As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Roman Grigoriev. Roman is the founder & CEO of SPLENTO, a leading visual content company that provides carefully vetted professional photographers and videographers on-demand to clients around the world, operating in 37 countries and 263 cities.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It’s the constant desire of solving problems. I guess I have two super-powers: resilience and non-stop idea generation! It’s an almost immediate reflex that if I see a problem, I need to work on ideas to solve it. Maybe it isn’t a super-power but a hindrance as this has been bugging me since early childhood: problem > solution.
Becoming a CEO is a natural progression; solving problems for clients, employees, stakeholders — it’s been a series of journeys in different businesses and doing it in some shape or form.
I’m not an engineer, but I enjoy solving problems, so the CEO role is the only role in the company that provides an inexhaustible stream of complex problems to solve on a daily basis. It also fits my strength of character and my desire to do what I love. Being a CEO is super hard and stressful, but I relish the challenge.
The idea for Splento actually came about from my frustrating experience of dealing with photographers — first at my own wedding, when I had to wait six months to get my edited photos, and then from my dealings with photographers and videographers when I ran my property company. We had to source great quality visual content regularly and every time it was a struggle. So I thought the world deserves a better solution and we built it.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
Switching my CEO skills set.
I’m what people call a serial entrepreneur, but there are and have been two very differing aspects to this — I liken it to different running styles — whether you are a sprinter or marathon runner! I’ve gone from running small businesses and startups to managing a “scale up” business, and I thought I was an experienced business person. But Splento has taught me otherwise.
There have been three big lessons:
- Working in your business vs working on your business.
Firstly for a small business, the entrepreneur does all the work broadly speaking, whereas in a scalable, larger entity, as a CEO, you spend most of your time building teams, processes and systems.
- Profit vs Growth.
Secondly, my other businesses were always about profit, but startups are all about growth. These are two different mentalities which are tricky to adopt alongside different metrics. It takes a lot of time to switch from one mentality to the other, to get accustomed to looking at your accounts and seeing that you won’t be making money each month for a set period of time. It is a skill, a different competence, and you need to recognise that.
- Team supporting the CEO vs CEO supporting the team.
Thirdly, building a top-notch team. In a small business — you are the rainmaker. You bring and service most of the clients yourself and the team is there to support you. In a scalable business — it’s the other way round. You can no longer handle service thousands or millions of clients, even if you have the best support team in the world. Instead, you flip the pyramid upside down — with the CEO at the bottom (what used to be a tip) of the pyramid — supporting and guiding the rest of the team.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
It’s simple and sounds cheesy: by putting our customers first.
We naturally evolved and added capacity, products and services e.g. customers say they want x, we work out how to offer it, then we standardise it and scale. That way, our customers return and refer us to their friends and colleagues.
This approach of “always going the extra mile” is the unifying Splento philosophy, making team management easier. Everyone knows this so it is easy to make decisions.
For example, we don’t normally offer drone footage but our client needed it, we got it sorted and we have a delighted customer. We learned what worked and what didn’t, we made changes to the product and now we can offer it to other clients, too.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
Systemised approach to hiring.
To hire great players, gut instinct is not enough and, although this may seem like a laborious task, getting a good hiring system in place is critical. We all know talent is everything and that the most important thing is people. However, very few companies approach this in a diligent structured way.
For example, at the point of introducing our new system (after some time of hiring using our instincts), we were hiring a sales executive. Having gone through the system, I was left to ‘interview’ (actually it was more of a chat) two candidates.
I had two questions: what is your chosen super power and what one thing do you not like doing. To tell me that you don’t like cold calling, having gone through the rigorous hoops of applying for outbound sales role wasn’t a good move for one of the candidates.
Guess what? That person wasn’t hired, the other one was and is now our top billing sales person. Hire carefully and use a system, don’t rely not on gut feel or a whim.
You can’t over-communicate.
If you have a message in your head, and you think that messaging it once will get your point across, you are wrong! You need to reinforce is at every step, stage and opportunity. Say it at least 10 (20 times is better) for people to internalise otherwise they will forget or miss it.
As a fast-growing startup, many things change frequently and the sales commission structure is one of those. We had this problem on numerous occasions — all relevant stakeholders (including the sales team) will all agree a new sales commission structure and I’ll circulate a message. Low and behold, within a few weeks someone will raise a question and ask “how come their commission is different and they don’t understand how it was calculated?”. It doesn’t matter that they actually suggested the new system and all signed off — human nature is what it is. People forget. So now I over-communicate like a three year old 🙂
You never leave work, it never stops.
