Scott Kraege, Michael Browning, Christian Browning, Tony Paris, and Josh Garrett are the five CEO’s of Bluefish, a wireless technology company. Fast Company caught up with all five to ask how they manage to make this unique leadership structure work.
FAST COMPANY: How do you five know each other?
MICHAEL: Christian and I are brothers with a 14-month age difference.
SCOTT: Josh and I grew up next door together.
JOSH: We have great old pictures used as blackmail round the office. I liked tube socks back then, what can I say?
CHRISTIAN: Tony, Michael, Scott, and I went to high school together, so from high school on we were all together.
MICHAEL: When we got out of college, we went in different directions, at different companies, in different industries. In late 2000, it sort of was a perfect storm of the right time for everybody, and the five of us began collaborating, formulating a business plan and raising a little capital. We started Bluefish, and over the course of 11 years, we spun a couple companies off of Bluefish. We have four businesses that we own and operate out of this one, and Bluefish has almost become an incubator.
FAST COMPANY: But there’s five of you. How do you handle decisions?
MICHAEL: There are decisions in which very clearly, one guy will own it—it’s in his wheelhouse—and we trust that partner. When it comes to strategic decisions about the direction of the business, those very much are made in the collective.
FAST COMPANY: In another company, maybe one of you would be called COO, one CFO, and so on?
JOSH: Any one of us has the skills to be CEO, but because of our backgrounds, we specialize in certain areas. Scott comes from marketing, Michael from finance, Christian from sales, Tony from operations, and I’ve got an IT background.
MICHAEL: We all wear different hats, but first and foremost, we're all sales people. That’s how it all started, by hustling, cold-calling, pounding pavements. Once it took off and we had established customers, we kind of fit each into our individual roles.
FAST COMPANY: What do your business cards say?
TONY: There’s been a lot of variation over the years. Christian’s used to say "The Guy Behind the Guy," and mine was "The Great White Hope." But all of our business cards say "Director" today.
FAST COMPANY: When it comes to decision-making, are there temper tantrums and filibusters?
JOSH: We’ve had some good temper tantrums.
TONY: The odd number helps. We certainly disagree enough. But at the end of the day, we go out and golf 18 holes together and not talk about the scuffle we had two hours before.
SCOTT: Sometimes it does take longer for five guys to make a decision.
FAST COMPANY: Hey, is one of your companies a burger franchise?
JOSH: Five Guys? I wish! There’d be a beach in the background if it was.
FAST COMPANY: Are all your businesses and investments in tech, or do you have a broader portfolio?
MICHAEL: After about year six or seven, the primary business of Bluefish was generating enough cash flow that we began discussions about how we diversity ourselves. For the last five years, we’ve been investing as a group in a pretty wide range of concepts, everything from angel investment in startups to a couple of real estate projects. When we make an investment, we’re all equal partners. At the end of the day, our success comes from this concept of having five entrepreneurs that have the exact same things at risk. We’re always working when we leave the building, whether at home, at night, on weekends—we’re collaborating literally 24/7.
FAST COMPANY: When you started on this experiment, did people think you were crazy?
CHRISTIAN: I remember Scott’s mom saying in 2003, "The fun and games are over. Scott’s got a family..."
JOSH: It was done out of ignorance. We were all such good friends. We’ve seen some of our friends go into separate businesses with family and friends, and they’re no longer speaking, or estranged from each other. For whatever reason, we work. Everyone checks their ego at the door and does what’s best for the group.
MICHAEL: We got lucky in a number of ways. The personalities lined up in the right ways. The skill sets lined up in the right ways. It’s not a structure I would casually recommend to a kid graduating from college: "Hey, pick four guys you like the best and get into it." But if you can find that same trust factor, and everybody’s putting in the same amount of effort, the partnership route is very possible.
TONY: We all make the same money. We know what each other’s pay is. We all want to make more money at the end of the day. We all spend it differently, but we all make the same.
FAST COMPANY: So in the end it’s money that unites you, and makes five guys able to work together?
CHRISTIAN: We’re not gonna sugarcoat this in any way.
SCOTT: It was easy—a different kind of easy—back when the W-2’s all said 12 grand. But we didn’t have 16 kids then.
TONY: When we started, I was the only one who had a kid. Now we have 16 among the group.
JOSH: So we’re very fertile as well.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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[Image: Flickr user Sel]