Community//

“What’s giving up?” With Ross Buhrdorf

What’s giving up? To me, this is why I think my percentage of success is high. If something is failing, I absolutely give up if it’s not working. To continue to do something that is flawed, and you have evidence is flawed, is wrong. At that point, you should absolutely give up–but I think that’s […]

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.

What’s giving up? To me, this is why I think my percentage of success is high. If something is failing, I absolutely give up if it’s not working. To continue to do something that is flawed, and you have evidence is flawed, is wrong. At that point, you should absolutely give up–but I think that’s smart. I know so many entrepreneurs that are beating a dead horse. Their ego is so tied up in a thing being successful, and that’s a waste because there are so many other things you can do to be successful. I consider giving up when it’s a bad idea, and I think “man, I’ll never do that again.” But that doesn’t mean I don’t learn from it.

As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ross Buhrdorf.

Ross is the CEO & Founder of ZenBusiness PBC. He previously was the founding CTO for HomeAway (NASDAQ:AWAY). His technology built the company from a startup, through the IPO to its recent acquisition by Expedia (NASDAQ: EXPE) for $3.9B. In his more than 30 years as a technology leader, entrepreneur, and C-level corporate executive in both public and private companies, Ross helps transform the way consumers interact with technology.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Well it all began when I studied a computer science degree at UT. My first job was as an intern at Data General, a microcomputer company. The plan there was to disrup IBM. They had billions of dollars in revenue and were selling tons. Then, during an economic downturn, everyone got laid off except for me. I didn’t get laid off because I was an intern and a contractor. This taught me there isn’t security in big companies; in fact, it’s the opposite. It’s a false economy to believe that big companies provide job security. Today, you hear about these big tech companies where half their workforce is made up of contractors. So, I concluded you’re an independent agent whether you know it or not. You should go out on the risk curve.

My parents were both entrepreneurs and had their own businesses, so it was second nature to me. From Data General, I went to Tandem Computers, the first fault-tolerant user machine. Then Computer Systems, the last computer company that built from the ground up (sold to Fujitsu).
After that, I went to a couple of startups, and then went to HomeAway as the founding CTO. I’ve had a 80%+ success rate of exits for startups (I guess you can say I’m doing pretty good).

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

I got involved as a CTO of a company that thought it was a great idea to do SaaS-based supply chain management solutions for the auto industry when the auto industry was crashing. That was our “great idea”. It wasn’t entirely my idea, I was hired to work there, but I thought it was a great idea at the time because the software was good.
The biggest piece here is a “show me”, don’t “tell me” culture. Your customers don’t lie, so you need to make darn sure you are building something that people want and that they will pay for. So many entrepreneurs are focused on ideas, and think that people will love it because it’s technology, but I don’t believe that happens. Sometimes people think that happens, but honestly all these unicorns have been simmered over time and some entrepreneur takes it to the level where they fill the demand. At HomeAway, the innovation is we made the biggest vacation rental with a huge network effect. It wasn’t because it was original; it was an optimization on something that had a need. AirBnB didn’t necessarily make a new segment, but locked into what customers wanted. That’s what we do at ZenBusiness; we build what people want.

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? Can you share a story?

There are a couple of people. One was the founder & CEO at Computer Systems, Andrew Heller. He was a fellow at IBM and then went off and started this company. Many people who know him would say he’s truly genius in a genius way and genius in a crazy way (depends on your perspective). He took a chance on me and my career exploded there as a young engineer. He used to say “let’s give it to Ross because he doesn’t know any better”. He was definitely a mentor and I still like the hell out of him.
I always get this mentor question, but I like to pay attention to everybody. An investor once said to me, “there are so many people at your stage in your career that are so hard to teach, and you’re always willing to listen and pay attention and minimize your ego to learn things.” I pay attention to humble mentors that tell me about their experience. I don’t need people to tell me about some magic formula that works. I really want to know something more like, “hey, here’s our experience, this may be applicable to you”. I don’t like gurus. You can learn something from them, but if they’re dogmatic, it turns me off.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

My belief is to go out there and look at what’s going on. You’ll see the market of these solopreneurs/entrepreneurs/freelancers are being taken advantage of and that’s wrong. They make up such a big part of the economy and what they’re looking for is solutions yet they can’t go out and do the research. They end up with bad solutions made for big businesses and they overpay. We want to give them the right price in an all-inclusive package.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

This comes with experience, but also with a mentor. If I am rigid into some dogma, then when the unexpected happens, and my dogma no longer lines up with it, I’m left in a state of panic. So startups are all about managing this risk and adapting. I call them “complex adaptive systems”. They need to adapt by paying attention to the data and the feedback they’re getting. I never panic. I get very concerned, but I know I’ve never not gotten through something.

