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Tad Martin of Collective[i]: “Empathy represents strength”

Empathy represents strength. Great leaders put themselves in the shoes of their team members and use this as the starting point to deliver direct, clear and consistent feedback. The goal should be to align company outcomes with outcomes that also empower employees to develop personal skills. As part of our series about business leaders who are […]

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Empathy represents strength. Great leaders put themselves in the shoes of their team members and use this as the starting point to deliver direct, clear and consistent feedback. The goal should be to align company outcomes with outcomes that also empower employees to develop personal skills.


As part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tad Martin, co-Founder and CEO of Collective[i].

Tad is a seasoned executive experienced in managing the growth of technology companies from startup to mature organizations. Tad began his career in the online world in 1999 as one of the earliest employees of Gear.com, a sporting goods company backed by Amazon.com. Through an acquisition, Tad joined Overstock.com and helped the company grow from roughly $70m in revenue to over $800m, as it went from a privately funded startup to a publicly traded company on the NASDAQ. Tad was also a member of the nine-person committee responsible for the successful bid to host the Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2002 and currently serves as a member of the Board of Trustees for the American Folk Art Museum.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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?

After university, I settled on the West Coast. It was an exciting time to be there, right when the internet was launching. Everything around e-commerce had to be invented. I started off at an online sporting goods start-up funded by Amazon. We ended up being acquired by Overstock.com, and I was asked to stay on with the acquirer as part of the acquisition. I moved from Seattle to Salt Lake City and worked my way up to the C-suite. At Overstock, we were the pioneers making it possible for people to shop from their computers.

I strongly believe that it’s important to seek out challenges. Once a role becomes too familiar or a space too mature, you run the risk of slowing your learning curve and appetite for trying new things. In 2006, I relocated to NYC determined to start something new. I met with people in many different industries at various stages and sizes, which sparked my imagination and taught me a lot about myself.

Having a moment to reflect helped me realize that my most gratifying roles were the ones that took me out of my comfort zone. Artificial intelligence and machine learning were in the early stages of application development. Seeing the potential in these advancements, I also saw a greenfield of opportunity. AI has the potential to solve massive problems. The one I saw was to help companies move from opinion-based management of revenue to science. Hence Collective[i] (which is short for Collective Intelligence) was born.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Collective[i] is disrupting the $40B market dominated by CRM, the largest sector of B2B software. Our mission is to help companies around the world better predict, manage, and grow revenue by illuminating the economic and human connections that impact business productivity and growth.

Collective[i] is core to the business transformation accelerated by the current COVID-19 crisis. We offer intelligent applications that combine our proprietary network of data with Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Machine Learning (ML), crowdsourced intelligence and a relationship graph. Like Slack, LinkedIn, Google and Zoom, Collective[i] represents the next generation of work technology. Functionality is enhanced by collaboration, networking, AI/ML-driven insights and human-centric design. Some examples of what we provide include automated data capture into CRM, insights into B2B buyers and their processes, intelligent forecasting and connectors who can help accelerate sales. The more I learned how far sales needed to go, the more excited I was to be a part of the transformation. That’s when my co-founders and I decided to form Collective[i], a world recognized leader in digital sales transformation.

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?

My first job out of college was in sales. I was fortunate to be in the sporting goods industry, selling a product that was in high demand. After hearing how hard business was (my college degree was in English), I thought I had a natural gift.

On my third sales call, I sat back stunned, watching as the prospect signed for an enormous order. They effectively cleaned out much of what the company had in inventory.

Once the order was complete, the buyer turned to me and said, “We require 60 net terms for vendors we work with; I assume that is okay?”. As an English major I had little interaction with direct business courses and thus had no idea what “net terms” were.

I confidently replied, “Of course, that won’t be a problem.” I then went to the CFO, who, after digesting the implications of having no inventory left, with two months before the company would see revenue to replenish it, calmly explained that sales wasn’t just about top line revenue.