It is always in your head, can’t and won’t switch off. I’ve been Splento’s CEO for four years now and this summer is the first time I will be attempting to take a short break. But I’m pretty sure a total switch off will be impossible, but not because everything will crash without me — the company works like a Swiss watch. It’s because your company is your baby — you never stop thinking about your baby no matter what you are up to.
It is lonely at the top.
You don’t have peers in your business, everyone is watching you and you really have to be on top of your game all the time. You can’t let your moods sway you, you are the source of energy, you are that shining star and the locomotive driving it. Be prepared to be on top of your game, all the time.
A good example was one of our daily 5-minute stand-up meetings on one of those days when I didn’t have enough sleep the night before, didn’t go for my run and was feeling completely out of form. Instead of my usual energetic and upbeat update on what I’m working on — I murmured something incoherent and you could see the energy being sapped immediately out of the entire team. Such a small thing — such a profound difference.
You will end up being a coach.
For a company to grow, the team needs to grow. Not in size, but professionally. For individual members to want to grow professionally — having a leader is not enough. They also need a coach. Someone who will both lead by example and enthuse, mentor and coach them.
That was one point I completely missed in my early years as the CEO, because I always assumed that my insatiable desire for personal development will become contagious and everyone on our team will follow my example. But without proper coaching methodology in place — it’s hard for team members to correctly assess their progress. Only when we got a Product Development coach/mentor with a proper methodology for our Head of Product (and saw an immediate jump in efficiency and productivity), did we realise how important it is for the C-Level staff (and especially the CEO) to be a coach to their colleagues.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
It’s very simple. There are three things: Why > Plan > Learn
Have a very clear purpose as to why you are doing whatever you are doing.
Have a plan. If you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.
Have a very simple way to measure your progress and learn from obstacles you overcome in achieving your goal.
Oh, yes. And don’t forget to take breaks. Numerous studies have shown that working non-stop at 100% is counterproductive. From athletes to CEOs, everyone is better off by taking regular purposeful breaks.
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?
Yes. There isn’t just one person, l have loads of mentors and coaches, but there is one that I can easily share and show the difference.
It’s about my board member, Rob. My previous businesses never grew large enough to require a proper Board of Directors. I always treasured external advice but did not have real board meetings.
I employed the same strategy at Splento — we invited a couple of Splento investors to sit on our board from the get-go, even when we didn’t have to. But we weren’t getting the most out of our board meetings due to the lack of collective experience of taking part in proper board meeting.
Then I got introduced to Rob, who has sat on numerous boards in the past and clearly understood how a proper board of directors should operate. He also had a coaching approach which meant that after each meeting, Rob would sit down with me and assess what went well and what didn’t. Five meetings in since Rob started and we’ve got a completely different level of efficacy, efficiency and professionalism. Without him, I would not get to that — it would be more like a baptism by fire with a dysfunctional board.
For any CEO, the right Board is an important thing to build properly and manage accordingly.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
My professional goal is to be a top level CEO and grow with the company, and to make sure I’m as an effective leader in 10 years’ time when we are servicing millions of clients, as I’m now — when we are servicing thousands.
Personally — I need to set my new marathon PB (personal best) of under 2h 55m. The Berlin Marathon at the end of September is my target race.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
To inspire the team at Splento to be the best they can. When people strive to be the best, everyone wins. The best service to customers starts internally, with an almost maniacal desire to achieve greatness in everything you do.
I would also like for millions of clients to stop cursing freelancers and instead see for themselves what it’s like to have a wow Splento photography and videography experience.
But my main lasting legacy would be to teach as many people as possible to live a life of purpose. The more people I can touch with this idea the better. To stop wasting time on useless things but to focus on things that matter. It brings me utmost pleasure talking to people who know what they want and go after it (provided it is ethical). I will do all I can to help them.
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!
“Have a purpose in everything you do” movement and have clear criteria to see if what you are doing is true to your purpose. That will help you get a grip on what’s important in your life and what’s not. My three criteria are simple: if it makes me healthier, wealthier or wiser — I’m on the right course.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Our blog is the best place, because LinkedIn is about the only one Social Media you can find me on. Splento on the other hand is all over social: