All that matters is what makes you different. There is a lot required to run a business, ranging from legal documents, taxes, accounting and more. It’s easy to get caught up in the administration of the business and lose focus on what really matters: your unique competitive advantage. These days I tell first time CEOs that no company was ever acquired for paying their bills on time. Companies succeed or fail based on their advantage and how well they exploit it, everything else is secondary. If everything you do every day does not build on or extend your competitive advantage you are wasting your effort.
Aspart of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Byrnes, CEO of Outlier. In 2005, Sean started a company called Flurry that disrupted the mobile analytics market, creating entirely new advertising business models for web entities. After selling Flurry to Yahoo! in 2014, Sean created a new company: Outlier. Using AI and advanced analytics, Outlier is breaking the mold once again — helping organizations dive into their deep data pools to elevate relevant and actionable data behaviors. In his free time, Sean acts as an advisor to early stage technology companies, helping them navigate the complex world of technology innovation.
Thank you so much for joining us Sean! Can you tell us what brought you to your specific career path?
I’ve always enjoyed building things, but I also prefer doing a variety of activities at the same time. Being an entrepreneur and founder gives me the freedom to build products, teams, businesses while also participating in sales, marketing, product development, engineering and more, every day.
What I love most is that I never know what comes next, so there’s always an element of surprise and delight. In the technology industry, the landscape is constantly changing with new technologies, new businesses, and new markets. It provides an opportunity for me to create enormous impact with a new company, against this challenge of an ever-changing world.
Can you share a major challenge you encountered when first leading a company? What lesson did you learn from that?
My biggest challenge as a first time CEO was that everything was new. I didn’t know what to expect, how to prepare for it or how to deal with most of the problems that arose. This can lead to enormous stress because you want to work hard and do well, but you don’t know what to work hard on or how to do it well. Even as fast as I learned, the company grew and the challenges we faced changed so I had to learn it all again.
The second time I started a company, I made sure to surround myself with peers and advisors who were in, or had recently been in, a similar situation. Even though no one had easy answers, it reduced the stress by making it clear that everyone was struggling with the same things.
It’s like a roller coaster. The first time you ride a new roller coaster, you’re scared the entire ride because you don’t know what to expect. The second time you enjoy most of the ride because you know what’s coming but you know when to be scared. And in those moments, you are more scared than the first time.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
I’d like to say that the biggest factor in my success is persistence, my ability to persevere in the face of adversity. That is, in my opinion, the most important characteristic of a successful founder.
However, in reality, I’ve never faced true adversity. I’m a white male, born into a middle-class family in the U.S. My parents were able to help me pay to go to college and that provided me with a network to get started. I never had to fight against the systemic sexism, racism or forms of discrimination that exist in the foundations of our society. So, the biggest factors in my success are the privileges I was born with.
As a result, I try to use those privileges and my success to change the system and remove barriers for people who are just like me but were born somewhere else or look a little different. Great ideas can come from anywhere and we need to help lift others up who are facing hardships in getting their ideas heard, shared or supported.
I never feel like I do enough, since I won’t be satisfied until all of these obstacles are removed. None of us should accept that success has more to do with how you were born than how hard you work.
What are “5 things you wish someone had told you before you became a CEO?” Please share a short story or example for each.
It’s hard to list only 5; there are dozens of lessons I’ve learned the hard way on my journey. Here are the five that I think about the most:
- It’s lonely. As a CEO, the fate of the business lies on your shoulders, which is both empowering and challenging. There are things that you’ll struggle with that you have no one to talk to about, and you’ll need to deal with on your own. You can’t talk about investor problems with investors, you can’t talk about employee problems with employees and you can’t discuss business partner problems with your business partner. As a first time CEO I ended up dealing with many of these challenges myself and it was a significant factor in burn out. Today, I surround myself with a peer support group of other CEOs who understand the struggle and help me open up.
- All that matters is what makes you different. There is a lot required to run a business, ranging from legal documents, taxes, accounting and more. It’s easy to get caught up in the administration of the business and lose focus on what really matters: your unique competitive advantage. These days I tell first time CEOs that no company was ever acquired for paying their bills on time. Companies succeed or fail based on their advantage and how well they exploit it, everything else is secondary. If everything you do every day does not build on or extend your competitive advantage you are wasting your effort.
- Your real competition is yourself. Every market has some form of competition, but it’s rare that the competition determines whether you succeed or fail. Most failed companies were unable to get their own internal business processes and products working well, due to having the wrong team, wrong vision or wrong strategy. Today, I focus on ensuring that my company performs at our best and only after that is true, do I think about the competition. Bad performance is our biggest competition, other companies are a distant second.
- Company building is a long road. When I first started, I thought I would build a company for a few years and then sell it. The reality is that building a company takes around a decade and is a slow, plodding process. It is sobering to start a company as a young person and by the end you’ve seen a large piece of your life go by. It underlines how important it is to do work you enjoy, with people you value, since you can’t force yourself to do something for 10 years if you don’t love it.
- Focus is the most precious resource. With so many things to do and so few resources, new companies will never be able to do everything. Focus is the hardest thing to maintain since there will always be the temptation to do a little more. It took me a long time to realize that the company moves faster when it does less, and not when we try to do more. Today, I make sure everyone on the team has a single priority they focus on and we ignore everything else.
What advice would you give to peers to help them thrive and not “burn out”?
Make sleep, exercise and personal care part of your job. The better you take care of yourself, the better you will do your job and the more able you will be to handle the stress. Put it on your work calendar and plan around it, just like your work meetings. It will not only help you, but it sets a good example for your team.
No one can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are countless people that helped me along the way; people who asked for nothing in return and made a major impact on my life.
The most amazing ones to me are the ones who did something that, to them, was small, but for me were career changing. I doubt most of them even remember what they did or realize the impact.
There was a man, whom I never met, who was an early evangelist of Flurry and wrote a magazine article about us based on his love of our product. That article was one of our first successful customer acquisition channels and helped the company get off the ground. There was a woman, whom I never met, who invited Flurry to present at the JavaOne conference because she loved our product. We won an award there and got more attention than we could have hoped for as a small company.
There were early customers of Outlier that made comments in passing which changed the course of our product and allowed us to perfect our customer experience.
These people will never know how big of an impact they have had on my companies and career.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, personally or professionally?
I always feel like I can be better at everything I do. My philosophy is one of continuous improvement where I focus on being better tomorrow than I am today. I doubt I’ll ever perform at a level that satisfies me, but I’m more proud of my journey of self-improvement than I could be of any single achievement.
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?
Even with the progress made in the past few decades, systemic sexism, racism and forms of discrimination still exist. There are amazing people who never have a chance to show the world what they can do because their voices are muted by the polluted system around them. We need to do more to address this, so the next generation of leaders can stop paying a price for the mistakes of previous generations.
I focus on addressing this in the technology market and I believe that everyone can help. It’s important to mentor, coach and invest in under-represented founders to give them access to help they haven’t had before. I refuse to participate at conferences who don’t include under-represented speakers because I believe this ensures everyone has a voice and can be seen. Seeking out and hiring people from diverse backgrounds gives your team a competitive advantage and expands the network of mentors and role models for the next generation. We all need to do more to address these problems.
How can readers follow you on social media?