Embrace your humanity. It’s likely other people have experienced similar situations, and it’s also likely your friends, colleagues, and employees will have ideas on how to deal with whatever is stressing you. Sometimes as leaders, we feel like allowing others to see our vulnerable side is a bad thing. But people respect the humanity of someone who admits when they’re wrong or when they don’t know something.
As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewingLars Helgeson.
The story of Helgeson’s business starts back in 1997, when he walked into a bookstore to get a better understanding of the Internet. At the time, he was in the Air Force, and knew he didn’t want to work for a huge organization and be a cog in a massive, bureaucratic machine.
He picked up a book called “Teach Yourself CGI Programming In A Week”, and proceeded to power through basic programs built in a language called Perl. From there, Helgeson worked with the man who would become his business partner for the next 15 years to build a searchable database of fine art. That company eventually folded, but the lessons they learned took them to our next ventures.
Not every idea we had came to fruition, but each try brought them closer to the platform that evolved into GreenRope, his flagship CRM and marketing automation platform. In 2008, Lars had the idea to create a platform from scratch that would address the real needs of businesses — integrating information together in a useful, actionable way. That idea is what fueled the development of GreenRope.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Igrew up the son of a science teacher and a social worker. We lived in middle-class California, moving around a few times and then settling in the San Diego area for my high school years. After my parents divorced, I was told I would have to make it on my own, so I applied for an Air Force ROTC scholarship. I got into Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York and earned a bachelor’s and master’s in mechanical engineering.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as an entrepreneur or business leader? We’d love to hear the story.
I served in the Air Force for 4 years after college. It was an incredible experience, and I met and worked with some brilliant, driven, strong people who demonstrated leadership and management skills. I tried to be a sponge to learn about how to analyze complex systems and lead teams of technical and non-technical people.
Like any large organization, the Air Force does have its internal politics and bureaucracy. After 4 years navigating the ins and outs of the military-industrial complex, I decided I would be happier working on my own, where I can make the changes I felt were right. I wanted to feel responsible for my own successes and failures, rather than being a small cog in a huge machine.
While I was active duty, I went to night school and got an MBA from the University of New Mexico. I knew I needed to learn about the private industry if I were to start my own business, and my degree did a great job of preparing me for that.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
My parents have always been supportive, even when those around me have doubted and questioned my business and abilities. That unwavering support has helped me all the way through the many ups and downs of starting and growing GreenRope.
In 2000, when I moved back to the San Diego area to start my business, I lived off some savings I had stored up while in the military. I knew I had to live frugally, so I had a tiny apartment where I would work day and night on programming projects for people I had connected with, simultaneously building CoolerEmail, which would be my first company. There were so many long days and nights, and oftentimes I would survive on mac and cheese and the college diet while I tried to make my savings last as long as I could. Those days, my Mom would sometimes come over, or I would drive to her place for dinner and a break from staring at the computer screen.
In 2012, when my Mom passed away, I lost a part of myself. She had always been there for me. The unwavering support for years of struggle, through lean years, and the humbling reminders when my businesses grew. In 2018, I gave a TED talk about my experience as a way to honor her memory and impact on my life.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
The most interesting mistake I made had to do with hiring my best friend to be my company accountant. I implicitly trusted him with all of my finances, personal and corporate. In 2016, he admitted to embezzling money from my company. The total trust I gave was a very costly mistake. The obvious lesson here is to make sure you have financial controls in place to ensure one individual doesn’t have unfettered access to your finances. The other is to watch for personality traits that are often linked to abuse of trust. In this case, alcoholism was there, but as his friend, I was too forgiving and didn’t think it would affect me or the company. Had I been a better friend, I could have intervened sooner, and potentially prevented the entire fiasco.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
Be careful who you partner with. I started my first company with a partner who was a great “talker”. He could get anyone excited about anything. Unfortunately, after a few years, he decided he didn’t want to put any more effort into the business and wanted to sit back and collect his percentage of the net profits. We had no “what if” clause to account for one partner pulling back from the business. If you do bring on partners in a business, have clear, objective requirements for performance and responsibility, and if one partner fails to uphold their part of the business, have a mechanism to remove that partner.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is a guidebook for business and many aspects of life. Extrapolated to the battles of business, you can use the principles in that book to overcome the many obstacles in front of you. I think the most valuable lesson has to do with removing your emotions from decisions. In modern business, it’s called “data-driven” decision making, but the ideas still hold. Choose your path based on information, not based on anger or fear.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
“No matter where you go, there you are.” I first saw this when I watched the cult classic film “Buckaroo Banzai”. It seems trite and ridiculous on the surface, and in the movie, they make fun of it, but if you sit back and think about it, it is a very Zen-like saying. Whoever you are, whatever you do, you are who you are, no matter where you are on the planet.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
Our CRM platform is designed to disrupt the concept of what a CRM is. Most people think of a CRM as a sales tool, but we have taken a much broader approach to it. The vision of GreenRope’s CRM is to include sales, marketing, customer service, and operations, all in a single platform. Currently, we are building out an integration with Stripe, so that our users around the world have access to an easy way to collect funds directly from the CRM.
