to get somewhere, and you’re printing out MapQuests, and if you didn’t get it exactly right, you’re stuck in a car and you’re lost with a senator that wants to, you know, time is precious! You know, things like that. You get the background of a company that we’re going to see. You missed some of the subtleties about what that company does and produce and what their challenges are. You think you got it, but you just didn’t ask quite the right questions. There are examples of that where, despite all of that effort that you could possibly do, something goes sideways and then you just got to figure out how to deal with it. 00:11:55Ash Faraj:Didn’t’ you work for the Senator on one of her campaigns? 00:11:58Leigh McMillan:Yeah, I was the Finance Director on one of her Senate campaigns, her very early on Senate campaign, which means you raised the money. That was something I had done for her at a much smaller scale earlier on in her career, and so when she decided to run for Senate, I think she decided a little bit late to get in the race, there was some catch up we had to do. She gave me a call, and when you get a call like that you generally say yes. I did and fortunately it worked out. She’s in the Senate and continues to serve the state today. 00:12:36Male Voice 1:Why do you think it was you she called? 00:12:38Leigh McMillan:You’d have to ask her. [laughter] Maybe she was tired that day or, you know, had a hard day. I don’t know. I think I do this today; there are people that I’ve worked in the past that I trust that I know work well with me. All other mistakes aside but are a good counterbalance to me. I’ve had some folks that I’ve worked with here at Whitepages that I’d worked with at previous companies. When you work with a number of different people, you kind of get a sense of what it’s like to work with them and think they’d be excited about the opportunity and are going to come in and work hard. You give them the call, so I do that today. 00:13:37Ash Faraj:After several years, Leigh got invited to take on the role of Chief Marketing Officer at Avvo, a platform that connects lawyers with clients. There she would accelerate the company’s growth and Avvo would end up being acquired after just five years. There was a key failure at Avvo that she shares. 00:13:58Leigh McMillan:Avvo was really unique in that it was unique for me too. It was a legal marketplace. You had to build up a consumer side of the business and the attorney side of the business at the same time and get what Bill Gurley calls a flywheel going. How do you create demand and supply at the same time? It was a really interesting challenge just from that perspective, but then also working with lawyers. 00:14:31Male Voice 1:That must have been tough. 00:14:32Leigh McMillan:Really, it was fascinating. It was absolutely fascinating to me. So to build up both those sides of the business was I think any marketer’s dream challenge to do. Fortunately, when I had joined the company it had a couple of years to kind of figure it out and get things in place. So really my job was to just try and drive scale, which I love to do. The opportunity to work with lawyers across the country with so many different personalities and figure out how to do that. It was a lot of fun. It was a great experience. Great leadership at the company. 00:15:13Ash Faraj:Can you take us through some of the growing pains in those five years? Maybe a couple of low points, just really like tough intense growing pains? 00:15:25Leigh McMillan:Yeah, there was. Avvo was started off really focused on lawyers. But then as we got more and more successful with lawyers, it’s like, gosh, we have the infrastructure in place for this marketplace. Let’s do the same thing with medical and with doctors. We’ve got this figured out. Let’s go do it with doctors. As it turns out, doctors don’t think the same way as lawyers. The marketplace doesn’t operate the same way. Instead of having patients pay doctors directly there’s insurance companies involved. So it’s a much more complicated marketplace, and you throw in dentists. Dentists operate different than other doctors. Plastic surgeons operate different. It was a much more complex marketplace than I think we had realized at the time. We had invested a lot of time into medical; a lot of energy into it. This isn’t unique to Avvo. This happens at companies, particularly start-ups all over the place, but it just didn’t work. It was a fail. 00:16:28Ash Faraj:How long did it take you to realize that it was a fail? 00:16:30Leigh McMillan:The good news is, and it’s the lesson that you get, fail fast. While it didn’t feel like it was fast at the time, looking back, we didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time. We probably spent the appropriate amount of time to determine we could be number 300 in medical, or we could be number 1 in legal. Let’s be number 1 in legal. I credit Mark Burton and the leadership there at the company to make that determination, but it was tough. It was tough. We were feeling the success around legal and it just didn’t translate into health in the way that we thought it would. So that was a painful period, but that’s part of: you go in, you try it, you learn it, fail fast, move on, take the learnings with you. 00:17:21Ash Faraj:If you had to pick two key lessons you learned during your time at Avvo, the five and a half years you worked there, what are two key lessons or takeaways you took from your experience there? 