Inside the Mind of a Runaway CEO
It's not as if Jared Heyman had never before thought of escaping his life. Ever since a summer romance in Costa Rica on a trip after high school, Heyman had fantasized about life on the road, spinning dreams of his own Che Guevara—like Motorcycle Diaries. The problem was that in the real world, Heyman had more than succeeded as a driven businessman—an entrepreneur with a myriad of fires to put out and responsibilities to live up to at Infosurv, the Atlanta-based market research company he had founded in 1998. It was exciting in its way, but Heyman was aching for a change. In 2010, at 32, Jared finally decided he wanted a break—a really big break.
After months of planning his escape and prepping his staff, Heyman left his entire world behind in July. The plan: travel for a year, spend a lot of time on a lot of beaches, pick up a language or two, and learn to kite surf. The only vestige of his former life he brought along when he boarded a plane bound for the West Coast and beyond was his girlfriend of two and a half years, Lauren Goldstein. But she would fade out of the picture in a matter of months. "Being free and unencumbered is probably the biggest thing that motivates me," Heyman would later tell me.
Rather than push ahead with Infosurv, which he launched at the tender age of 20 and had built into a $2.1 million company, he was leaving it behind in the hands of a few trusted employees. So what if he had just developed a product he hoped would propel his company to the next level? Heyman decided there would never be a better time—there would always be a reason not to go—and that his staff could manage the business without him. In fact, he promised to bow out of running Infosurv completely during his sabbatical, with the exception of reading a weekly e-mail update and checking in with a phone call every now and then.
When I caught up with Heyman and Goldstein on the beach in Santa Monica, California, they had been traveling for a couple of weeks and had just finished an idyllic road trip along the coast from San Francisco to Los Angeles. While Goldstein hung out patiently in the shade, Heyman, shirtless in baggy burgundy shorts, was deep into an exercise routine. He concluded by shimmying up a two-story-high rope, then slowly executing four handstand pushups on a set of parallel bars on the beach. When he finished his routine, Heyman trotted over to greet me. His excitement was palpable—he couldn't wait to tell me his plans and dreams for the year ahead. He and Goldstein would soon be off to Europe, where he would work on his windsurfing; then the couple expected to hit South Africa, South America, and, finally, Southeast Asia. "We are trying to make it a very flexible, spontaneous itinerary," Heyman said. "We have a rough idea of what continents we want to be on in what seasons, but that's about it. I'm Type A. So not knowing all the details is like therapy." Even so, Jared had created a spreadsheet to forecast the cost of the trip: $68,000 for the year, to be financed from the portion of the company's profits he collects every two weeks.
The Grand Tour
In the summer of 2010, Jared Heyman set out on a take-it-as-it-comes trip around the globe. When last spotted, Heyman was in Hawaii, Asia bound.
BACK IN ATLANTA, Carl Fusco, Infosurv's 56-year-old second in command, was busy putting his stamp on the company. Upon leaving, Heyman had given Fusco the title of managing director, a raise, and free rein. Fusco had long wanted an opportunity like this. But now that he finally had gotten what he wanted, he couldn't help feeling anxious. "I had been in charge of research departments before, but not an entire company," he later said. "I was concerned: Would I get the support of the staff? How would everyone react to Jared leaving and me being in charge?"
Fusco's first thought was to do something to restore morale among the company's 15 salaried employees. In 2008, when the economy tanked, the company had cut back its contribution to the employee retirement plan and the percentage of the premiums it paid for employee health insurance. Now, Fusco decided the company would kick up the retirement contribution and pay 100 percent of employees' insurance premiums, giving most employees an effective raise of thousands of dollars a year. His three-man management team wondered whether Fusco should get Heyman's OK before making such a big move. After all, he had split only a few weeks earlier. "I said, 'Look, we've made the decision,'" Fusco told me. "'Let's tell him, and if he doesn't like it, he can come back and run the company.'" Heyman, it turned out, put up no resistance when he got the news. "He was gone," said John Barrett, Infosurv's vice president of sales. "Elvis has left the building."
