Don’t go into business with friends. Every time I go into business with friends it explodes in my face. In fact, every failure I could think of occurred because I was in business with a friend. I am not sure what it is — but the people who make the best friends usually make the worst business partners. And I’m not alone, most business owners will tell you not to get involved with friends (or even worse, partners). Never again — until next time, but hopefully never again.
As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Viktoria Altman.
Viktoria Altman is one of a few successful women who have taken control of their brand’s online footprint and she shares her skills, talents, and tech savvy with her clients. She works exclusively with law firms and helps them to grow their organic reach.
By aiming to deliver results based on specific goals and identifying the firm’s top competitors, Viktoria Altman is able to draw a blueprint and lay a foundation that is tailored to meet the needs of prospective clients.
As an immigrant, she values the opportunities that entrepreneurship affords anyone who is willing to commit, learn a skill and take action. This has been the bedrock of her business philosophy.
Viktoria is tech savvy and offers expert advice that speaks directly to those in the legal industry on not only becoming the top of a Google search, but also at the top of legal marketing conversations between peers.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I think there are two types of entrepreneurs — the ones who come up with a great idea and want to bring it to the world, and the ones who just can’t help themselves. I’m the second kind. I come from a family of strong women, and having a very strong personality makes it difficult to have a boss. Even though I come from the soviet union (where entrepreneurship was not exactly encouraged), my grandmother was a leader (a director of the largest refrigerator factory in the Soviet Union) and my mother always had side businesses (we’d call them side hustles now) to keep us afloat. I started my first “business” at 12. I had a group of girls make stuffed animals and we sold them in the metro for a few rubles. My profit margin was almost 300%! After getting a job out of college it became pretty clear that unless I wanted to be miserable my whole life I was going to have to create my own job. I truly believe I am an entrepreneur because I was born this way.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
My recent business is fairly new. But in my old business (a small chain of Montessori preschools) I did have some unusual encounters. Not sure if this qualifies as interesting. Maybe a little sad. The first school I opened in my own community, in South Brooklyn. It is very unfortunate that in my area many people stigmatize neurological differences. Often, a parent refuses all help from medical professionals who suggest the child needs therapy or a paralegal to help them learn better. I’ve had many people come in looking for “tutoring” or preschool when it was clear what their child really needed was far more than what we could provide on our own. One time we had a little boy come in who at 6 spoke very little and refused all eye contact. One of my teachers, who had worked with special needs kids, did our pre screening test. Afterwards, the parents, the teacher and I sat down in the main office and the teacher gently tried to ask the parents if the pediatrician had suggested occupational therapy or speech, or if there was a diagnosis. Instead of answering her, the mother opened her handbag and took out what looked like a hundred thousand dollars in hundred dollar bills, neatly wrapped with a rubbing band. She laid the entire thing out on my table, and said to me: This is for you — you work with my kid, no therapy. The teacher and I sat stunned. I was torn between laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation and shock that someone would walk around with that much cash. I didn’t really know how to respond, but when I caught my breath I asked her to put her money away. I consulted with the teacher privately who said she’d like to work with the boy in a one on one setting if possible, and felt confident she could help him. And we both knew if she didn’t try, nobody would. We signed up the parents but they stopped coming after a few months. I think of that boy often. And hope he got the therapy he actually needed. Money can’t buy everything, I guess.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
That would have to be the time I found a web designer in Germany and sent them the money in full paypal without even checking their credentials. It was a leap of faith, and in, hindsight, pretty stupid. I’ve always made decisions based on my gut but that was not a good way to go in this case. I had just started in the industry and simply couldn’t find any web designers I liked. I got lucky — they turned out to be completely ethical and performed the job well. This could have gone very differently. When you first start a business you may not have many contacts and so may not know the best way to get the work done. What I should have done instead was hire someone on upwork for a small project and then if they did that well, hired them for the larger project. So if you are new to website design, do that instead.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve always been lucky to find mentors in any business I started. From the experienced summer camp owner who helped me set up the preschools, to SEO experts who patiently answered my questions, I think there are probably more people than I can count. In my most recent business, I’d have to say the person who helped me most is my friend Nathan Smith. He is an SEO expert and a very successful business man himself (he runs the most successful commercial real estate agency in Austin, Austin Tenant Advisors). But if you asked me how we met I actually have no idea. Over and over in life I’ve found the best people in business are the ones with whom you click so naturally, it feels like they’ve always been there. You can’t pinpoint the moment when they become your mentor or the moment when you start to give back. And that is the most important thing, a mentor normally rises naturally, like any good relationship. If you are looking for a mentor don’t look too hard. Reach out to smart people, ask lots of questions and try to give back. And then nurture those relationships the best you can.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
