When you have a variety of perspectives on your sales team, you have an increased chance of connecting well with a variety of buyers.
As a part of our series about “How Diversity Can Increase a Company’s Bottom Line”, I had the pleasure of interviewing JD Miller. As chief revenue officer at Motus, JD is responsible for all revenue and business development functions at the company, which provides mileage reimbursement and driver management technologies for businesses with mobile workers and fleets. He leads the sales, marketing and enterprise account management functions to achieve the company’s growth goals and ensure Motus customers are set up for success. As Motus’ first senior LGBTQ leader, JD has promoted a balance of diverse and inclusive perspectives and backgrounds. He also volunteers as a business mentor at technology incubator 1871. He works with LGBTQ entrepreneurs to help them in securing investment funding, winning their first customers and honing their messaging and sales pitches.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I attended the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign with a pre-law emphasis. The summer before law school was supposed to begin, I interned in the Clinton White House. It was a great experience, but also convinced me that being an attorney wasn’t the most fun job and that there had to be something else out there.
That fall, instead of attending law school, I worked as a research assistant for a communications professor who was studying how social networks in the physical world translate into the online space (it was 1996 and the internet was just starting). A year later, I was recruited by a tech company and my career in software sales launched from there. Along the way, I took a risk as employee number 26 at a small startup that was eventually acquired by Vignette, who went public with a $9 billion valuation and was 6,000 employees strong when I left the company. It was a great early training for me on how companies of various sizes operate and set me down the path of leading sales roles for companies going through rapid growth or change.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
In my first job, I was using the name I’d grown up with — Jim Miller. It was at a large company and there was a very senior executive who was also located in Chicago and also named Jim Miller, so IT set one of us up as “James Miller” and one as “Jim Miller” in the email system.
A couple of days into the job, I received an email with a list of all 3,000 employees and their associated compensation “for my review and approval.” Being a good rule-follower, I reviewed and then sent to the other Jim Miller (who it was actually intended for), indicating that I mostly approved, but noticed a big discrepancy between the comp plans of the two Jim Miller’s…perhaps that needed to be addressed in the next revision?
That afternoon, my name was changed to “JD Miller,” I received a new email address and a new professional identity was born.
The key takeaway: small choices can have big unintended consequences. I’ve worked with a lot of small startups in my career, but have always focused on how these systems will scale when we are 10, 100 or 1000 times our size. Planning for wild growth and success today allows us to be prepared when we’re thrown a curve ball later.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Above all else, we pride ourselves for creating a collaborative culture that encourages ongoing learning, growth and support both inside and outside of the office. I think that’s what makes Motus a truly special place to work. We all understand that the team comes first — their happiness and their success is paramount to anything else. And we also know that when people are happy and fulfilled outside of work, it translates to better performance in the office as well.
Outside of my professional life, I’m the Chairman of the Board of Care For Friends — a non-profit dedicated to helping Chicago’s homeless achieve a change in life circumstances. I joined Motus about a month before our biggest fundraiser of the year — a mid-February “Sleepout for Homelessness” where people sleep outdoors in tents pitched in the middle of snowy Chicago to raise money for the organization. It’s a great cause, but not for the faint of heart.
I mentioned it as a casual comment during my onboarding, and was surprised a month later when about a dozen co-workers showed up from across the country, armed with sleeping bags and thermoses of hot chocolate ready to pitch a tent next to me and get to know their new colleague.
At first, I thought it might have been because I was a new executive. But we see similar turnout for employees at all levels of the organization. One of our business development representatives trained for a charitable boxing match called “Haymakers for Hope” and half the company turned up ringside in custom t-shirts to support him. Colleagues also run races together, bring baby toys to new parents and on and on.
I think this camaraderie and true solidarity translates to being a successful partner business partner, since we make every effort to make our customers happy and understand what makes them tick and what would make their lives easier. In fact, we have a client retention rate of 97%, which I’m extremely proud of and attribute to the qualities of our amazing team, who extend the same kind of support to our clients.
For example, one of our clients has a passion for rebuilding forests that have been devastated in fires and was planning to roll out our product to tens of thousands of their employees. Our team merged the two and planted a new set of trees each time the client reached a new milestone in their deployment.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?
At Motus, we help hundreds of thousands of professionals be properly reimbursed for any business use of their personal cars when they drive for work. Collectively, our drivers log billions of miles — and purchase billions of dollars of fuel, tires and other vehicle-related expenses. We’ve recently harnessed that purchasing power to create a fuel card program that provides our customers’ drivers with a 3–5% discount on the gas they purchase, which has been a great benefit to low wage workers. We’re now turning our sights to ways to extend that purchasing power to oil changes, vehicle repairs and other services where the collective purchasing power of our fleet of drivers can be brought to bear.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Everyone wants to do meaningful work, and we also have a core desire to be seen and appreciated when doing it. With employees in offices across the country, Motus has grown to a size where I can’t possibly remember all of the personal details of each employee (or even, perhaps, be able to recall their name when I see them face to face). Yet these folks — who are doing the day-to-day work that makes our business operate successfully and smoothly — crave appreciation and recognition.