No one seemed to be shedding any tears over Heyman's departure. Although recognized as a talented guy with a knack for coming up with ideas for new products, he wasn't a particularly outgoing or engaged leader. "His mode of management was to come in his office, close the door, and work—think up new applications," Fusco said. "The question a lot of employees had was, What was he doing in there?"
Fusco's style was more open, more walk around and talk to the troops. He needed their support, too. Although the company had been profitable for years, there hadn't been much recent investment in new technology or emphasis on processes. Fusco's plan was to turn Infosurv into a more professional company, with procedures and processes more like those of larger companies, such as Turner Broadcasting and Cox Communications, where he had developed his management skills.
Fusco's first serious test came soon enough, in August, when the company's Internet servers crashed. "We ceased to exist online," Fusco said. It was a crippling event, because Infosurv conducts all its market research surveys on the Web and also does most of its client communication online. It took days to get the system back online, and Fusco saw the episode as a sign that the company needed to do better.
A good place to start, he decided, was software. Infosurv had been licensing its customer survey software for years. But the package was inflexible and cost $45,000 a year to license. Fusco decided the company needed an experienced IT head to develop a proprietary software system for its customer survey work. Heyman had generally resisted using headhunters, because he hated the expense and preferred to hire young, hungry employees at bargain salaries, but Fusco wanted a professional recruiter to get the right IT pro. Unlike Heyman, he was willing to pay top dollar for his new IT guy.
In the short term, at least, all these changes would make it harder for the company to reach its goals, which were ambitious. Heyman had told Fusco that in his absence, he expected the management team to realize a 13 percent growth in profit. That would be possible, he told the team, with the launch of a new product that he had developed. The product, dubbed iCE (for Infosurv Concept Exchange), is a sort of stock market for ideas that companies want to test with consumers. Participants are given $1,000 in electronic "iCE dollars" to buy shares in the concepts being tested. As participants invest in the concepts they believe will succeed in the marketplace, the prices on those ideas get bid up. The pricing helps give companies a sense of consumers' preferences. It had been Heyman's pet project, and now it was up to Fusco and his team to make iCE a success.
Heyman and Goldstein said goodbye to me in Santa Monica, off for destinations and adventures unknown. As the summer wore on, they visited the Grand Canyon, then flew to Italy. They chronicled their voyage on their blog, ChasingSummer.net. In Italy, the couple woke up in a new city every few days and filled their blog with photos of gondoliers and plates of pasta.
While their if-it's-Tuesday-this-must-be-Verona dream trip took form, Fusco and his team in Atlanta were settling into their new roles, making ever bigger decisions—and ever more expensive investments—with increasing confidence. "I'm just enjoying the role and the challenge," Fusco told me when we spoke by phone in October. Kyle Burnam, the marketing director, observed that he and the other managers were more outspoken in meetings with Heyman away. "In the past, I would often have discussed something with Jared first before bringing it up to the group," said Burnam. When, in mid-September, Heyman checked in with each member of the team for the first time, John Barrett noted that his former boss sounded surprised to hear that everything was going so smoothly. "I think there was a bit of ego coming into play," Barrett later reflected. Dropping by Fusco's office to update him on his conversation, Barrett recalled, "I looked at Carl and said, 'If I were Jared, I'd be wondering what I'm going to do next.'"
In fact, Heyman had no such concerns. As long as the weekly e-mails kept coming in, he could give them a quick read and then check out for another seven days. After touring and blogging all across Italy at a breakneck pace, he and Goldstein moved on to Greece, where Heyman brushed up on his windsurfing technique on the isle of Ios. The couple took to blogging travel advice. On September 23, Heyman wrote the following tweet: "After much soul searching, I've decided to sell my iPad and buy a Kindle instead. For RTW [round-the-world] travel I think the Kindle is better. Sorry Apple!" A few days later, the couple posted their must-have around-the-world packing lists, complete with links to where to buy stuff: "One pair of nice jeans for going out (I like 7 For All ManKind); two white ExOfficio T-shirts (for working out or the beach)" and so on.