GreenRope also just launched a program to make our CRM available for free to all Non-Profit Organizations. In the challenging times we are facing now, we want to help the organizations that help our planet and our people.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As a business leader, you likely often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to cope with the burden of stress?
Strategy #1 — Remove your emotion from your decision making. It’s very tempting to react to stress with fear, anger, or frustration, and allowing those emotions to drive us. Good leaders are able to take a step back and recognize those emotions, but not allow them to control us.
Strategy #2 — Embrace your humanity. It’s likely other people have experienced similar situations, and it’s also likely your friends, colleagues, and employees will have ideas on how to deal with whatever is stressing you. Sometimes as leaders, we feel like allowing others to see our vulnerable side is a bad thing. But people respect the humanity of someone who admits when they’re wrong or when they don’t know something.
Strategy #3 — Do something to take your mind off it. Find something you can do that takes your mind completely off your issue. For me, it’s surfing or hockey. I can’t think about anything else while I do those things. This gives your conscious mind a break while opening space for your subconscious mind to help you work out roadblocks.
Aside from being able to deal with the burden of stress, can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
Strategy #1 — Be active. A healthy body supports a healthy mind. Get out and do stuff and get your blood moving. Focus your energy and intention on something that isn’t work for a while.
Strategy #2 — Get a dog. My dog is a source of constant unconditional love, as well as a reminder that I have to get outside and walk when days seem to get away from me.
Strategy #3 — Breathe. Take a few minutes to meditate and just breathe. It’s ok to let your mind wander to the things that are causing you stress, but try to bring the mind back to focusing on just breathing.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques, meditations or visualizations to help optimize yourself? If you do, we’d love to hear about it.
I don’t do anything special, other than to not be judgmental about our minds’ natural wandering back toward the source of the stress. Allow the mind to shift there, but always remind yourself to focus on your breath.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
I make sure I create a space that is free of distraction. I work from a clean desk, with minimum or no paper on it. I find clutter distracts me, so the more I am able to simplify my workspace and life, the easier it is to focus.
We all know the importance of good habits. How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
Finding balance has always been a key to sustained growth. Running a business is a marathon, not a sprint. There will always be many long nights and stressful situations, no matter how big it gets. As businesses go through various phases, the stresses just change.
Good balance between work hours, self-care (working out, walking the dog solo, surfing, hiking, whatever), and sleep is critical to managing a business. Family and social life also play into that balance, but be sure they understand that all elements of your life have to remain in balance. Find partners and friends who respect what you need to do to maintain your own happiness and keep your business going.
What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
Repetition and adherance to your boundaries. In the marathon of your business, it’s common to find a shiny thing and do it for a while and then forget and lapse into unproductive old habits. It’s the same reason why weight loss is a struggle for so many — the temptation to return to those habits is strong. The only way to break old habits is to create new ones and stick to them. Use your friends and colleagues for support, to hold you accountable to the habits you want in your life.
Part of establishing habits is setting boundaries for people who may not be in support of the habits you want in your life. We all have friends and/or family members who want to distract you from your greater purpose. Make sure the people in your close circle are aware of your goals and habits, and if you trust them, ask them to help you attain them.
As a business leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
Flow for me happens when I create space to let me be me. People who support me finding my flow and celebrate with me when I create something. I still write code and build GreenRope, often inspired by ideas that pop into my head about how to do something better. When someone gets excited with me, it’s fuel on the fire. The support from friends and colleagues helps me find that flow and channel my energy toward building something that directly helps people.
Ok, we are nearly done. 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.
I have always believed that the people who matter the most in this world are those who want to help others. The ones who have a vision and build non-profit organizations dedicated to making our world better. Whether it’s in support of educating others, providing financial assistance to people who are socially or economically challenged, or dedicating their lives to cleaning up our environment, there are people here who truly care about the world around us. These are the people who need the most help we can give them. That’s why we offer GreenRope CRM for free to them — we want them to have the tools to raise funds and build awareness for their causes.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
Mark Cuban. Mark has always been a disruptor and thinks and acts against the status quo, challenging others and encouraging them to be their best selves. I find him to be an inspiration for all of us growing our businesses. GreenRope is in a crowded, well-funded space (CRM and marketing automation is a mature industry and we compete with multi-billion-dollar companies with our small bootstrapped team of 20 people), and I’d love to get his take on what he thinks we could do better.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.