Build something for yourself. Find a problem that you want solved because it would make your life better; you’re your number one customer! If you’re chasing markets and VCs it’s going to be tough to succeed.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Black Men In Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Will Hayes.
Will joined Lucidworks in 2013 as Chief Product Officer and was appointed CEO in 2014. He has over 15 years of product, marketing, and business development experience. Prior to Lucidworks he was head of technical business development for Splunk, where he was responsible for defining the company’s market category and key product feature sets. He created and led the company’s global partner program, building an ecosystem of consultants, developers, resellers, system integrators, service providers, and technology partners. Earlier in his career, Hayes served as a software engineer at Genentech, where he built solutions that supported the sales and drug development teams in their field activities.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My background is in Software Engineering with an emphasis on analytics and distributed computing. I have been at Lucidworks for seven years and was brought in by the board to lead the company through a transition from an open source support and services company to delivering proprietary solutions on-top of search and AI. In 2005 I was a part of the founding team at Splunk where I started as a software engineer then transitioned into technical business development. I spent eight years there leading the efforts around technology integrations, ecosystem development and go-to-market expansion. Prior to that I worked as a software engineer at Genentech and built solutions that supported the sales and drug development teams in their field activities.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I’m constantly learning new things as Lucidworks grows and evolves. One of the most important things I’ve learned is to lead with real product, not a slide deck. If you can actually demonstrate a working prototype or end result, you can unlock the imagination of the prospect or target, even if it’s only a limited view of what they want. It’s much easier for the person you’re pitching to to connect the dots if you start with a real thing, not an idea. I’ve found that starting with a demo that integrates your solution with the prospect’s company helps the conversation move forward a lot faster. Especially in Silicon Valley, people love to pitch big ideas but it isn’t until you get down to the specifics that decisions are made, so start with what’s tangible and save everyone time!
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?
At Genentech when I was just starting out we were all getting ready for a product launch. We set up this conference room with fog machines and were making it look really cool. All of a sudden, ALL of the fire alarms in the building went off. The entire team (including all of the execs) had to evacuate. Embarrassing at the time, funny in retrospect.
And less of a funny mistake but a definite learning curve I went through was with fundraising. I came from a pretty technical background before Luciworks and finance questions were just totally outside of my realm. I’ve learned a lot over the years raising money — for example, how to answer a question about ARR.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I think one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced was repositioning what Lucidworks did as a company. We had to make this major transition around culture, brand, financing, really the whole business — all with very limited capital. As we were going through the motions of the turnaround it just felt like every time we got our footing, something would step in and ruin the cadence we had built. It was like a gut punch where every time you get comfortable, something else happens.
Most of our motivation came from the bursts of progress we did experience, like hiring a great employee, successfully courting an investor, or winning a new customer. Despite a lot of slips, every step forward felt triumphant. We realized that if every time we made progress it felt significant, that means it’s worth it. It kept me from feeling like we were treading water. The treadmill kept getting faster and we were running harder, but we were moving forward.
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 about that?
There’s been so many people and moments that have led to where I am today. When I reflect back, it’s really been a series of very specific events — lIke my mom sending me to a career fair where I ended up getting a job at Genentech. Then, once I was at Genentech, I got a major promotion that led me into a much more defined role as a software developer and program analyst, which was a big boost to my self-confidence that early in my career.
Another moment happened when I was at Splunk. I presented to a sales meeting on engineering and the head of sales immediately sought me out to become an SE. No one knew that I would have skills on that side of the organization, but that one moment changed it all and I was able to experience a whole other side of the business.
And finally, the moment that led me here. Christina Noren — who is an incredible leader and friend — was asked to fill the role as Lucidworks new CEO. She not only passed on the opportunity, she told the company that they needed to talk to me. And that’s a big reason that I’m where I am today. I’m grateful for confidence and belief in me.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Sumus semper in excretum sed alta variat.” You’re always in the shit, it’s the depth that varies. As Lucidworks grows I’m realizing that new levels of growth all bring unique challenges — basically, it doesn’t get easier. Once you can accept that there’s always something around the corner it gives you more stamina to keep moving forward. It’s not a failure to have unexpected challenges pop up; no matter what stage you’re at in your career or how successful your business is, there’s always going to be something. Accept that, and keep on moving.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
It’s difficult to narrow this down. I think a big contributor was the way that moments were being captured, and how undeniably wrong they were, is what first led people who maybe didn’t realize these are and have been pervasive issues to pay attention to. That new way of capturing and sharing in combination with the pandemic and shelter-in-place put people in a position where they were ready to listen.
I think we’re seeing more people open up to experiences that aren’t their own, and recognizing that injustice doesn’t need to directly affect you for it to be real. The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor was a wake up call to people who maybe weren’t listening. And then beyond that, the amount of additional stories that came forward was, again, a serious wake up call for people whose communities don’t regularly experience these types of injustice and violence. The heightened level of listening from all of this is what makes me feel like things are actually changing.
When Bloomberg reached out around that same time and asked me to tell my story as a Black CEO, it was acknowledgement that people are listening in our field too. And I hope that this kind of storytelling continues in my bubble in the tech world and beyond. It’s exhausting, but important.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
One of the biggest things I’ve noticed is how easily distractions disrupt productivity. If I’m a high-performing Black person and I realized I’m going to be the only person of color, it’s going to require additional mental processing that I don’t want to do. Organizations can attract and retain diverse talent if they have diverse and inclusive teams, it creates more psychological safety and improves productivity.