That’s why it’s so important to have a great team, to be open, to be constantly learning, and do away with power differentials. You get such great leadership from every corner of the business if that is something that is part of the culture. It takes leadership from me–but I’m more of the “point us in the right direction” person–the arbitrator of what needs to be done. In the case of COVID, we thought “oh, this is scary, what do we want to do?” We thought, “we want to make it through and survive. We went back, looked at the budget, said we don’t want to lay people off. These people have gotten us to where we are, and we don’t want to betray them. So, as a team, we decided to not have raises/bonuses this year, and we cut a ton of expenses. We adapted. Then, we thought, “how can we go on the offense? How can we have an offensive adaptation?” We came up with a grant program, came up with info for our members, a webinar, and continued to work on the brand and positioning to make us what we are today–the brand that helps these microbusinesses be successful (which is now more important than ever).

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

What’s giving up? To me, this is why I think my percentage of success is high. If something is failing, I absolutely give up if it’s not working. To continue to do something that is flawed, and you have evidence is flawed, is wrong. At that point, you should absolutely give up–but I think that’s smart. I know so many entrepreneurs that are beating a dead horse. Their ego is so tied up in a thing being successful, and that’s a waste because there are so many other things you can do to be successful. I consider giving up when it’s a bad idea, and I think “man, I’ll never do that again.” But that doesn’t mean I don’t learn from it.
When I asked him a fellow board member (and mentor of mine), “what’s the secret to your success?” He said, “Ross, I didn’t have a choice. I had to make it work.” That certainly still motivates me to an extent in that–idk if you call that motivation, or call that fear, or call it reality–I think lots of ambitious people have this kind of mentality to think “well, let’s make it work.” I definitely believe in a positive mentality and positive thinking, and when you have a choice, why not be positive.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

Leadership. When everyone is looking to you to be calm, you need to be calm. Kind of the last thing you want is to be on an airplane and the pilot is like, “oh shit”.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

Tell the truth, and the plan forward.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

Tell the truth, and the plan forward. It’s best to be human about it. Be transparent and honest. Your team can read when you are being honest or not, and you’ll get the best response when they know your heart’s in it. Your team is smart, so why even try to trick them–they know! You might not be polished in what you say, but you’re telling the truth, and if your plan is decent enough, they will respond well. So many men have an ego or testosterone poisoning the way, but you’ve gotta get rid of that ego.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

Take it just one step at a time.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

Be honest with yourself and with your team. The subset of that is to look at the data and react to it.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

  1. You have to play defense first. What that means is to get on a sustainable wartime footing if you can do that.
  2. Once that’s done, go on the offense and look for opportunity.
  3. Take care of the team because you all depend on each other.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

You can’t think straight as a business unless you’re on this wartime footing. I see so many businesses that just think it’s all going to work out somehow. I’ve gotta be able to sleep at night and the only way I can, in this case, is to make sure we don’t have a fume date, or have to lay anybody off. From there, it’s all just opportunity. I understand not all businesses can do that, but, luckily, we were in a position during the COVID-19 outbreak where we could.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Be honest. When it came time to make a tough decision recently, we knew we had to work together, which required honesty from my part. By doing this, I received a very positive response and also input from everyone.
  2. Trust the team and take care of them. I had a strict guideline to not lay anyone off during this economic downturn. How could I make sure we didn’t do that? We had to make cuts elsewhere. Our team is what built our business, so I knew I owed it to them to do that much.
  3. Pay attention to data. Data doesn’t lie. It’s tough to argue against it.
  4. Watch every nickel. You need to know what money you have, where it is going, and what return you’re getting back from it. This is necessary when times are good and when they’re tough.
  5. Have a wartime mentality. When you get this right, you’ll have nothing but new and exciting opportunities for your company and your team.

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

Be honest with yourself.

How can our readers further follow your work?

You can find me on social media, as well as my company, ZenBusiness. I’m also writing a book!

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

Rhonda Ross with Iconic Mom, Diana Ross on tour
Community//

Part 2: ‘I’m Always Paying Attention To Where My Power Is, Especially During The Coronavirus’

by Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.
Ross Andrew Paquette Maropost
Community//

A Discussion With Ross Andrew Paquette, CEO of Maropost on How He Navigates Consequences of The Corona Virus Pandemic.

by Gail Green
Rhonda Ross with Iconic Mom, Diana Ross on tour
Community//

‘Reach Out And Touch’ Diana Ross And Daughter Rhonda Ross On Tour Before COVID-19: Part 1

by Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.