With this in mind, I’ve built an electronic rolodex of sorts where I can jot down notes about key interactions I’ve had with employees which I’ll want to recall the next time I see them. I’ve also created a mechanism by which managers can update me with meaningful accomplishments their teams are achieving in real time. When that happens, I’ll get out a notecard and write a few personal lines of thanks and recognition that I mail to the employee’s home.
The response has been overwhelming — the resulting enthusiasm and loyalty generated by this small act of gratitude feels like the equivalent to giving the employee a $5,000 bonus.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders about how to manage a large team?
When you manage a large team, that team is going to have to make tons of decisions you don’t even know about, let alone how they resolved any particular issue at hand. To assure my team that I’ll always be able to defend their choices, we talk a lot about aligning our values — if I know what values a choice sprung from, I’ll always be able to support it, regardless of the outcome.
For my teams, I’ve settled on three core values to drive everything we do: acting with integrity, being kind and getting results. They operate like a three-legged stool, meaning we need to have each of them in equal measure to balance well. A sales rep who crushes his quota, but is also a jerk to be around or does questionable deals will not have a long career with me. Similarly, the nicest sales rep who can’t get results will have to go.
This discussion is one I have with each hire on their first day of employment (and actually, one I test for during their interview process), and one that we come back to again and again whenever we have decisions to make.
Ok. Thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. This may be obvious to you, but it is not intuitive to many people. Can you articulate to our readers five ways that increased diversity can help a company’s bottom line. (Please share a story or example for each.)
In my two years at Motus, we’ve hired a lot of sales professionals — and the rapid growth gave us an opportunity to really make an intentional effort to diversify the employee base in a variety of ways. Not only in terms of age/race/gender/identity, but also in recruiting people with a variety of backgrounds and ways of thinking. The results have been phenomenal:
- When you have a variety of perspectives on your sales team, you have an increased chance of connecting well with a variety of buyers. When I started at Motus, we had a pretty traditional, uniform “masculine” approach to sales — and we had a set of buyers in traditionally “male” industries that bought from us repeatedly. In the ensuing years, we worked to become an attractive employer for female sales reps, and now are beating the industry average for female sellers (across the largest tech companies, just 25% of sales people are female). Interestingly, our revenues have shown that the women are producing 20% more revenue than their male counterparts — and are doing so with customers in new industries we hadn’t competed in before.
- Diversity gives you a better opportunity to react well to changing market demands. When you have a sales force who thinks and acts the same way, they’re able to achieve amazing results when the market is aligned to their skills. But as soon as a market condition changes in a way that hits their weakness, that particular type of rep fails — and if the whole team has the same weakness, the whole team fails in the same way at the exact same time. Having a diversity of approaches can help a company adapt quickly and thrive. At Motus, we’ve long been the leading choice for customers in the food and beverage space. They have thousands of salespeople and delivery drivers who use our applications to track all of the restaurants, bars and grocery stores they drive to each day. Yet over the past few years, this industry has been shrinking. Some of our clients have been forced to lay off employees, (in groups of fives and tens) — which meant the total number of users in that space was shrinking a little bit each year. Amidst the noise of our entire customer base, it wasn’t terribly notable. Food and beverage is just one of many industries we serve and the reps who had worked in that market for years were blind to the gradual erosion because it was in the DNA of their industry upbringing. However, some of our employees who worked outside of that industry looked at customer trends in a different way and they were able to spot the shift a year and a half into the layoffs. They started driving proactive conversations with our clients about the changing demographics of their employee base and ways we could create contracts that would better suit their long-term needs. That wouldn’t have happened — or it would have happened much later — if we had a monoculture on our team.
- Diverse groups arrive at better decisions. I have a PhD in group communication, so have long been aware of the research that diverse sales groups make better decisions than homogenous ones — moreover, they make decisions that academics quantify as 87% better.When I joined Motus two years ago, it was on the day that the company acquired its largest competitor in the space. The two companies had been battling each other for years, providing the exact same technologies for customers packaged with the exact same messages. Yet under the covers, the companies were getting there in completely different ways. One had used technology to automate every system or process that could be automated, while the other hired a ton of people to provide personal touch and support to their clients along the way. By themselves, both companies were effective — but each had complaints about the effects that their particular approach had on the business. It wasn’t until they got into the same room and talked through their differences that they realized there was something in the other company’s approach that could be used. This led to a more automated solution (with a lower cost to deliver) on the one hand, with a bit more personal touch (and happier customer) when engaging with customer support.