In the end, that account alone accounted for more than a third of our sales over the course of the next twelve months, and I remained in touch with that buyer until she retired ten years later.

Ultimately I learned several valuable lessons.

Mistakes are valuable teachers. As COO of Overstock, I understood the relationship between revenue recognition and inventory management and ended up overseeing the implementation of a company-wide system to better manage inventory.

Sales requires real skill. Sales professionals have to understand their buyers, their products and their company’s business model. It’s not enough to be an order taker, you have to drive towards an optimal outcome for the buyer and the company.

Leaders are partners in finding solutions to problems their teams make. My CFO could have fired me on the spot. Instead, we worked together to find a way out of the mess I had created, which not only saved my career, but allowed me to leverage my relationship with the buyer for the company’s benefit.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Overstock’s founder and former CEO, Patrick Byrne, was a tremendous mentor. Apart from his personal resilience (he has survived multiple bouts with cancer), he wasn’t afraid to take risks and challenge the status quo. He and I didn’t always see eye to eye, but he gave me the confidence and license to act on my convictions. He built great teams and empowered them.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

The word disruption is tricky. In tech, it’s usually synonymous with progress. For example, when we say that Google is disrupting traditional advertising, or Netflix is disrupting entertainment, or Collective[i] is disrupting how companies manage revenue, it is implied that Google, Netflix and Collective[i] are massively improving outcomes for customers. Advertisers get radically higher ROIs, viewers get radically improved content and sales teams get radically improved productivity and revenue gains.

All of the above is true and the positive side of disruption. Technology and entrepreneurs thrive on solving massive problems (we are building a map of the worldwide economy!), and the solutions require disrupting the status quo.

The challenge is often less about the disruption, and more about the change management and adaptations needed to ensure that the widest swath of people derive the benefits the technology promises. At Collective[i], we think about the impact our application will have on how people operate. We are one of the few AI providers that has a services team to walk our clients through how the functionality we’ve built will impact people and what’s needed to help our clients leverage the intelligence we provide.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Empathy represents strength. Great leaders put themselves in the shoes of their team members and use this as the starting point to deliver direct, clear and consistent feedback. The goal should be to align company outcomes with outcomes that also empower employees to develop personal skills.

The status quo is never a persuasive argument for why a particular course of action is preferable. My radar goes up when I hear, “everyone does it this way” or “I’ve done it like this in every other role,” etc. I want my teams to be curious and constantly looking for better ways to do things.

Problems present opportunities to grow. Putting this into practice is easier said than done. The natural response to a problem is often fear, denial or blame. Take the current crisis, which forced companies to operate in a completely digital domain. There were companies who dove in and companies who panicked. Based on what I’ve seen with Collective[i] clients — who I’m proud to say embraced the challenge as the impetus to transform — I predict we will see massive successes that are the direct result of these investments.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

Collective[i] represents a new age for business where people are empowered with AI-driven insights. Today, most companies manage revenue based on people’s opinions. You know who suffers when those people’s opinions are wrong? Employees who lose their jobs, shareholders who lose value and companies who can’t invest in staying competitive because the market penalizes their mistakes.

Getting people to understand the impact our model will have on opportunity involves my other passion: education. AI will change how our institutions and companies operate. It will require massive amounts of intellectual capital to imagine all the ways we can apply the technology to improve humanity. As a nation, we can’t afford to miss an opportunity to educate every child and prepare them for the jobs of the future.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I am on a constant quest to learn and consume content from any source that will help me evolve as a person and business leader. Most recently, I read The Goal by Eliyahu Golratt. The book presents the theory of constraints and ongoing improvement. It’s brilliant in its message and told in the form of a story about an individual addressing a problem. I won’t spoil it; go read it.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Relish the journey as much as the destination. Great outcomes are the sum of small decisions along the way. My goal is to not dwell on mistakes and appreciate each win — however small it may be — as a step in the right direction.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Education is a human right.

How can our readers follow you online?

Twitter: @tadmartin

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/tadmartin1

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