I don’t read a lot of business books. (Actually, I never read them.) But I do read the lists of the best-selling business books. Those lists give you a lot of insight into the current trendy areas for leadership and strategy. That’s a good reason to run in the opposite direction. Fast.
These best-sellers all have jazzy titles like “What Would Lincoln Do” and “The Kindergarten Test: If A Five Year Old Can’t Understand Your Plan, Start Over.”
I made all those up, but you get the point. At Conduit, our 7-year-old Israeli startup, we don’t necessarily do things by the book.
We offer publishers mobile apps and web apps; social media connectors; toolbars and notification alerts--all designed to give publishers an ongoing presence in the digital lives of their users. Right now, publishers are reaching more than 250 million individual users through our products.
We didn’t arrive at this idea based on any whiteboard analysis of market quadrants or business-school opportunity mapping. For us it was an insight that came from our experience and vision of the future of the web, as a competitive battlefield where publishers would be fighting for user attention. (When I say us, I include Gaby Bilczyk and Dror Erez, who founded the company with me.)
We don’t think of ourselves as a technology company or a tool developer, we think of ourselves as being in the engagement business. Which is a good business to be in, given that publishers are in a constant struggle to engage their users.
Just the other day I was reading a new study by the Pew Institute about Internet behavior. It found that 74% of online adults will visit the web for no other reason than to have fun and pass the time. That’s a great proof point for Conduit’s mission. Users act randomly and unpredictably, so publishers need smart ways to stay with them.
This random user behavior has been good for Conduit. We’re growing fast--we now have more than 300 people with 23 more job openings posted on our website. I’ve never run a company this big, and neither have my cofounders (and neither did Larry Page, Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, or others who learned as they grew).
People ask me all the time how we’ve managed to be successful and to crash through the smallness barrier, to a scale that many Israeli companies haven’t been able to achieve. So here are some of the cultural characteristics that have helped us grow. I’m not promising that these are applicable or even relevant outside our walls, but I can say that they’ve worked for us.
Partner with people you’ve worked with before.
I’ve known Gaby and Dror for so long that there’s an entire dictionary of shorthand that we’ve established. For Dror, I like to ask “What exactly do you mean by no?” They say that the Eskimos have hundreds of words to describe snow. Dror has hundreds of ways to say yes and no.
The personality differences between founders needs to be cherished and protected even though they can make it hard, sometimes, to reach decisions quickly. I have found the trade-off to be incredibly valuable.
Believe in your core but don’t be afraid to change.
Without a belief in the fundamental mission of your business, there’s no spine to hold up the organization. But spines can bend, too. And must. Or arthritis sets in.
In our case, we always had engagement as our foundation. The Community Toolbar was the first solution, but we knew that we’d innovate right behind it with other ways for publishers to stay in front of their users. The acquisition of Wibya builds on those principles.
So we always had the end user in mind, we just didn’t target them directly although we are moving in that direction now.
As the company's evolved, we’ve changed our minds often. Sometimes in the same meeting, or after I take a shower. (There are many in the company who would prefer me to go shower-less for a few days, with whatever olfactory consequences might ensue.) But I believe that those zigs and zags make us stronger. In that way, we’re not like a typical U.S. company that prides itself on a disciplined decision-making processes.
Don’t be shy about telling people they won’t fit.
Not every company is for everybody, and the sooner that’s established the better.
I find more similarities among people who don’t work out, than among those who do. Those who fail are those who bring an agenda. Those who fail aren’t honest. Honest doesn’t just mean that they don’t lie about their expenses or walk out with a box of pens in their backpacks. It means they’re emotionally honest in the way they deal with their colleagues and think about problem-solving. Honest means living in reality of what can get done, and when.
Build your organization around the skills of talented individuals, rather than trying to find the right skill for a predefined job.
I believe it’s easier to change the job description in order to attract a great candidate, than to struggle to find the right person for a specific job. I’m aware this isn’t always possible, but keeping the flexibility in an organization leads to a better fit between people and their job. And we often find that the job we created turns out to add enormous value, which we otherwise might not have considered.
Try really hard not to give VCs control.
I love our VC firms. Our partners are incredibly smart and valuable. But I like them much more at under 50% than I would at 50.1%. That way, we don’t have the luxury of blaming someone else. We can only blame ourselves.
Leave your ego at the door.
I loathe to repeat a cliché, except I believe this one is so important. It’s also hard. One of the easiest things for a CEO--or anyone, actually--to delude themselves about is the depth of self-denial that goes on.
One way to make sure that you really live by that principle is to encourage communication in a non-hierarchal way. I encourage people to communicate with me who aren’t direct reports. Everyone knows it, so no one gets all twisted up about level-jumping.
I enjoy hearing directly from people who don’t report to me. Sometimes I get a perspective I don’t see from where I sit. And their emails can be direct and not full of “make the boss feel good” language. That’s one way to keep your ego in check, for sure.
Be honest about the consequences of growth.
There’s no way we can be the same company with 300 people that we were with 50 people. Of course we try hard to keep the spirit and entrepreneurial quirkiness. Frankly, that’s easier with the smaller brands, the new brands, the internal startups. That’s a way to keep the fire while the mature brands, like our Community Toolbar, enter different stages of adulthood.
Every company needs a piece of itself that reminds it of what it was.
Sharing success creates more of it.
It’s well known in the Israeli tech community that a very large percentage of our employees are shareholders, and we paid them a generous dividend in September. That includes our cleaning ladies. We don’t outsource that, we want them to feel part of the company. It’s fair to them, and it sends a message to everyone else in the organization: We recognize contributions.
Ronen Shilo is the CEO of Israel's largest Internet company, Conduit.
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