00:17:31Leigh McMillan:I think this is not unique to Avvo, but definitely it plays itself out there; I’m a believer in changing up the guard. Meaning, whether it’s yourself, you’ve been doing something for a few years, you kind of mastered it, but the company is evolving and growing and maybe needs a different skill set now. I try and think about this too as we’re building out and growing here again at Whitepages. Maybe it makes sense to move someone from this role over to this role, both for their career advancement but also because bringing new thinking into roles can sometimes help. Just as the company’s needs change, bringing in some fresh perspective and also helping people grow their careers by creating opportunities for them to go take on something else that they hadn’t really thought of. So at Avvo we did; we moved people around, enabled people to take on different roles that they wouldn’t have originally thought for themselves, but their fresh ideas, their fresh perspective, helped move the company and also helped their careers. My career has been built on doing that. While I was at RealNetworks, I probably had twenty different jobs while I was with the company. That enabled me to figure out what I’m good at, what I like, what I don’t like, and it really helped me shape the rest of my career. I learned a lot about what I wasn’t good at. [laughter] So I try and bring that here. Avvo was the same way. As we grow and create opportunities for people, let’s not be afraid to change the guard around a little bit. That’s a pledge for me as well. There’ve been times where I was like, “You know what? I think your company would benefit from somebody else doing the job that I’m in,” and I think that’s an okay thing. 00:19:33Male Voice 1:What’s your approach to leadership and how do you coach versus teach? 00:19:37Ash Faraj:Oh, good question. 00:19:38Leigh McMillan:That’s a really good question. My approach is I’m still learning every day. Just trying to do better today than I did yesterday, [laughter] and try and learn from past mistakes. You take these personality tests and they give you insight into your personality, some better than others, but pretty much across the board I’d be considered a driver. I try and leverage that. But have it manifest itself in a way where, instead of being a driver and pushing, I try and be excited about opportunities and have that catch on. Then also a sense of humor I think is pretty important. Work hard, have fun, laugh a lot. One thing that I would say is I’m not afraid to laugh at myself or acknowledge when I’ve made a bad mistake, or mistake, or I’ve been otherwise just done something stupid. I think by doing that [laughter] it gives other people the freedom to take the chance and mess something up. 00:20:59Male Voice 1:We want to wrap this up with “Finish the Sentence” Game. The first one is: in my opinion the most important life skill is…? 00:21:11Leigh McMillan:Listening 00:21:12Male Voice 1:The second one. The one thing I dislike about my job is…? 00:21:17Leigh McMillan:Oh gosh! I guess I should be honest. Budgeting. 00:21:22Male Voice 1:The third one. One quality I think every leader needs to have to be successful…? 00:21:27Leigh McMillan:Humility. 00:21:28Male Voice 1:When I’m considering partnering with another person or business, some dealbreakers for me are…? 00:21:35Leigh McMillan:At the end of the day, while business is important it’s not massively, massively high stakes. Nobody is going to die tomorrow in the tech space that I work in. You have to be able to not take things too seriously. 00:21:51Ash Faraj:Interesting. 00:21:53Male Voice 1:The fifth and final one. The worst advice I’ve ever received is…? It can be personal or professional. 00:22:01Leigh McMillan:Frankly, dressing for first impression. A little bit of, you know, you need to fit in. This is what the expectation is of how you’ll dress, whether that’s a suit or this or that. The other thing, hair needs to look this way, whatever. I just haven’t paid a lot of attention to that, and the times that I have I didn’t perform as well. You got to feel comfortable in your own skin in whatever way that is. So, I guess it’s a more meaningful way of saying that is to be your own self. [music] 00:22:40Ash Faraj:Thank you for tuning into this episode. If you enjoyed listening, please subscribe on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Please leave a review so we that we can better serve you. Take care, dream big, and we’ll see you next Monday.