- Of course, the research also shows that diverse groups take longer to arrive at decisions. At Motus, we have taken steps to facilitate richer communication among our teams, which you don’t find at too many companies. Every meeting space in our office is equipped with high-definition video conferencing tools and every home-based employee joins meetings via laptop videoconference so that we work with the most engaged kinds of communication that we can. We recently launched a large office in my home city of Chicago, and some of this research was brought into the design of the space so that we have different kinds of spaces for different kinds of meetings — small, intimate chair nooks that feel almost like a hotel lobby, large conference rooms where we can cover the walls with sticky notes and dry erase markers and creativity-inducing toys to fiddle with everywhere throughout the office. The feedback from employees on this new space is that it’s invigorating, inspirational and makes people want to come in earlier, stay later and work harder than they ever have before.
- Diverse groups allow you to take multiple paths to a similar goal. When I was hired to help integrate Motus with their acquired competitor, I expected to see a great deal of overlap in their customer base and pipelines. Both companies sold essentially the same product and were using essentially the same pitch, so I was expecting to see them pursuing essentially the same customers. Yet on the date of the acquisition, there was only 8% overlap in the sales pipelines the two companies were pursuing. On closer inspection, it was a result of diversity in age. One company had young, recently graduated sales professionals who were doing highly transactional business in small-dollar accounts that closed within a couple of weeks. The other company had very seasoned sales professionals with 15–20 years’ experience who were doing a small set of deals each year in the hundreds of thousands of dollars range, and which took 6–9 months to complete. Both kinds of business are valuable to us, and we pursue both kinds of deals today. But we’re only effective at it because we have that diversity of experience that makes us able to do each kind of sales motion effectively.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I was fortunate to spend an early part of my career at Vignette, a web content management company in the late 90s which grew to run 65% of the world’s website and had one of the largest technology IPOs with a $9 billion valuation. It set me off on a great financial footing, allowing me to purchase my home and be mortgage-free since my late 20s.
I started volunteering at a homeless shelter that was run by a church down the block, which provided a hot meal to anyone who asked for nearly 50 years. Yet as the program grew bigger, fewer people attended the church, which put a huge financial strain on its ability to survive.
In partnership with the pastor there, I spun the program off as a standalone 501(c)3 called Care For Friends and was able to fundraise and hire staff to run it as an independent entity. We quickly realized that Care For Friends was providing more than a meal — it was creating a trusted community amongst homeless people (who usually distrust authority) that we could use to make connections to life-changing resources.
We started inviting service providers to those meals who we could introduce to our guests over time, including those who could address the underlying issues of homelessness. Today, 85% of our guests who we refer to an affordable housing partner are housed within 6 months — and remain housed when we check back a year later. The vast majority of our guests now have a permanent medical home that is not the Emergency Department. And graduates of our job skills and training program are earning an average wage of $12.34/hour for work that lasts 38 hours per week (and they remain employed in these or better jobs when we check back a year later). What was once a hot meal serve in a church basement is now a thriving program that has 12,500 homeless contacts per year — and which we believe is responsible for at least part of the 10% reduction in experiences of homelessness that Chicago has seen in each of the last two years.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
In one of the Harry Potter books, Albus Dumbledore tells his students that the day will come when you may have to choose between doing what is right and what is easy. My life experience has matched Dumbledore’s advice that doing what is right is always the better choice.
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?
As a bright-eyed 20-something, I went on a fundraising call to Peter England to ask for his support of Care For Friends. He was the former CEO of Elizabeth Arden company and had also been running the Chicago Children’s museum as a fun retirement project for a few years. I expected to leave the meeting with a check, and perhaps a business contact I’d call on from time to time.
Over the years, he did, of course, have a lot of great advice to offer me as I worked through a series of private equity-held sales opportunities. But beyond that, he had a wealth of great advice about how to be a good person, an engaged member of the community, a good husband and much, much more. I still don’t know why he decided to invest time and mentorship in me — but his advice not only made be a successful business professional, it made me a successful person in life.
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 🙂
So many. But over the past few years, I’ve been really intrigued by the way LinkedIn is evolving their platform. The communication PhD in me is intrigued by the way it is a social media platform, but also a news source and a publishing and blogging platform that has been able to maintain a high standard of professionalism in everything written — very different than what you’d see on Facebook or Twitter. I’d love to sit down with Daniel Roth, the Editor in Chief of LinkedIn, to chat about his content strategy and editorial standards, and what makes it all work.
Thank you for all of these great insights!