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“5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO of Project Text”, With Mike Donoghue

I would love to see a more sustainable, concerted effort around the professional mentorship of young people. I’ve been really fortunate to have had great managers and mentors throughout my career and I’d love to see it become more pervasive across our industry. Leaders should feel encouraged to share their experiences with the young people […]

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I would love to see a more sustainable, concerted effort around the professional mentorship of young people. I’ve been really fortunate to have had great managers and mentors throughout my career and I’d love to see it become more pervasive across our industry. Leaders should feel encouraged to share their experiences with the young people at their organizations, so they can avoid similar mistakes. It should be rewarding to witness employees go on to achieve amazing things personally and professionally, even if that means leaving my team to do it.


Mike Donoghue is the CEO and co-founder of Project Text, a subscription based text messaging platform that connects hosts with their biggest fans via text. Mike is a highly respected entrepreneur and an expert in developing and establishing innovative media and technology companies. In 2015, Mike founded The Alpha Group, the in-house tech and media incubator for Advance Local, a leading digital media and marketing organization. Mike is responsible for leading The Alpha Group on its mission to develop, accelerate and release innovative tech and media products to help Advance Local diversify revenue streams, reach new audiences and create differentiated technology. Project Text represents The Alpha Group’s fourth and latest venture, after the successful development and release of The Tylt, Elsewhere and Pigeon. Prior to founding The Alpha Group, Mike served as vice president at Advance Digital (now Advance Local). Mike holds a degree from the University of Illinois, Chicago.


Thank you for joining us Mike! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Ihad never intended to work in the tech or media space. I actually wanted to become a criminal defense attorney and it’s what I studied as an undergrad. After I graduated college, I was really unsure about what I wanted to do with my life, but I was sure that I needed to pay my rent. I took a friend up on his offer to interview for a sales job with a tech company he had just started working for. I was, admittedly, not all that interested in the space. I had never sold anything before in my life, so I figured I wouldn’t last long. It was arguably the hardest job I’ve ever had but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Learning new technology and the businesses of your clients well enough to sell something is a skill that I’ve applied in every role I’ve ever had.

Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lessons did you learn?

When we were creating our first product — The Tylt — we knew there had to be a better way to understand opinion at scale. The Tylt soft launched and we were eager to understand if this product would be adopted as a platform. Early on, someone wrote a piece saying that we were long overdue for a pivot, which I thought was uncharitable since the MVP had been live for 2 weeks. I was concerned this would shake the confidence of my small team and cause them to question their hard work and vision. To my surprise, the criticism had the exact opposite effect on the team who used the negative coverage as a source of inspiration. Today, The Tylt has a monthly reach of 100M+, the largest social polling platform on the internet. I learned that the importance of organizational grit cannot be understated.

What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?

I’ve been really fortunate to have worked for amazing organizations, under thoughtful leadership and on incredibly talented teams. Without those three things working in concert I think it would be hard for anyone to succeed.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or an example for each.

Maintain a Work-Life Balance

You don’t have to sacrifice your family, friends or outside interests at the altar of your career. Anyone would be lying if they said you don’t have to make tradeoffs here and there, but you do have to draw a line in the sand. Personally, I make sure I put my kids to bed every night. No exceptions.

Stay Curious

Be sure to take time out of your day to learn something new. It’s easy to get tunnel vision and not invest in yourself but taking the time to indulge your intellectual curiosity will make you a better leader. I try to read as much as possible. I’m reading DHH’s book “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work”. The premise is that we, as a culture (and the tech industry in particular), tend to wear being overworked as a badge of honor when, in reality, it is an indication of a lack of clarity in purpose or an inability to correctly prioritize the work you have in front of you.

Build Things for Your Audience Not Your Industry

The most unique ideas often receive the most criticism — we’ve seen this with all of our products. If you are truly doing something novel and interesting, critics might not understand it at first. If your users are telling you they enjoy what you’ve built by virtue of their actions, I think you know you’re being successful.

Apply Feedback and Keep Improving

Intuition is a very important part of leadership, but the ability to step back and critically assess your work based on what your customers are telling you is arguably more valuable. Cultivate relationships with customers, understand what they are looking for and deliver.

Work on Your Product And Your Brand Will Follow

Having a good brand doesn’t mean you’re going to be successful. I’ve come across a number of startups who spend a disproportionate amount of time and money on their branding when they should be spending those resources on differentiating their product. Having an exciting brand is nice, but without a compelling product it’s window dressing.

What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

It is important for leaders to push their team to take the time to enrich themselves outside of the office. In my opinion, perspective is a hugely underestimated asset for organizations. In order to allow for this, leaders should be clear and consistent while creating efficiencies for their team to achieve goals in a reasonable amount of time so they can have a life outside of the office.

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?

Outside of the incredibly talented colleagues, managers, and mentors I’ve had in my life I’d have to credit my wife and parents with having the biggest impact on my career. My parents for teaching me early on that nothing worthwhile comes easy, and my wife for encouraging me to always bet on myself.

What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?

At the risk of sounding like I’m running for political office, my primary goal is to make sure I’m a good husband and father, first and foremost. From a professional standpoint, I just want to make sure I’m always learning. This industry is incredible in that macro trends can change on a dime, so I try and stay as intellectually curious and relevant as possible. I don’t know if that goal should ever fully be accomplished.

What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?

I hope my legacy in this business is reflected in the success of the people I’ve had on my team. It sounds self-indulgent, but nothing is more rewarding to me than looking at the career arc of someone I’ve had on my team at one point and hoping that I played a small role in their success. There is no reason for you to be unkind in pursuit of your goals.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

I would love to see a more sustainable, concerted effort around the professional mentorship of young people. I’ve been really fortunate to have had great managers and mentors throughout my career and I’d love to see it become more pervasive across our industry. Leaders should feel encouraged to share their experiences with the young people at their organizations, so they can avoid similar mistakes. It should be rewarding to witness employees go on to achieve amazing things personally and professionally, even if that means leaving my team to do it.

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