As the months rolled by, a constant stream of tweets, blog entries, and Vimeo videos of Jared and Lauren letting the good times roll in exotic lands inevitably made their way onto the screens of the Infosurv staff back home. Barrett noticed some grumbling among the ranks. "There are folks on the floor—the younger staff—who resent that he is raking in the money and sitting on the beach," he said. "But he built this thing and made it profitable. He earned it."
Not that all was perfect in paradise. Before the couple returned from Europe, via a lavish 16-day transatlantic crossing from Italy to Florida, Heyman told Goldstein that he wanted to continue without her. "We spent so much time planning this trip—one year," she told me later. "But after three months, he decided to travel alone. I felt misled." Goldstein headed to Peru to do volunteer teaching and later hike Machu Picchu. (From there, she traveled to Panama for a brief time, before heading back to the States. She and Heyman traveled together again later in Argentina, then split for good. Goldstein now lives in Los Angeles.) Heyman opted for Rio de Janeiro. "We remained friends the whole time," Heyman later told me about the breakup. "But we are at different stages of our lives. Lauren wants to start a family and settle down, and I'm not at that stage yet."
Heyman found an apartment in Rio with a bunch of twentysomething international travelers and slipped easily into the singles beach and party scene. When we spoke by phone in mid-November, he confided that his old life at Infosurv seemed a distant memory. "Going back there is not Plan A," he said. "It's very possible that that part of my life is behind me." His biggest frustration: Because he was spending so much time with non-Brazilians, he wasn't picking up Portuguese as quickly as he would have liked. So he moved after a month or so. By December, he was on the island of Florianópolis, in southern Brazil. His days consisted of riding a rented motorcycle to the beach, practicing his kite surfing, and then working out—mainly yoga and a regimen called P90X. His Portuguese was improving, thanks to a widening circle of Brazilian friends. "I have the vocabulary of a 5-year-old, but I can get my point across," Heyman said. "The biggest thing I've learned so far is that I have a gear I didn't know existed. I look back on my life, and I've always been a very go-go person. I have been very achievement oriented all my life. And it is surprising to me that I can get into this gear where it is not about achievement. Maybe I was due for a break."
By now, Heyman was rarely in touch with the company. Some weeks, Fusco wouldn't send his weekly e-mails (when that happened, he would send two the next week), and Heyman never complained. "It's almost so easy that it scares me," Heyman told me. "I worry a little that I'm missing something." He was surprised that Fusco was spending money much more freely than he ever did, but he was even more surprised by his own reaction: He really didn't care. "Carl will get the praise if these turn out to be good decisions—and the blame if they turn out to have been mistakes," he said.
Heyman celebrated New Year's Eve on the beach, partying with "tens of thousands of Brazilians," he told me, until 6 o'clock in the morning. By early February, he was installed in the small Brazilian beach town of Jericoacoara. We talked on Valentine's Day, and Heyman was in an expansive mood. "It was my best day of kite surfing," he said, talking about an outing a few days earlier. "The wind was great. I was in a freshwater lagoon surrounded by ocean on one side and beautiful sand dunes on the other. This was the first day I could get up on the board and be in control of the kite. I feel like I am proficient in this new lifestyle I'm adopting. The novelty has worn off, but I'm in a groove; I'm really enjoying it, and I'm very unstressed. It is almost too much."
Life wasn't so bad in Atlanta, either. Fusco was clearly loving his work. But he had concerns about the future. With his daughter heading off to college the following fall, he had some big expenses looming. He had begun telling himself that if he was going to stay on, he would want more money, and possibly an equity stake in the company. (Fusco had what is known as synthetic equity, which comes with various restrictions; he wanted a real ownership stake.) He wanted to know with greater certainty what Heyman was planning and how it would affect him. "I'm going to start pressing him on what his plans are so I can make mine," he told me in late December. And he wondered aloud how everyone at the company could possibly go back to their old roles if Heyman decided to return to the CEO post. "That would be difficult for me," he said.
