It is often better to release a product early than to not react. Our clients are often working in high-stress environments where they depend on our technology. Much of our feature developments come from customer requests to make their job easier. The sooner we release a product, the more value we provide, plus we benefit from infield client feedback as we continuously improve their experience with our software.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, we had the pleasure of interviewing Alexandra McManus.
As the Co-founder and CEO of Eyrus, Alexandra brings over 20 years of professional experience in the construction technology space with business development, creating new markets, revenue growth, operations, and leadership. She provides a constant stream of vision and intuition for Eyrus and motivates the entire team.
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?
As a kid, I was always starting ‘businesses’ with my cousins and family, so I’ve had an entrepreneurial side early on. Prior to graduating, I did a co-op in engineering and, to be transparent, found working in general engineering to be unbelievably boring. Obviously, I realized I needed pivot in a different direction, so I moved out of general engineering and into a job with Procter & Gamble where I had the chance to work with them in the Czech Republic on a three-month program writing software for one of their manufacturing site clients.
After I finished business school, I started my first company with my brother in 2012 called Connora Technologies. It was a chemical company that was geared towards creating environmentally friendly types of chemical materials. However, coming from a background in engineering, it was pretty far-flung from my career interests, so we eventually hired a CEO with an advanced materials background to take over. That’s when I started brainstorming ideas on how to found a startup within my industry, and out came Eyrus.
Looking back on my career path, each step of it maintained a similar underlying theme: “driving innovation into industries that don’t have much of it yet.” That’s exactly what we’re doing with Eyrus in construction-tech.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Since starting the company, the most interesting milestone we’ve encountered was when we introduced the SafeProx tool, the software’s proximity tracking feature, at the start of the pandemic. Back in March 2020, we put in a lot of time and energy as a company into brainstorming how we should pivot ourselves to combat the effects of COVID-19. Suddenly, we realized that we were already sitting on a platform that was ideally situated for exactly what was needed at the time. We took features of our platform that had already been developed and just refocused them around the concerns of the pandemic, such as worker logins, contact tracing, proximity tracking, detailed reporting, etc.
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?
When we first started the company, we were actually selling our system in concept prior to building it. And like all companies do, we underestimated how long it would take to build the concept we had already sold. We included in our client proposals that it would take four months to construct the platform, which turned out to be less time than we actually needed.… I always call it “hamster wheeling,” when we’re working tirelessly behind the scenes, constantly running the analyses, and just trial-and-erroring them into the software until it properly functions. However, in the end, we were able to deliver on what we said we could, but not necessarily in the way we thought we would.
To me, the takeaway from that experience was this: Deliver. You have to deliver on what you’ve sold regardless of what you have to do to get that done. “Promise the best, but always deliver.”
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?
Yes, I would easily attribute this to Ollen Douglas, General Manager of the Motley Fool Ventures, who was our first institutional investor and now serves on our board. When we met him, the Motley Fool was toying with the idea of entering the venture world. We met them as a company during a pitch competition. They invested in Eyrus very early on during a friends and family round, and then Ollen joined our board. They’ve been so amazing to work with. Early on when you’re a startup, it just feels like everything you do will make or break you — there’s so much internal stress when things go wrong, but throughout it all, Ollen has been an amazing, steady, sounding-board member and partner, which is fairly rare to find.
I am also very grateful for Hussein. I was introduced to him through a friend of mine, so I didn’t know him before starting the company. To find a partner who will help you evenly tackle the ups and downs of a startup is an extremely fortunate circumstance. He has really helped me balance the stress and anxieties that come with an early stage company. It’s all about finding the right people.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I am a big believer in exercise and thinking time. I’ll take a lot of my calls outside while walking Thunder, my husky shepherd. That’s the beauty of having a virtual office. Especially if there’s a big meeting coming up, I’ll take him for a walk while brainstorming with Hussein about the meeting over the phone. We talk through everything I want to say and brainstorm what directions the meeting might take so I can feel prepared for any unexpected turns. There’s a lot of strategic thinking that goes into meeting preparation for me. It’s very important to always feel like I can respond confidently in meetings no matter what questions might be asked.
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?
We serve a diverse customer base. To me, the job of a company is to add value to its customers. In order to do that, you need to have a diverse executive team so they know how to relate to and add value from various perspectives. This helps with avoiding groupthink mentality.
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.