My reasons for encouraging diversity are very practical, even capitalist. Different people with different backgrounds have different ideas. It’s very simple really. Because I was born in Russia, because I was an immigrant and a refugee, I will look at anything — even a brand of cereal, in a different way than someone who grew up in Idaho would. I might come up with a new flavor or point out that the packaging would look off putting to a russian speaker, or come up with a marketing idea someone who’s never been an immigrant may not think of. We live in a diverse country, and a company can’t afford to exclude any group of customers or neglect any great (if unusual) ideas. If you want to attract a specific customer, then you should make sure someone who looks like them, sounds like them and has a similar upbringing to them sits on the board. And always remember that people’s ideas are a unique combination of their past experiences, education and environment. If you want unique ideas, add people with unique backgrounds. All ethical considerations aside, diversity is simply good business.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I think any small business owner will one day come across outward racism, sexism or another ism — and how you confront the issue becomes a part of who you are, and eventually, how well you sleep at night. For me that moment came when I hired a wonderful math teacher who happened to wear a headscarf. As I mentioned one of my schools is located in Brooklyn, a part of a very conservative community. When I attempted to assign the new teacher to students, many of the parents rebelled. Refusing to work with her or allow their children to attend classes with her. In America, we have this notion of “client is always right.” And that may be true in many cases. But what happens when the client is outwardly racist? Of course, I could tell them to no longer come to my school but then I’d risk losing their business. More importantly, the child would miss a valuable opportunity to learn from a teacher who was both suitable to them, and perhaps could impart some lessons that are even more valuable than math. And chances are if the child didn’t learn this lesson at my school, they would have no other opportunity to do so, thus perpetuating the cycle. In the end, I gently told the parents that this teacher was the best fit for their child. They must give her a chance, but if after a month they still feel like it’s not working out we will change teachers. The majority of parents eventually opened up to her, but more importantly her students developed valuable relationships with her and learned to view her in a positive light.. I hope they will carry those lessons to the future, and help break the cycle. So, as a business leader I believe your job is not to simply shut out people who may disagree with you, or even those who may be outwardly racist or sexist. Change comes slowly to people, and change starts in a one on one setting. Reaching out to people is important, and even if you can’t change someone’s views, always remember — our children are watching.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
My favorite quote is “True leaders create more leaders, not followers.” An CEO’s job is to become unnecessary in all day to day activities. To do so, you must inspire others into taking leadership roles, you must set up systems and processes. When you are successful in your job of creating systems and creating leaders, only then will you be able to fully focus on ingenuity, creativity and give the best of yourself to your company. When you are surrounded by leaders, you will have the time and space to focus on the big picture and the big problems.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I think a lot of people view CEOs as overbearing, Type A and perhaps a little snobby. In my experience the best CEOs are great listeners who have exceptional people skills. A CEOs job is not so much to lead, as to inspire others to be leaders. And to do so you must genuinely believe in your employees and in their potential. There are far more soft skills involved in benign an CEO than people realize. On the other hand, you must be very decisive and willing to take responsibility. This means accepting responsibility for failure, while giving away the credit for success. Praising people who work for you is one of the best ways to inspire them to be even greater. If you are the kind of person who can step into any situation and take charge, but chooses not to unless you have no choice, and prefers to raise leaders rather than be one then you may be a good fit as an CEO.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
As a beginner in SEO, I had no idea how much learning I would have to do on an ongoing basis. With most jobs, you learn one time and you are pretty much done. In most lines of work, continuing education takes up maybe 5% of the time. In SEO, on the other hand, you are spending about 30% to 40% of your time taking courses and running experiments. Since Google is artificial intelligence, it is constantly changing and growing. Google’s job is to understand how important my client’s brand is in the real world, and then translate that value into how often consumers are seeing them online. However, my job is to make my client’s brand look more important online than in the real world. In other words, I have to make a 3 person law firm (my client) look as prominent as a 30 person law firm. The only way to do my job is to understand how Artificial Intelligence values business entities, in order to be able to nudge the calculus in the right direction. It’s sort of a constant struggle — a fun game. Like playing chess with the smartest machine in the world. But if you want to win (at least some of the time), you must always evolve.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I think to be a successful executive you have to be a little obsessive and type A.