There are two options: you can heavily implement processes around safety, or have it as a byproduct of having a diverse team. Diverse teams don’t need to hire consultants or chief diversity officers if you’ve got that experience and safety already built into the team. The most important thing is to do it early! Not as a reaction. Catching up will always be more difficult than building it from the ground up.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. It’s hard to be satisfied with the status quo regarding Black Men In Tech in Tech leadership. What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
We need Black men to be far more vulnerable, and far less competitive. Everybody is so focused on broadcasting to everyone else how they’re winning — but let’s be honest, this is super difficult! We need to start talking about how hard it is to get here and those types of honest conversations just aren’t happening. As a community, men in particular need to embrace vulnerability and know that it feels good to know there’s somebody thinking about a shared struggle and that it’s okay to ask for help. We need to show up and be vulnerable, not competitive.
We’d now love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
At Lucidworks we’re helping our customers answer the age old question: “What do my users want?” Trying to understand people in a simple in-person social context (remember those?) is tough enough. Now, more and more moments of experience are digital and omnichannel. That means it’s more important than ever to connect with your customers and make every experience personal and memorable.
So many organizations struggle to answer the question of user intent because just knowing who someone is isn’t enough to tell us what they want; people show up differently in the moment, their needs are constantly transforming, and the words they use to describe their challenges change too. Lucidworks Connected Experience Cloud, or CXC, captures behavioral signals from users and applies those insights in real-time to personalize the customer experience, increase employee productivity, and empower customer service teams.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think one of the things that makes us stand out is our customer-first approach to everything that we do.We recognize the importance of that fact that for every client we serve, there’s a person on their end who’s trying to be successful. Our understanding of that individual’s success, whether the end user is a customer or employee, is more important than focusing on our own success — we get there if you’re successful. That kind of people-centric approach filters into our products, people, and the way we do business. Software is about people and experience and honoring the user’s time.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Earlier this year at our annual Activate conference, we announced a new category: Connected Experience Cloud (aka CXC). CXC captures behavioral signals from users, whether employees or customers, and applies those insights in real time, to make people feel valued as individuals and help them achieve their goals. Making that vision a reality for even more of the world’s largest brands is my most exciting project moving into the new year.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
It may be counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to boost growth is to slow down. Reduce your scope to very clear and specific goals — don’t get distracted by doing as much as you possibly can, do as little as possible but do it really really well. When the winds blow in your direction, spread your wings and catch the breeze. And when the wind is knocking you over, like it did for many organizations at the being of the pandemic, you have to batton down the hatches and respond thoughtfully. It can be tough to slow down because we’re naturally geared towards doing more, more, more, and have a constant paranoia that we’re not doing enough. But the consequences of moving too fast can be severe. Slow down to go fast.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
My advice is similar to the previous question — keep with the theme of focus and keeping things simple. Simplicity is easier to scale. Of course you’ll be lucky to get some very sophisticated and dynamic sales people who can make magic happen, but that magic isn’t scalable in the long term. You have to have very clear, focused business goals and value propositions.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
In my experience, there are three things that I’ve found to be most effective in attracting the right customers.
- Great product experiences. Demonstrate your ability as a solutions-provider to create a sense of delight for your user’s users.
- Thought leadership. Empower your people across all teams — sales, customer success, engineering — to demonstrate their expertise and authority in your domain.
- Customer outcomes-drive. Focus on your customer’s definition of success, not your own, to build a successful long term relationship.
With these three tips, remember that word-of-mouth can be everything. So when you’re serving your customers, you’re building your resume for them to share with their peers.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
1 — Listen to your stakeholders. Everyone is being affected differently by this moment and you have to understand where your customers are coming from if you want to provide real value.
2 — Connect on a personal level. The line between work and personal lives is blurring as we enter our 9th month of remote work in SF and globally. You have to make space for personal lives impacting day-to-day operations.
3 — Introduce a new level of transparency. We’ve lost some of the informal information exchange that we enjoyed in the office and in in-person interactions with our customers. Transparency has to be a conscious effort.
4 — Learn how to operate more efficiently. Maybe you’ll debunk some of the myths around what you thought you needed to get work done.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
Simply stated, you have to be invested in your customer’s success as they’ve defined it. For my first couple years at Lucidworks all our focus was on new logos and growing the install base. A couple of years ago we developed a chief customer officer role because it was the first year we had to retain more business than we had to attract. We needed to shift our balance to focus more on existing customers rather than pushing for as many logos as possible.
To limit customer churn, focus on your customer’s definition of success. We may have ideas about what a good customer outcome looks like, but we have to redefine it to make sure we’re walking side-by-side with our customers.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
For the record, I think even just defining success for yourself is challenging. Nevertheless, I’ve got three main things that I think are important to creating a successful tech company.
- Build something for yourself. Find a problem that you want solved because it would make your life better; you’re your number one customer! If you’re chasing markets and VCs it’s going to be tough to succeed.
- Make sure you’re not your only customer. I’m of course excited about solving the problems that I see but I have to understand how important — and how painful — they are for others. You have to have a personal conviction around your vision, but stay open-mind around how you make it happen.
- Acknowledge people’s — and your own — limitations and restrictions. The “how” has to map to markets you’re going to serve. Building a team that’s self-aware is the only way you’ll have the intestinal fortitude to get through it all.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂
Never stop thinking critically! We are constantly surrounded by so much information it can feel easier to choose one side of the story that’s already been written, instead of thinking things through based on our own thoughts and experiences. If we lose our ability to think critically, we lose a piece of our individuality. Take the time to research and come to your own conclusions.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Being from the Bay Area I have always admired the Hip Hop artist E-40. He’s been a mainstay in my life from childhood to adulthood. Beyond music he is the embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirit that defines the Bay Area. I would love to sit down and pick his brain on how he thinks about brands, markets and opportunity as one of the most successful hustlers of our time.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!