Fusco and Burnam couldn't help noticing how much morale had improved as the year wore on. With the company now being run by four familiar managers, rather than an aloof CEO, employees felt their voices mattered more. "The overall vibe is more relaxed," said Burnam. "It's like when you were in high school and your parents went away. You still got stuff done, but it gave you a sense of freedom."
In March, I took a trip to Atlanta to visit the Infosurv offices. Heyman had been gone for nine months. He and Fusco had not talked since January. The mood was upbeat and kicked back as the managers met in the conference room. The adjacent office, Heyman's, sat empty, the lights out. There was some discussion of the company's relaunched website, on which Heyman was not listed as part of the leadership team. Fusco said the omission was intentional: The team didn't want customers trying to contact someone who was no longer at the company.
Later, over tacos at a nearby Mexican restaurant, there was talk of the Atlanta Braves and Charlie Sheen's latest antics, along with discussion of a recent client meeting. The only mention of Heyman was when Burnam recalled traveling with him on a business trip to Nashville and discovering Heyman was not a stellar driver. "I told him on the way back, 'Hey, you have a lot of work to do, so why don't I drive this round?' " Burnam said.
In the weeks ahead, the road got a little bumpy for Infosurv. One of the company's project managers had quit in January, and a subsequent hire didn't work out. That meant Fusco had been handling a good bit of project work himself, duties that took time away from his regular work. iCE, the new product, hadn't taken off as rapidly as the team had hoped. "It's frustrating," Burnam said. "It's profitable, but we haven't hit it out of the park." Nonetheless, Fusco insisted the company was still on track for its 2011 revenue and earnings targets.
And he was irked when Heyman sent an e-mail in late April that implicitly criticized him by pointing out that it is always harder to predict revenue than to control costs. "It was my perception of him being passive-aggressive," Fusco said. He shot back an e-mail detailing a series of cost-cutting steps the company had taken since Heyman's departure, including Web hosting and software changes that shaved $10,500 off annual expenses. "I wanted to be sure he understood where we were on costs."
That was probably just wasted energy on Fusco's part. With every passing day, Heyman was ever more removed from Fusco's world. Over the previous two months, he had been constantly on the go. First he traveled down the Amazon, far more concerned with the perils of snakebites than costs versus revenues. ("If you don't get help, you're a goner in eight hours," he told me.) Next, he trekked, biked, and bused his way through Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, sometimes back in the company of Goldstein. "Stunning and exhausting 30km bike ride along the lakes of Bariloche, in the foothills of the Andes," he tweeted on April 4. The next day's tweet was: "Paragliding today over the mountains and lakes of Bariloche. I'm thankful for blue skies, calm air, and a safe landing!"
Heyman had the occasional down day, too. When he arrived in Medellín, Colombia, the usual attractions seemed unappealing. "I'm getting to the point where I get to a new city, and I see all the things to do—museums, biking, paragliding—I think to myself, I've done that," he told me by phone. "It starts to feel like more of the same. Maybe I'm just tired of South America."
In recent weeks, friends had begun e-mailing Heyman press clips on start-ups, and he found his old entrepreneurial drive stirring. But he knew full well the time commitment of running a start-up, and he wasn't sure he was ready to do that again. He wondered about investing in a new venture with a young entrepreneur whom he could mentor, just to help get the company off the ground. He toyed with the idea of writing a book about his sabbatical, but he didn't seem all that committed to the idea.
In early May, I checked back in with Fusco. He seemed more on edge than at any previous point in the year. He still had not talked to Heyman about whether he intended to return to the company. He talked at length about intending to do so and expressed concern about what sort of compensation package Heyman might be willing to offer should Fusco wind up running the company on a permanent basis. "It's a day-to-day thing," said Fusco of his mood. "Some days I am feeling optimistic, and other days I'm worried about the future. There is a lot of uncertainty about what is going on in Jared's head. I'll see a tweet come up on my LinkedIn page on how he is chewing on coca plants or tromping through the Andes. I really don't know what his intentions are. Part of me thinks he has moved beyond his need to be running Infosurv, and he'll move on to something else. And then part of me wonders if he has the expectation that he'll come back and it will be the same as it was before.