Eugenio Pace - Auth0 CEO & Co-Founder

00:00:00Eugenio Pace:I turned 42 and 42 is the answer for everything! [laughter] So when I turned 42, I was happy, but I wasn’t entirely fulfilled. [music] 00:00:21Ash Faraj:Hey! Welcome to the ExecuTalks Podcast. It’s the show that gives you insight to the personal stories of today’s top executives. In this episode, you will hear from Eugenio Pace, current CEO and Co-founder of Auth0, an identity management platform for application builders. Auth0 is valued at over $1 billion and has over 7,000 customers. Eugenio shares stories of his childhood in Argentina. He shares early entrepreneurial endeavors, and towards the end he shares his story about leaving Microsoft to take a risk on building the company he’s always dreamed about. [music] 00:01:08Ash Faraj:Eugenio was born and raised in Argentina in the 1970s. He grew up at a time when there was heavy political chaos including the South Atlantic War between Argentina and the British in 1982. Resources were limited, so Eugenio grew up in a house with his extended family. Speaking of resources, it might be a little hard for you to believe this, telephones were actually rare in Argentina at the time Eugenio was growing up. 00:01:37Eugenio Pace:So I was born in the seventies in Argentina. Argentina in the seventies was a difficult place. They had a lot of complicated political environment. There was a military dictatorship. There was war. Thankfully, a short war with England over a couple of islands in the South Atlantic. I remember all that very vividly because I was 13 years old when that happened. Two blocks from my house there was a house that was blown by a terrorist group. Yeah, so those things were real. People were killing each other. 00:02:26Ash Faraj:How was Argentina different back then than it is now? 00:02:30Eugenio Pace:In Argentina when you bought a house, you could buy a house with and without a phone. The real estate advertisement would say, “Apartment, one bedroom, two bathrooms. With phone: $100,000. Without phone: $50,000” 00:02:51Male Voice 1:Really? It was that big of a deal? 00:02:54Eugenio Pace:A big deal. You’d have to wait like 10 years to get a phone. 00:02:59Male Voice 1That’s crazy. 00:03:00Eugenio Pace:And so those of us that were lucky to have a phone, it was this treasure of, “I have a phone. I can call people.” Which today you would think is completely absurd. I remember my mom’s family had a member living in France. We called her twice or once a year. Just the process of communicating with her was so difficult that you have to call the operator and say, “I want to call this number in France.” And they would call you back two hours later and say, “Your connection now is ready.” I remember we planned all together as a family what is it that we’re going to say? Because the call was very expensive. We didn’t have all the time in the world. We had to say, “Now, Eugenio what are you going to ask?” [laughter] 00:04:02Male Voice 1:That’s crazy to even think about. [music] 00:04:08Ash Faraj:What do you remember about your parents as a kid? 00:04:13Eugenio Pace:We didn’t have a lot of resources, but I remember maybe two things. My father taught me to fix things. I worked with him in the house, like fixing everything. We never called a plumber. We never called somebody to paint. We never called somebody to fix our electricity or fixtures. We did it all ourselves. I felt that we could do anything. Nothing out of bounds for what we could do. 00:04:56Ash Faraj:What was the most difficult day emotionally growing up? 00:05:00Eugenio Pace:In Argentina, there was a draft for the army. So maybe one day that I remember as a hard, not for me specifically, but in the house, was like tension, was the day there was a lottery system. This was in the eighties. I was still in high school. Because the age was eighteen. A war just finished in the South Atlantic. I remember my mom was crying and my grandmother -- my grandmother lived with us -- she was also crying because I think in their minds I was going to war, even though there was no more war. 00:05:54Ash Faraj:As you can imagine, growing up in the environment that Eugenio did was humbling, but it created an amazing motivational force to do stuff. Throughout his teenage years, Eugenio would pick oranges off trees to make marmalade. He would create kits for model trains, airplanes, and cars to sell to friends, and he would create a system to help read the percentage of red blood cells in a sample. Have a listen. 00:06:22Male Voice 1:What was your earliest entrepreneurial desire? 