The path to starting your own company is a long, arduous one. There are twists and turns, roadblocks and hurdles. At times, it can feel as though the road leads nowhere and self-doubt looms on the horizon.
But fear not, along this journey you will meet those who have already passed each mile marker.
Leaders who have experienced the high highs and lowly lows of growing a company from seed to exit are the ones I turn to when I find myself needing guidance or direction. They serve as a model for me to follow and I have learned much from their leadership.
The three leaders whose advice I would like to share with you are Ken Chenault of Amex, Scott Cook of Intuit, and Mark Benioff of Salesforce. Each brings a different perspective and knowledge that I have found invaluable in my own journey.
Ken Chenault, American Express
When thinking of the professionals who have had an impact on my personal beliefs, Ken Chenault of American Express immediately comes to mind. Ken is a brilliant businessman and, not surprisingly, a brand master. Ken taught me to value the importance of understanding your company's brand in a very intimate way.
A brand is the life force that exists within every organization. It illustrates the experience of your customers, partners, stakeholders and beyond. Ken puts a remarkable amount of thought into every aspect of his company's brand, from the way customers view it to how the brand is woven into the company culture.
From Ken I learned a simple truth: your brand is what people think of you. If you don't like what they think then it's up to you to change it.
Scott Cook, Intuit
I had the pleasure of working with Scott Cook during my time at Intuit. Scott taught me a bunch of important lessons. One of the most important is that an intense focus on the customer pays dividends each and every day.
Focusing on customers is where you learn what is working and what is not. It's where you see opportunities you didn't know existed and discover how to sell your product. In fact, Scott believes customer focus is so paramount to success that every organization should be built around the customer and their experience.
I joined Intuit in large part because of an article in Inc. Magazine discussing Intuit's success and how their employees all had monthly phone responsibilities for supporting customers. Eventually Intuit outgrew this model, yet still found other ways to stay connected to the customer.
This lesson stuck with me when founding PayCycle, then later with Bill.com. The early days of a software company are chalked full of unknowns, and yet building an application that does payroll or manages bills and payments is complex. The challenge in the beginning was figuring out how to acquire the learning without too much investment. The answer was simple: work with customers directly.
In the beginning of each company, everything was done manually--no coding at all. I did our tax returns by hand while giving the customer the experience online. We picked up paper bills, scanned them and then manually emailed the customer's employees for approvals. We then printed the checks and signed them for the companies. We essentially imitated the digital experience I wanted to build and then asked customers about the experience.
We learned a tremendous amount about our business from them during this phase and this learning enabled us to build our first product. That first product met their needs and allowed us to get more customers, and to learn from them too. The learning cycle with customers is the most important ingredient to success and I learned this from Scott.
Mark Benioff, Salesforce
The last, and certainly not the least, leader who has inspired me is CRM guru, Mark Benioff of Salesforce. He taught me to think of our organization in broader terms, beyond the next success milestone, and in particular, how to structure (and restructure) an organization as it grows.
At the outset of Bill.com, before even having a product, Mark impressed upon me the need to think about managing a company in terms of the orders of magnitude a company will cross. First, you think about how to get to $10k in revenue, then $100k, then $1M, and then...
As you can imagine, a million dollar company behaves much differently than a $10 million company, and even more so from $100 million to $1 billion. With each organizational threshold come new issues, roles, and responsibilities. Benioff believes that anticipating these changes beforehand and cultivating a culture to meet them in full stride is necessary to overcoming the challenges of propelling the company to the next stage.
This is one of the hardest things for an entrepreneur to do. We love solving problems. It is why we start companies. The downside is that we are easily distracted by the problems at hand. Thinking about a problem that is currently an order of magnitude away is a challenge, but it's essential if you want to get to there.
As my company has grown, I have taken extra care to ensure the proper team was always in place to execute the duties of the organization we were becoming, not just the one we were.
What you do today will have an effect on your organization 18 months from now. In relation to Bill.com, I focus on building an organization today that is capable of supporting the scale of business required at the next threshold.
There is no cruise control on the road to entrepreneurial success. It takes grit, determination, willingness to change, and most of all, the humility to listen to those who have walked the path before and take their advice into consideration.
The leaders I have mentioned here have overcome many of the same challenges you may face in your own entrepreneurial pursuits. When in doubt, listen, and learn, from the leaders you know--and the ones you don't. Their kernels of wisdom will propel you and your company to the next level.