Working very long hours should be fun, something that you enjoy. If you do not, you will burn out quickly. Likewise, if work life balance is very important, then maybe running a company isn’t the best choice. And that’s perfectly fine — not everyone needs to work 12 to 14 hour days. I think as an CEO you are truly driven past the point of “normal.” We are all a little crazy.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
My best advice for creating an exceptional work culture is to always take responsibility when you make a mistake, and to apologize for it (publicly, if possible). Everyone makes mistakes — they are a part of doing the work. As my mom used to say, the only people who don’t break the dishes are the ones who don’t wash them. But showing by example that it’s ok to admit you made an error, and allowing your employees the space to fix it, is very important. Creating a culture of honesty will pay off big time, both in the happiness of your employees and on your bottom line. The worst thing for a company is when an employee tries to cover up a mistake, this can lead to consequences ranging from lost money to irreparable reputation damage. The world is full of great companies whose reputations were damaged due to cover ups (Exxon, Facebook and Pfizer) just to name a few. A great culture starts at the top- model the behavior you want to see from your employees.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
In between my last business sale and starting this new venture, I took a few years off. I am not sure that I can say “I made the world better,” but I have tried. During my travels I’ve tried to work with local on the ground organizations in order to help them secure supplies they may not be able to get in their home countries. I was very lucky to have a sponsor at the time, Vero Social Media Network, started by my friend Ayman Hariri. Ayman, who is one of the world’s most generous people (and is certainly responsible for making the world better although he refuses to talk about it) has been very helpful in several on the ground ventures, at times stepping in and helping me secure supplies and financial means when I could find no other way, in addition his company sponsored many of my trips making it possible for me to create these connections. In addition I worked with Ayman and the team at Vero to try to bring his vision of a more fair social media network to the world, where I believe it is needed (desperately.) I am not sure how much I helped, but I did try. I have also done some work with refugees in my own community, which was especially hard hit the past few years. But, in general I do think that if you try to do something good, you should not talk about it. Taking credit for good work means you no longer do it simply because it’s right, but because you may reap some benefit. So I’d like to leave it at that.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- I think with the last venture I learned many things, and I hope I took these lessons with me in the future. The first thing is, don’t buy into your own PR. When I started my venture last time, I gained some success very quickly. In fact, I think I was in the black 5 months after opening — a rare feat in a brick and mortar business. But after that initial success growth became much more difficult and it was all an uphill battle. I definitely thought that my initial success was due to some level of brilliance on my part instead of mostly dumb luck. Over the next few years I learned that business is just as much great timing as it is great ideas. I think I’m much more aware of my own shortcomings now.
- Two, hire based on personality and work ethic — not experience. This may sound counterintuitive but all of my best employees (in every venture I ever ran) were best because they had the right personality profile. My former office manager had never held an office job before she came to me, having done waitressing gigs instead. But she was brilliant — you could tell right away. Don’t be afraid to hire smart people and train them, instead of hiring people with the right background who may not have the type of personality you think the job requires. Of course, ideally you want someone who has both, but if you have to pick, always go for personality.
- Three, take time off. I’m a bit of a workaholic and while that’s great for a while, eventually it’s bad both for your work and personal life. With my last venture I worked so hard that I burned out and eventually I just sort of gave up. Luckily the business could function without me by then. But I remember just sitting on my couch, staring off into space because I simply didn’t have enough brainpower left to do anything else. With my latest venture I’m taking controlled time off and forcing myself not to work seven days a week. If you run a marathon like a race, you are unlikely to finish it well.
- Four, don’t go into business with friends. Every time I go into business with friends it explodes in my face. In fact, every failure I could think of occurred because I was in business with a friend. I am not sure what it is — but the people who make the best friends usually make the worst business partners. And I’m not alone, most business owners will tell you not to get involved with friends (or even worse, partners). Never again — until next time, but hopefully never again.
- Five, be gentle on yourself — and everyone around you. Type A people (and let’s get real, I am as type A as it gets), tend to be very hard on themselves and on people around them. I’d love to say I never snap or expect perfection. This is simply untrue. Sometimes I will say or do things that show a lack of patience, and as hard as I can be on others I’m always harder on myself. It took me many years to learn to leave the room (virtual or physical) and think long and hard about how to help someone fix a mistake instead of creating one of my own. I think it starts with being gentle on yourself. We are all human, and we are all ruled by our (very imperfect) brains. We are all not adapted to this life, humans didn’t really evolve to think for 10 hours a day about complex problems and solutions. We sort of evolved to wander through a forest picking berries. Remembering that we are all just doing the best we can in a world that is far more advanced than our brains are accustomed to helps me “chill out.”
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Certainly, the biggest problem facing the world today is climate change. There is not much we can do to “stop” the runaway train now, but there is plenty we can do to slow it down and to allow science to catch up with reality. Eating less meat (or no meat at all), and building up public transportation would make the biggest differences in my estimation. Education (a subject near and dear to my heart) is another long-term solution to the problem. People who are educated tend to have fewer children, and slowing population growth is a must if we are going to slow down the impact of climate change.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I was 16 I took a job as a paralegal in a personal injury law office. In hindsight, my bosses were involved in all kinds of shady activities (for instance, I attended independent medical examinations and pretended to be a lawyer on their request). But one quote by one of the bosses stuck with me and I always think of it when I think an employee has failed. He said: “If someone who works for you can’t do something, it’s your fault. They are either too stupid to understand what you asked of them, in which case its your fault for hiring them. Or you didn’t explain it correctly, in which case you should have explained it better.” He was saying this in the context of helping me perform a task with which I was struggling. He followed up with: “I know you are not too stupid to do this, so you are having trouble because I didn’t explain it correctly.” This was in the mid 90’s when you could still get into a club with a fake ID, when men had no trouble dating their subordinates and hiring a 16 year old to pretend to be a lawyer, while frowned upon, wasn’t strictly “off limits.” So his language was a little rough. But he was right, and he has been right every time since.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Nancy Pelosi. She is such a fascinating, accomplished woman — and I think she has much to teach. I’d love to learn about leadership, dealing with adversity. And there are questions I want to ask, and these are not the kinds of questions she may wish to answer in public. But some of them are tough questions. And some she may not like much. But I think it would be a fascinating meeting.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.