00:06:29Eugenio Pace:My first recollection of a business, you know, I had all around my neighborhood there were these trees; orange trees. But it wasn’t like the sweet orange, it was more like the oranges that you would use for marmalade. So it was a little bit bitter, like stronger. When it was season, I would go with my bike. I would go with this back basket behind me and I would just fill it with oranges. I forgot about that and remember it now. I would come back home, and with my grandmother, we would make marmalade for selling. We never sold it. I never sold it, but I already did manufacturing. [laughter] Then when I was in my teens, I got into models and railroads, like model trains and model airplanes. I had a fantasy of building them as a business. I even remember printing my own business cards that said, “Eugenio Pace Modeler” or something like that. Gave it to all my friends and nobody bought anything [laughter], but I made like plans, kits for other people to build their own models. That was my very, very early on. 00:08:04Ash Faraj:What about in college? 00:08:06Eugenio Pace:Early years in college, I built a device to measure the percentage of red blood cells in blood. You have like one millimeter of blood. If you put in a centrifuge, all the red cells go to the bottom and then the plasma goes up, so you can measure the distance, say 55% red blood cells. Everything is else is blood. So I built a system that would measure that and I sold that. 00:08:44Male Voice 1:Really? 00:08:45Eugenio Pace:Yeah. I sold like two. [laughter] 00:08:53Ash Faraj:Eugenio always had a curiosity for building systems and machines. He went on to study electrical engineering in Buenos Aires. After college, his friend worked for a company that needed a better way of tracking customer information, essentially like a CRM. He and his friend built a mobile CRM for his friend’s company then thought, why don’t we sell to other companies that need mobile CRM’s too? Of course, they didn’t have any experience in starting or running a business so Eugenio shares what went wrong. 00:09:25Male Voice 1:Now going to your college days, your young adult. You studied engineering, correct? 00:09:34Eugenio Pace:Yes. Electrical engineer. 00:09:35Male Voice 1:Did that stem from your curiosity as a kid working with your dad and just building things? How did you get into that career path? 00:09:44Eugenio Pace:I remember people asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always answered, “I want to be an engineer.” I wanted the big machines and big systems. Of course, then I discovered computers. A friend of mine, he had a computer. He bought another one, so he gave me the old one. It was a Texas Instruments TI-99/4, like an old home computer; one of the first home computers. It was a computer that I didn’t have any storage. So all the programs I typed would go away when I turned it off, which was a pain. That was my first encounter with technology. I would say, “Wow, this is awesome.” I was building circuits and stuff. 00:10:44Male Voice 1:Now you’ve graduated college, and you went on to start your first business, right? It was basically like a CRM on a phone with your friend. Can you talk about what steps you took out of college and how you got that started? 00:10:59Eugenio Pace:A very good friend of mine he had like this idea and saw the opportunity. He was working at a company that had the need, so together we built this system. It was essentially a mobile CRM. At that time, there were no smart phones. So it was like an actual computer, but you could connect it with a modem. You could essentially connect through the modem to a server, download information, download your orders, upload your orders, update your customer information. So I wrote with him all the software, which was like everything. The computer was pretty basic. There was no database. There was no everything. We wrote everything. It was like a big, big project. 