Brian Cruver was a cocky, 29-year-old, freshly minted MBA who thought he had landed in the big leagues when he took a job in 2001--at Enron. Within months, he witnessed the energy company once regarded as an innovative dynamo implode amid fraud allegations. He was laid off with thousands of others. The experience has colored everything he's done since then.
"Everyone else went on to their next corporate job," Cruver says. "But I ended up writing a book [Anatomy of Greed], which was turned into a CBS movie." He's sitting in a conference room at AlertMedia, the Austin-based emergency-communications software startup he launched in 2013. It was during his book hiatus that he had an epiphany: "I realized I could go start companies of my own that do great things. I decided that every company I'd start would be the anti-Enron."
AlertMedia is one of the fruits of that decision. In 2009, Cruver co-founded a company called Xenex Disinfection Services, which makes a germ-zapping robot designed to reduce hospital-acquired infections that is now on the frontlines of the Covid-19 battle. Before that were Giveline, a software firm that helps nonprofits raise money, and some other companies that he and a business partner, Morris Miller, invested in. "They didn't all work out," Cruver says. "I learned lots of lessons."
Miller, an investor and former co-chairman of the cloud-computing giant Rackspace, has been a mentor to Cruver and helped shape his leadership style. Miller recalls an early conversation when the two began scoping out investments. "We were looking at a bunch of ventures, and normally you start by asking, 'What's your business plan? What's your growth plan?'--all those typical startup things. We decided to ask instead, right up front, 'What is your mission?' Because you'll always have ups and downs on the numbers. But if you have a clear mission and your employees buy into it, they'll stick with you through thick and thin."
It's a Friday afternoon in mid-March, in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, and Cruver's team of 130-some people is bustling around the office preparing to begin remote work the following Monday. The company, whose software allows organizations to reach their teams during emergencies using multiple communication platforms (email, text, Slack, phone, and so on), has been doubling its staff, revenue, and customers annually, but the previous few weeks have been more demanding than ever. The number of new clients has surged 10-fold, says Cruver, the CEO, as has the use of AlertMedia's technology.
Before AlertMedia, emergency-communications platforms were designed primarily for governments and schools, and mostly for one-way text blasts. AlertMedia serves a variety of businesses and allows two-way communication. The idea came to Cruver at the time of the Boston Marathon bombing. "You had a city go into lockdown mode. There was so much chaos, and most people couldn't find out what was actually going on."
While all of AlertMedia's customers use the service in emergencies such as hurricanes or security threats, the system is focused on time-sensitive, day-to-day operational emergencies--supply chain outages, staffing shortages.
Alex Vaccaro, AlertMedia's senior vice president of marketing, points to the firm's importance at moments like now as one of the keys to its strong culture. "People feel they've joined a company that's actually making a difference in the world," she says. "We're able to rally behind that mission and feel that we are truly helping people." In her case, as requests for demos have flooded in, she's put her team on shifts so they can respond at all hours. "We'll have people requesting a demo at 9 p.m. and saying they need to be up and running the next morning," she says. "Everybody is stressed and strained, but we love it. This is one of our moments."
The sense of mission isn't the only defining characteristic of AlertMedia's culture, of course. "So often culture is a kegerator or a Ping-Pong table," says Cruver. "Those things are great, but I couldn't possibly care less about them. The culture here is about transparency, openness, and collaboration. Everybody knows what's going on at all times." Every quarter, Cruver shares the entire deck he's prepared for the board of directors--every single number. "It sends a message that there's nothing to hide here," he says. "I've been in those [secretive] environments, and all they do is create a lot of whispering and rumor."
The company's bonus plan, too, is built around openness: It's based entirely on company performance rather than individual. And when problems do arise, AlertMedia relies less on rote procedure and more on open conversation by empowered managers. "We're humans, not robots," Cruver likes to say.
The humans at AlertMedia produced roughly $10 million in revenue last year and are on track toward $20 million this year. "I'm just trying to build a great company as fast as we can," Cruver says. He figures there are 260,000 target companies in his market, and he's sold only 2,000 of them. "So we're just getting started," he says.