Never give up. It’s like being an artist — you struggle a lot before people decide you have great paintings, great photos, or great music. You need to keep repeating and growing, even if people criticize you along the way.
It’s a 24/7 job and you need to know that. I often say good morning at 3 or 4 am. There are so many different items to think about and often not enough hours in the day.
Don’t overlook the importance of good investors. Good investors believe in you and your business. Never set out on a journey without enough runway — or without investors that you trust wholeheartedly.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Peter Jackson, CEO of virtual workspace software company Bluescape.
Peter Jackson is a serial entrepreneur and advisor with a broad and deep knowledge of technology, business, and financial markets. Prior to Bluescape, he co-founded Ziploop Inc. (acquired by SNIPP in October 2017), served on the Boards of Eventbrite, DocuSign, and Kanjoya; took Intraware to IPO, and was President/COO of Dataflex (NASDAQ. DFLX) following its acquisition of Granite Systems, among other achievements.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was born and raised in Berkeley, California, where my mother taught deaf and blind students from our home. There, I grew up quite imaginative, and was always dreaming up inventions and businesses, and taking up small jobs wherever I could find them.
My first real job out of college was as an associate in sales at a company where they’d hire 10 people and then immediately fire seven. In that working environment, I taught myself to work smart versus more. While others were making 100 calls a day to make their sales, I would focus on 10 accounts by connecting with my customers in unconventional ways. Instead of working overtime to hit personal call quotas, I’d leave the office to go where I knew my clients spent their free time to make actual relationships. I went from being #400 to #1 salesperson in less than 2 years.
From there I went on to co-found many companies, Including Granite Systems (1985), Intraware (1996), and Ziploop (2012), and took Granite and Intraware to public markets in 1994 and 1999 respectively. Additionally, I have served on the Boards of Eventbrite, DocuSign, and Kanjoya; and worked as President/COO of Dataflex. Now, I serve as the CEO of Bluescape and Founder and Chairman of the Board of Weather Applied Matrix.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Bluescape was founded in 2012 as a subsidiary of Haworth, a global leader in the contracts furnishings industry. Haworth was already designing workspace and furniture that empowered teams to perform their best, and Bluescape fit into that vision of helping teams collaborate more effectively. The inspiration behind Bluescape was to help workers have a unified and centralized location to collaborate on shared information.
At first, Bluescape was primarily used as a large touchscreen display, often stretched over an entire wall. This was, and still is, extremely useful for situation rooms employed by government agencies for crisis response and situational awareness, and for film studios using Bluescape as a storyboard. The “Aha Moment” for Bluescape was thinking, “What if we could take this experience on the go?” That really sparked Bluescape’s evolution into the solution that it is today, where users can access a central, visual workspace from anywhere and on any device.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I started a business really early on in my twenties, and though I was really passionate about the business, it became very clear early on that I didn’t exactly know what I was doing. For example, someone said to me, “What’s your AP and your AR?” I had no idea they were talking about accounts payable and accounts receivable, and here I am trying to start and run my own business.
Around my second year I started running into trouble due to a mix of incompetence, aggressiveness, and the geopolitical situation at the time that impacted my cash flow. Orders were cancelled, and I had to conduct layoffs and pay cuts across the organization. My wife was also pregnant at the time, and I remember her saying, “Why couldn’t you just be normal, like why couldn’t you just get a normal job?” Adding in the pressures of struggling to pay a mortgage and everything else, and things were getting really bad. Around this time, I was in Vegas for a conference. I realized I wasn’t going to make payroll, so I actually made payroll at the craps table!
Thankfully, the geopolitical situation changed on a dime and we received a rapid influx of orders that doubled the amount we were previously receiving. But the whole situation made me realize that I really needed to rethink the strategy of my business. From there, I went to Stanford Business School with the likes of Mike Dell, and that taught me how to actually run a company, which changed everything for me. Through it all, my family, my co-workers, and my passion for the business gave me the drive to continue.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
The ups and downs of my journey have led me to where I am today. Leading Bluescape since 2017 has been an exciting ride, especially over the past year as we’ve experienced tremendous growth. Our visual collaboration platform was already helping companies better collaborate in the office, but when the pandemic struck, teams were forced to switch to remote work almost overnight. Our platform made this transition seamless, as businesses could rely on a shared workplace that let teams collaborate at any time, from any place, and on any device.