As a company, the best thing you can do is to be an equal opportunity employer and act on it, which means you must be flexible to your employees. We started Eyrus as a virtual company even before the pandemic, which does have its own challenges, but it enables our talent base to not be constrained by location or commuting demands. And we really do work to incorporate flexibility into all aspects of our business model to allow our staff to manage the things in their lives outside of work. Doesn’t mean they should work less, but they can feel less stressed when they do.
“Part of the reason why I started my company is because I’m a single mom. Though I started my career as an engineering consultant, I did not aspire to become an executive in that field because it required constant travel while, contrarily, I wanted more control over my own schedule. Although running a startup is extremely busy, I still have more control over my own working hours. That’s why it was important to me to develop a company under the basis of providing flexibility to my employees.
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?
As an executive, you’re striving to build a team that is smarter than you are. It also entails empowering your staff and guiding them in one cohesive direction. Though when you’re an executive in a startup, like myself, you’re still heavily involved in the hands-on work. But in Eyrus’ case, as we’ve continued to increase in size and age, my role has evolved more into this type of managerial leadership position.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
More than anything else, you’re beholden to your employees — you’re there to support them. So to me, it feels a lot less like “I have a lot of people working for me” and more “I have a lot of people I need to support”.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
As a female executive, it’s much harder to be heard. It requires being much more repetitive, especially while being in a very male dominated industry.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
How much more I am learning. I thought, as a leader, I would apply what I had learned already but really it’s about working with people that are way more talented than I am, learning from them and leveraging those talents.
Certainly, not 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?
In terms of traits needed to be a successful executive: the ability to listen and communicate your direction, mission, and goals clearly; creativity; flexibility; and being comfortable with things not going right. When this happens, you need to know how to think quickly and refocus — that’s when creativity and flexibility really come in handy as prominent traits.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
In my opinion, women naturally make great leaders. As a woman, acknowledge that you have the ability to lead with your natural talent and abilities.
Also, by entering into a male-dominated industry, I spent a lot of time “fitting in” to that quintessential executive mold, which isn’t a bad thing, but it just requires a certain level of professionalism to be successful. Now, I’ve been trying to bring some of my own personality and tendencies into leadership. You don’t just need to mimic someone else in order to be an effective executive, even if the C-Suite was predominantly dominated by men prior to you.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Generally speaking, I try to involve myself in endeavors with purposeful goals. I invest in companies with missions that are meaningful to me, especially those that have environmentally-friendly driven direction. That’s why I had such an interest in starting Connora, a clean-tech materials science company, with my brother back in 2012. We designed the concept of our company with a very eco-conscious direction.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- What you think you are saying and what someone is hearing can be vastly different. Eyrus moves fast and with urgency and we have learned that just providing direction isn’t enough. It’s important to take the time to hear back from team members on their understanding. As you can infer, we have had to deal with more than one ‘emergency’ created by miscommunication. It is worth repeating communication, communication, communication.
- Be careful of overly targeted branding early on in a company’s life cycle. We are now working on our third website. The first two we spent too much time and money on creating a brand that was obsolete almost as soon as the website was complete. We intend to create messaging that withstands the test of time on this next go-around.
- Don’t be too trusting with company details. Early on in an effort to build partnerships, we shared a lot about our strategic direction and our understanding of the market only to find them copying our efforts.
- Don’t be too guarded. While we have been burned, our greatest achievements have come from sharing our vision and working closely with customers and partners.
- It is often better to release a product early than to not react. Our clients are often working in high-stress environments where they depend on our technology. Much of our feature developments come from customer requests to make their job easier. The sooner we release a product, the more value we provide, plus we benefit from infield client feedback as we continuously improve their experience with our software.
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.
You never know what your idea can trigger. ‘Mistake’ isn’t a bad word. As a society we could accomplish so much more by being more willing to make mistakes, to fail, to say the wrong things. Learn from it and try again, and don’t hold yourself back from fear of failure.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There is a quote that is attributed to Gandhi — “be the change you want to see in the world’ . I heard this when I was younger, and I still think about it often. More in the form of “if it isn’t’ getting done, do it yourself’ or I tell myself “if you don’t do it, nobody is going to do it for you”. Whether I am thinking about having to do the dishes (again), running for the school board or leading the next initiative for Eyrus, that mantra helps me focus my energy and get my work done.
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 U.S. with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Elon Musk, obviously!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.