00:11:53Male Voice 1:Was there a specific need for that? 00:11:56Eugenio Pace:Yeah. This company that my friend was working for had the need; they were all like writing down on paper. So we had this idea, can we give them this little computer. Personal computers were big, bulky things. This was like a tiny thing. It was really advanced for its time. We wrote every software. We sold it to this company successfully. Then we said, “Hey, we can do this for other companies too.” Our mistake, or some of the things that didn’t go well, we were work engineers. We thought that the product was the only thing. Not even the most important thing, the only thing. It was all product, product, product. It was not like everything else that goes around building a company, a sustainable company. You need sales, you need marketing, you need support, you need finance, and operations. Things like that are obvious. We were really good in product. We built an amazing product for that time, and we were unlucky that the first deal that we closed was relatively easy and successful. You see what I mean? We closed the deal with very little negotiation. There was no push back on the features. It was like, “Oh, this is awesome. We’ll pay you.” Here we’ll pay you a hundred dollars, or whatever. We were so happy. We didn’t even stop thinking whether a hundred dollars, or whatever it was at that time, was a fair price or not. It was just like -- 00:13:46Male Voice 1:-- You were just so excited to sell something that you built. 00:13:49Eugenio Pace:-- yeah, so excited about building, and so we got the wrong feedback of what building a company is about. We thought that everything was that. We didn’t have any guidance or mentors or an adult to tell us that, “Look man, the product is great and it’s important, but it’s not the only important thing.” Here’s how you can grow the market, the requirements how you can grow that business. There was definitely a business to be built. 00:14:24Male Voice 1:Nobody is going to buy it if they don’t know about your product. 00:14:27Eugenio Pace:Exactly, and so the second customer didn’t go very well. 00:14:31Male Voice 1:Really? What went wrong with the second customer? 00:14:35Eugenio Pace:The second customer, I would say, took advantage of us. They saw these two kids, inexperienced, and so they said, “Oh, we love your product, but it will be great if it can do these other things.” And so, I’d say, “Yeah, that sounds awesome. More features. Yeah, we will add that.” We added that feature, and then, “But, yeah, that feature is not enough. We also need these other things.” So we built the second feature. Then six months later, we built like a ton of features for this customer. Essentially for the same price. Then we kind of realized, oh, maybe they’re taking advantage of us. But at that time, we were burned. We felt so good about the product and our ability to deliver that every challenge they threw at us, it was like, oh yeah, we can do that. 00:15:36Ash Faraj:You were just excited about the work. 00:15:38Eugenio Pace:We were just excited about it without the notion of like, oh, hold on. No, this is the product. This is what you buy. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. Go and find it somewhere else. But that’s a business component that we have no clue. So after months of that back and forth, we burn out. 00:16:01Ash Faraj:After his first business failed, Eugenio was approached by a recruiter to join Microsoft in their Argentina branch. Eugenio would go on to work for Microsoft in various roles for almost 13 years, eventually making his way to the corporate headquarters in Redmond, Washington. Then at 42 years old, Eugenio was working as a program manager at Microsoft, and he loved his job. He got to work with a variety of people. He got to travel a lot and he really enjoyed the company’s benefits. But there was something itching inside of him. Ever since he was a kid, he had always wanted to build his own company. He now faced a difficult decision; remain comfortable and content at Microsoft or set out to achieve his dreams. 00:16:51Eugenio Pace:Microsoft I was there for 13 years. First in Argentina and then I moved here to Washington State. I was in Microsoft headquarters. I was part of the engineering team. I loved it so much. I traveled the world. I visited like 30 countries with Microsoft, all over the world. I learned how you build a software company and it was the best thing that happened to me. Microsoft was great in the sense that I could experience multiple things. I was in consulting, engineering, product management, in program management. I go to work with developers, with testers, with writers, with illustrators, with like a whole broad set of professionals. It was really amazing. Look, I don’t know what was the turning point. I turned 42 and 42 is the answer for everything. [laughter] So when I turned 42, I was happy, but I wasn’t entirely fulfilled. I felt like I could stay there and continue my trajectory at Microsoft forever. I would be okay. I had a good salary. Microsoft was taking care of me. 00:18:27Male Voice 1:It was comfortable job.