"Things are about to come to a head," Fusco said. But they weren't, at least not on his schedule. Just before Memorial Day, Fusco told me that he was considering sending an e-mail asking Heyman to call in so that the two of them could discuss the future. In the end, he decided not to send the note.
The end of the drama came a few weeks later, late on a Sunday night. Fusco knew Heyman was back in the United States to attend a wedding—he hadn't been in touch, but his employees were in the habit of following his Twitter postings. At a quarter to 11, as he went through his Infosurv e-mail while lying in bed, Fusco found a note from Heyman, saying he had decided not to return to Infosurv. He wanted to keep the existing management structure intact. And he wanted to come to the office to talk about it.
Fusco suggested the following Tuesday, and at 10 o'clock that morning, Heyman appeared in the office for the first time in 11 months. It was an informal and slightly odd reunion. For starters, after nearly a year of traveling abroad in the most exotic of locales, Heyman showed up bearing only a pound of Starbucks coffee that he picked up on the way in. More to the point, as the staff ate pizza and chatted with Heyman, "He was detached. It was as if he wasn't there," Barrett later recalled. "I would have asked the staff what they had done, what was going on with their lives. But it was all about Jared and the trip. What the hell? Look, none of us survive if the staff isn't doing a good job. It's actually all about them. You want to take good care of them."
Things returned quickly to normal after Heyman's visit. Fusco, however, was disappointed with how Heyman showed his appreciation for the work he had done. Fusco had been looking for a big raise and perhaps ownership in the company. He got more money, but not as much as he thought he deserved, and there was no equity.
"It's not what I had hoped," Fusco told me. He felt he had improved the company dramatically. True, Infosurv had not hit its financial goals—both revenue and profit were essentially flat for the year. But Fusco felt he had made big strides, including revamping the company's IT system. And iCE, which the team had improved and refined in Heyman's absence, was picking up steam. "We have signed three big [iCE] projects in the last six weeks," Fusco said in July. Most satisfying for him personally, Fusco felt he had fired up the troops and had won their respect.
Heyman was nowhere near ready to end his endless summer. After the Atlanta visit, he spent the next two months energetically traveling and tweeting his way through Colombia and Ecuador before moving on to Hawaii with a stop in Florida. I caught up with him on the beach in Miami, just about one year after our first meeting in California. He was noticeably thinner, which he attributed to the fact that he hadn't been lifting weights. When we got around to talking business, Heyman gave Fusco solid, if not superhigh, marks. He acknowledged that the financial target he had set for the year was aggressive—and in a tough economy was difficult, if not impossible, to reach. And he recognized that Fusco and the team had decided to invest in the company's future rather than focus only on hitting a number. "I was satisfied with the performance—but not delighted," he said.
I asked what he had learned in his peripatetic year abroad, and he said the most important thing was that he was a start-up guy and not suited to be a hands-on manager. "I don't think I suck as a manager," he said. "But I'm a better leader than a manager. I treat people the way I like to be treated. I give someone a task, and I say, 'Here is the result I want—accomplish it how you see fit. If you get stuck, come to me.' I don't roam the office and shoot the shit."
Did he care that people back in the office seem happier with him gone? "That would please me no end, that they were happier," he replied.
I asked Heyman if he was grateful for the work and long hours Fusco and the others put in while he was away. "I recognize I have enjoyed this wonderful lifestyle while they have been working hard," he said. "But I put a lot of work in from 1998 to 2010, and I assumed a lot of risk." Then he added, "I probably should show them more appreciation."
Heyman swears he will start a new business one day, once the wanderlust wears thin. When he does, don't look for him to stick around for another 12 years, as he did at Infosurv. He's a starter and a builder. He needs to keep moving. For now, though, that means traveling the world. His year off is stretching into two. His latest tweet could have been his very first: "Great couple of weeks in Hawaii. Ate sushi on Waikiki beach, kitesurfed Maui's north shore and saw the sunset in Lahaina. Tomorrow, Bangkok."