Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. How did you get here?
I wanted to be an architect since I was 16 and when the first wave of Internet companies hit in the late ‘90s, I realized that I could fulfill my vision of building great technology companies, instead of buildings, and frankly, could have a larger impact. In 1999, I founded a college social network just a few years before Mr. Zuckerberg while I was a student at Princeton University, but we didn’t survive the dot com crash of 2000. While it was the most humbling experience in my life, it instilled in me a love for building technology companies and I’ve committed the last fifteen years to doing just that. Prior to Pledgeling, I was fortunate to grow and sell a company that delivered billions of text messages and I witnessed first-hand the power of mobile technology to level the playing field. For this next chapter in my life, I wanted to commit to a larger mission by harnessing the power of technology to make a positive & lasting impact on the world – and that’s why I’m here!
I’m a strange professional in that I knew at a very early age (based on my high-school Commodore 64 addiction) that I wanted to ultimately run my own software business. I very purposely crafted a career learning journey to give me the necessary skills to take the helm of a business at some point. This happened for the first time at scale in 2008 when I took over as the CEO of KodakGallery/Ofoto.com.
Adam: What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?
In 2008, on the heels of raising a sizable round of venture capital as CEO of Mogreet during the worst financial market in my lifetime, I realized that our initial idea was not going to scale to our lofty expectations. In meeting with a studio post-financing, one executive suggested a radically different business model and use of our technology than what we had envisioned. While a significant departure from our initial vision, after several follow-up meetings, we realized that this new path and company pivot would position us as one of the early leaders in mobile marketing if “mobile” became a big deal! While it can be tough to come to grips with the fact that your initial vision may not be right, that pivot transformed Mogreet and led to our growth and ultimately, sale. When I joined Pledgeling in 2015 as CEO, I recognized many of the same fundamental characteristics at play – there was a large market, a big idea, but it needed to pivot to evolve to where the market was heading. As consumers increasingly look to buy from companies with shared values and businesses strive for deeper and most lasting relationships with their customers and employees, we believe that our current direction is where the market is heading. And this strategic shift provides us the opportunity to build a world-changing company that can achieve both significant financial and social returns.
I’d say my biggest quantum-state improvement as an executive and a leader came while I was running the web-channel at Intuit. When I joined, the company was doing just 10% of its revenue online and the challenge at the time was to help move Intuit into a more balanced online revenue mix. In order to help drive mindset, process, and organizational change at very large scale I had the privilege of learning from multiple external industry luminaries like Noel Tichy and Fred Reichheld that Intuit had tapped for leadership development. My core leadership skills really accelerated there–and we successfully generated over $1B in online revenue growth in just 4 years.
Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?
The hallmarks of great leaders, in my experience, embody the following characteristics: resilience (the ability to withstand the highs & lows of every business), empathy (a critical quality for team-building), and optimism (belief that even the impossible can be accomplished). For future leaders, I would highly recommend assembling a group of fellow leaders and CEOs who can be your “support group”. Being a leader is naturally isolating and leaders at similar stages of growth (i.e. size, level of funding, etc.) can offer invaluable insights from similar experiences that will save you time, capital and help you ultimately make the best strategic decisions.
This is a complex question because effective leaders vary so widely in the unique strengths that make them shine. At the highest level I would say the most effective and inspirational leaders I have worked for all share three core traits in common: they have a clear Growth Mindset, they are transparent, and they harbor genuine empathy for others.
Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to an audience of entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?
Through my entrepreneurial journey across industries, here are my 3 best tips for leaders today:
What’s your mission? Define your mission early, so you can inspire and lead your team, company, customers, investors and all stakeholders along the same journey.
Hire Fast, Fire Fast – If you find a great person, hire fast! If they are not the right fit, fire fast as the wrong apple can spoil the bunch!
Survive, then Thrive – One of my early mentors said the hidden secret in entrepreneurship is the art of survival. While Darwinian, the point is that most companies and leaders don’t have the capital, resiliency, patience and staying power to outlast the competition and wait until the market has fully emerged. I think this is a critical lesson and once you’ve survived, you are best positioned to thrive!
That’s a very broad spectrum of audiences, but I think I have some candidates. Number 1, integrity matters in everything you do. This is our number one value at Evite (Act with the Upmost Integrity). It starts from your actions and behaviors and will set the foundation of your organization’s culture. Number 2, define and clearly communicate the purpose for your organization. At Evite, our purpose is much broader than simply sending out invitations–it’s to bring people together face-to-face for meaningful, personal connection. Number 3, always consider how you can use your position to improve not just your own company or organization, but the society at large. Evite Donations is a great example of how we use our scale position to make the world a better place.
Adam: What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
My college roommate Ryan raised his glass many years ago in a toast and shared these prescient words: “May the best days of your life be the worst days of your future.” And these words have stuck with me everyday since. They provide a foundation for striving to achieve more, finding greater personal and professional highs, while also celebrating what you’ve achieved. If no one sets your ceiling, imagine what you can accomplish!?
The best piece of advice I have ever received was from a gentleman named Raymond Stern, who was the CMO at Intuit at the time. He opened my eyes to the power of personal connection and relationship to drive things forward. Before his advice I had always leaned heavily upon the power of my ideas, the logic behind the idea, and the data backing that logic. Raymond really expanded by leadership toolkit by letting me know that sometimes the fastest way to drive change is simply to have a strong relationship in place–one based on mutual trust.
Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you? Is there anything else you would like to share?
I’ve spent the better part of my life playing volleyball and just returned from one of my most memorable life experiences as my Princeton volleyball team’s Championship & Final Four banners were hung on campus. We are the only Ivy League team in history to make the NCAA Final Four! The importance of athletics and team sports in my life have proven to be invaluable time & time again. They taught me critical skills in teamwork, adversity, time management and ultimately how to hustle!
While I truly love what I do everyday and seeing the real-time financial & social impact of what Pledgeling is able to accomplish, I didn’t realize the impact of being a parent would have on me. (I have a 3-year boy, Kingsley, and 4-month old daughter, Lola.) Without question, it has taught me to enjoy every minute, to see the world through their eyes and to disconnect from my devices as much as possible when I’m around them! On weekends, Kingsley and I can frequently be found engaged in our community, from planting garden boxes with Community Healing Gardens, trees with our friends at Motev and preparing food for the Santa Monica shelter.
I’m a technologist at heart and love to experiment and explore the latest gadgets and toys that the market has to offer. Whether it’s virtual reality systems (my living room has become a big VR-studio), 3D videography and photography (I carry two cameras in my backpack at all times), or telepresence robotics (I often send my kids off to school as a robot from a different city), I am fascinated by how our day-to-day lives will be impacted by the latest technology trends.