As a result, we added more than one million users to our platform, and drove a 400% increase in user activity. We launched a flexible cloud architecture that lets customers and partners deploy Bluescape in their cloud environment of choice, and launched new integrations with Microsoft Teams, Cisco Webex, Zoom, and Amazon Chime. All of this led to Bluescape being named one of the year’s most innovative companies in the world by Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies Award.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There are plenty of productivity tools out in the market. But many of these tools don’t work together, leading to tool sprawl that actually makes it more difficult to collaborate and work efficiently — especially across different time zones and geographies. It’s no surprise that 71% of workers say they want a single destination to understand and manage work at a central location. That’s exactly what Bluescape provides — a central work hub that provides real-time access to all information in one location. And with integrations across the most popular tools, workers don’t have to pick and choose from their favorite apps, but can jump on a Zoom meeting, edit a Google doc, create on Adobe Suite, and pull a file from Dropbox all from one view, in one place, with all team members able to contribute in real-time.
The implications of this technology move far beyond incremental business change to a revolution in how people work. Here are just a few examples across different industries.
Entertainment. The film industry has long relied on in-person production at entertainment hubs like Hollywood and New York, but now more than 40 leading movie studios including Lionsgate are virtually editing and producing movies/shows from beginning to end on Bluescape, meaning production can happen anywhere and at any time.
Education. Distance learning has been an overwhelming challenge for educators, students, and parents. Bluescape has helped universities like Grand Valley State University and the University of Pennsylvania transition to virtual learning, not with boring and static video lectures, but with a dynamic learning environment that replicates the classroom by enabling many-to-many interactions, student-teacher engagement, and support for all learning styles.
Automotive. The automotive industry is turning to Bluescape to design their cars of the future in Bluescape’s secure, visual platform. Ford Motor Company saw a tenfold increase in the use of collaboration solutions like Bluescape during the pandemic, helping thousands of workers collaborate effectively across locations and time zones.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
This story started as a mistake and resulted in altering my status at my first job. It was a Friday night and I was grabbing a bite after work when I saw another gentleman who immediately started engaging with me in conversation. Halfway through the chat, he said, “Man, I’m so sorry but I have to tell you why I’m so happy.” I had time to spare, so I told him I was all ears. That’s when he told me he just won a major contract for scanning equipment for every grocery store in Canada, to be followed by the U.S.
I offered to buy him a drink to celebrate, but he instead insisted on buying me a round. He asked what I did for a living and I told him that I was in tech, selling equipment that big providers couldn’t manage. He lit up and said, “I just made your life” and instructed me to meet him Monday morning in front of that same restaurant for a meeting.
On Monday morning, he picked me up in front of the restaurant to meet with one of his partners. Upon walking into the office, his partner hands me a huge stack of paper, easily worth 35 million dollars in orders. I was making about 30K dollars as a salesman back in 1983 and my company ended up making 20 million dollars from that deal, bringing me to the #1 salesman.
The learning from that night was simple: You can meet anyone, anywhere. Be open to new opportunities, wherever they may be found.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
When I was first starting out, I had a friend and colleague who would come into work every day and repeat the advice that he actually got from his roommate. He would say, “If it’s a good idea, it’s already been done. Don’t bother.” I remember we used to post that up on the walls, which of course was a motivation killer when it came to coming up with new ideas. But it turns out that there are still plenty of good ideas to go around, with Bluescape just being one example of a new good idea that turned into a successful company. If you’re an entrepreneur, or really anyone, don’t buy into the lie that there isn’t room for innovation and new ideas.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
First, I’m super competitive — and in return I have raised my kids to be the same. My family seems sweet and loving (and we are!) but when we play a game such as pickleball it can become blood curdling. Second, although I am competitive, I am also very compassionate and care about people. I love meeting people and hearing about their different backgrounds. I’m intentional about making time to know people on a personal level, which is hugely important in forming relationships that will likely impact your business. Third, I am a huge delegator which has contributed to my success. Instead of trying to control everyone and the situation, get the right people and trust them to do their jobs. You simply can’t have prolonged success if anything is in your hands.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Burnout is a serious problem that has grown worse during the pandemic as workers have had to adapt to remote work, longer working hours, financial insecurity, and virtual schooling for their kids, all while facing isolation and loneliness due to decreased human interaction. I recommend that my fellow leaders implement these tips and practices to help their teams combat burnout, which fosters a healthy work environment that in turn helps leaders recuperate themselves.
