I recently interviewed Tom Griffiths on my podcast, Thirty Minute Mentors. We spoke about Tom’s journey and best advice on a range of topics. Here are some highlights and excerpts from our conversation:
Adam: What were the early days of FanDuel like and where did the idea come from?
We were in the UK – it was a group of us, five founders – and we were hung up in a tiny office at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where it’s cold and dark and rainy and you tend to spend a lot of time indoors programming computers or you’re trying to come up with the next big startup idea to get the hell out of there. I left my PhD because I was just so excited about the world of startups and what was possible with my computer science background to build something that a lot of people would use. By the time that things rolled around to FanDuel, we were on our third idea, as the first two didn’t really work out. I wouldn’t say we were desperate, but we were kind of desperate, trying to think of something that would work. I dropped out to build an internet company and we needed something that would work.
FanDuel was actually a pivot from an earlier idea, which was a site where folks would predict the outcomes of new stories. What we’d seen was that there was a ton of engagement around predicting sports, but there wasn’t so much engagement around predicting other things that we really wanted people to be predicting, like politics and world news and entertainment. So we figured, why not double down on sports – focus the product on that as a way to monetize – which led us fantasy sports. Rather than an inspiration in the middle of the night, it was really quite an exploratory iterative process to get to a sports site.
Adam: When did you realize that you had it?
Tom: I think the turning point for us was when we’d seen that FanDuel had made more revenue in the first month than [our original business Hubdub] had in the first 18 months. We knew that I was going to be much more promising avenue for us.
Adam: What are the skills, features or characteristics of people you need to hire to build a winning organizational culture in?
Tom: I think this is a great question. My viewpoint on this has changed over the years. I used to put a lot more emphasis on skills and experience in the early days, and over the years I’ve realized that what’s really important is the ability to be a smart problem solver and get things done, coupled with having the values and mindset to want to be part of the company and the story that you’re building. If you’ve got those things in place, then you know for most roles you can trade off a little bit on the experience and resume side because things change so quickly in a growing company that the folks who can learn and adapt the fastest, with the most commitment and the most passion for what you’re doing are the people that you want in the boat with you, as opposed to folks that have more experience but are less committed and less adaptable over time.
Adam: What is a key lesson from early on in your career?
Tom: When you graduate from school, you’re taught that your job is to have the right answer and the way that you progress to the top is to be the person always knowing what to do or what the right answer is. I think that often early in your career perhaps that’s what you think you’re meant to be doing. You’re meant to be the person with all the answers, and if you don’t have them, there may be some insecurity that you want to cover up or you pretend that you do know. I think true next level leadership is recognizing that you are not the expert in every area, and really what you should be doing is surrounding yourself with people who can do things better than you can and have the self-confidence to align that team around the goal and where you’re going. Have the people skills to bring that team together and achieve that outcome and not be the one necessarily knowing all the answers. I think that also flows into first seeking to listen and understand the folks that you’re working with rather than trying to be the one telling them what to do. That’s the way that you get leverage out of people.
Adam: Can you talk about the importance of mental health as a leader and how you prioritize it?
Tom: I think it’s absolutely crucial. At Hone, our teaching starts with this idea that mindset leads to behaviors and behaviors lead to results. If you’re not seeing the results that you want, oftentimes people go to the behaviors, but they really need to go deeper and go back to the mindsets. So having a healthy mind and then cultivating that over your entire career will return volumes in terms of the behaviors and results that you get. I would say that as you go up the organization as a leader and as your organization grows underneath you, the smallest things get amplified as they cascade down the organization. That goes for your demeanor as well. If people see you walking around with a frown on your face or hunched shoulders, then they’re going to pick up on that and amplify it. So I think maintaining your own emotions in check and your mindsets in check will have the effect in the opposite direction, which can set an example and allow you to be a role model for everybody.
Adam: How did you differentiate your product from DraftKings? You were the chief product officer.
Tom: They were very similar products. Truth be told, I think where we focused as a differentiator was that our product was and is a very welcoming experience to more casual fans and DraftKings tended to capture more of the high-end shark-like customers. So we were proud of that.
Adam: What is your best advice on differentiation?
Tom: Make it defensible. It can’t just be fleeting in your mind or easily copyable.
Adam: What is the future of sports gambling?
Tom: I think we’re seeing slowly state by state legislation to allow it. I think in the land of the free, people should be able to do that. And I think that with smart regulation and responsible products, it can be a great entertainment experience for more and more people.
Adam: On a scale of one to 10, how important is ethics to leadership and why?
Tom: I’d say an easy 10. I got to experience an industry in turmoil with FanDuel. I think that really tests people’s values and ethics. I’m proud to say that the founding team always had the highest standard of ethics and always did the right thing. One of our core values was trust with its associated behavior, meaning do the right thing even when no one’s watching. And that allowed us to stand up to scrutiny when it came. I think the “when no one’s watching part” is the really important part of that. It might feel like you can cut corners some days when it’s not in full view, but it will come back to bite you if you do. So do the right thing even when no one’s watching.