Encourage Flexibility. It’s time to move away from the rigidity of the outdated 9-to-5, and embrace a flexible workweek where employees can design their work around their lives, not their lives around their work. We should feel free to work on tasks when we need to and when it’s naturally conducive to our lives. If I need to help out one of my parents or my in-laws during the middle of a Tuesday, then I’ll do so. If my schedule allows me to best work on a Friday or Saturday night, then I’ll do that too. Modern technology allows us to work where we want and when we want, and it’s time that our norms around the work week catch up as well.
Mandate Time Off. We like to think that working maximum hours results in maximum productivity, but often doing less can help us do more. We need time to step away, rest, and recharge our minds and bodies. Employees aren’t always comfortable doing that, so leaders can help by scheduling company-wide days off and extending natural holidays. Refreshed employees will be more productive employees, and are likely to feel more connected to do their work and colleagues.
Cultivate Emotional Intelligence. It’s crucial that we take the time to connect with our colleagues in meaningful ways, and look at situations from their point of view. Emotional intelligence is a key facet of servant leadership. To connect with my employees, I sometimes start my working days by sending out funny or inspirational messages to my team members in Slack which creates a more interactive, casual environment and a daily touchpoint. It’s also important to reach out to employees privately to check-in to demonstrate your support and appreciation. A simple direct message, text, or email can go a long way in helping employees feel like they are known and heard, especially when it comes from the top.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The most important recipe to keep in mind when starting a business is to consider both potential revenue and the customer base you are targeting. Many people get into the startup world thinking they are going to change the world, but they sometimes don’t realize that there isn’t a buyer for their creation. To avoid this, I always stress the importance of research and due diligence in understanding the consumer need for something in advance of devoting your energy to the business. Make sure your product actually fills a legitimate need for a defined customer base, not just something that sounds interesting to you. Additionally, stay strong on what you want to sell, and don’t let investors push you to completely change your product.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
There are a couple aspects. First, I quickly learned the importance of never letting leadership get to your head. In my opinion, the best leaders are those that are humble, empathetic and perhaps most importantly, are available to their employees — no matter what their job role or level. Second, no matter where you are in your career, you cannot forget about your roots and the underlying reason you are leading a specific company in the first place. This includes taking time to give back to not only your employees, but also to the larger community. That is how you are going to come out ahead when your company is at its highest (and its lowest).
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Never give up. It’s like being an artist — you struggle a lot before people decide you have great paintings, great photos, or great music. You need to keep repeating and growing, even if people criticize you along the way.
- It’s okay to lean on others. You need the support of your family and friends every step of the way. For example, my wife has been amazing throughout my career in being my rock and my biggest support.
- Make sure everyone is on board. You need to be in it 100%, and so do your coworkers and your family. If you don’t have a unified front, you’ll start falling apart when you face adversity — and trust me, adversity is not a matter of if, but when.
- It’s a 24/7 job and you need to know that. I often say good morning at 3 or 4 am. There are so many different items to think about and often not enough hours in the day.
- Don’t overlook the importance of good investors. Good investors believe in you and your business. Never set out on a journey without enough runway — or without investors that you trust wholeheartedly.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would want to help people grow in respect toward each other, to the point where we could truly listen to each other without pointing fingers and choosing sides from the start. Your opinions and feelings are very important. It’s not my job to judge your opinion or feelings, but to listen and try to understand what you are expressing and experiencing. Leading with empathy, and with a posture of humility, can spark connections in unexpected places. In that sense, it would be a movement of recognizing each other’s humanity.
How can our readers further follow you online?
Please feel free to follow my social media accounts at the below links. For more on Bluescape, check out our website (bluescape.com) and click here to learn why Bluescape was named one of the top ten most innovative workplace companies of the year by Fast Company.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!